The class is sitting on blankets on the concrete floor, balancing paper on their knees to write.
The guy in the photo shop looks at the picture. ‘Yeah, my school was like that too,’ he says.
I’ve brought some of my photographs of our classes to be printed so we can display them on the door for passing kids (those who fall into our target group of aged 9 – 16 and not yet registered at school) who might be tempted to come but unsure of exactly what goes on inside the building.
The guy in the photo shop is probably in his late twenties. In fact, I should be able to date him from what he’s just told me – anyone older than me was able to have a full education in the former Yugoslavia. I went to university in 1991, and while I was enjoying my high-quality state-funded tertiary education, my Albanian-speaking peers in Pristina had theirs closed to them. Bang. The university continued illegally in private houses – I’ve heard about the professors holding chemistry classes in people’s garages. In the following decade Albanian-language schools were also closed, and even secondary education was run in a unofficial ‘parallel’ system of kids squeezed onto the sofas in brave people’s sitting rooms, with unpaid teachers working with zero resources. The situation only changed for the Kosovo Albanians following the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 when Kosovo was placed under UN administration.
The conversation in the photo shop was an important reminder. Most of the people aged between 16 and 36 in this country have had some experience of education like Gjelane has now – sat uncomfortably while an unpaid teacher helps you learn the basics, fuelled by a belief in the importance of access to the written word. And those unpaid teachers from the garages of the 1990s, where are they now? Some have retired or moved into different sectors, but plenty of them are still in schools in Kosovo – part of the system that has now closed its doors to our pupils.
This week I want to meet with the school where Gjelane and her classmates will hopefully register in September. I’m wondering whether a reminder of their experience in the ‘nineties will make them more or less likely to support getting these kids, too, into proper classrooms.
Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon