So the photos I developed at the weekend to put on the outside door didn’t last long. Within a few hours a boy was racing up the stairs to tell me someone had taken his brother’s photo down. When I went out shortly afterwards, two more of the ten or so pictures had gone from the door. I guess people round here don’t have many images of themselves – I remember the newborn baby I visited in Fushe Kosove last month, rosebud-fresh from hospital, with a tiny perfect face peeking out of conscientious swaddling. His mum was watching him carefully and I took a shot of them. ‘Can you print it for me?’ she asked. ‘I’d like to have a photo of him.’ Thinking of the Facebook pages and inbox space weighed down with my UK friends’ multiple newborn pictures, it was amazing to think that these few thousand pixels stored on my HD card were the only likeness in the world of one of its newest inhabitants. I had carried my camera a little more carefully until I could get the picture developed and returned to the family.
But still, I was annoyed at having lost these photos. And then Resmie left school early. After lessons I went to visit her and her mum at home to find out why she had disappeared in the middle of teaching time. What had happened?
‘I had to get back home. My brothers were about to find out that I was at school.’
Did they not know?
‘No, I told them I’d gone begging. And if I didn’t get back early they’d find out it was lessons and they’d be angry with me.’ Her mum nodded.
‘Yes, they’re not going to let her come to classes again’
I discovered had no idea where I stood on the moral dilemma of having to lie to your brothers about going begging to cover up for the fact you’re going to school.
I wondered where this came from – was it cultural? religious? purely practical? Whatever its background it contributed to a slight sense by mid-afternoon today of ambivalence about this community and its extraordinary priorities. But then Arjeta, one of our pupils, came to see me.
‘We have a white board in our shop – would you like it for the classroom?’ I couldn’t imagine what sort of white board she meant. Maybe they had a big piece of wood? Well, it would be useful – teacher Avdyl was having to work on two A3-sized white boards suspended from a hat-stand.
Arjeta took me to meet her uncle in the small shop he runs. Outside was a display of nothing but tomatoes; inside was a selection of Serbian detergents and Turkish lollipops. I couldn’t see a white board.
‘I’ll show you the store room,’ the uncle offered, and took me to a dusty, cobwebby outhouse. It was gloomy inside, but right by the door was a huge white board like any classroom would be proud to have.
‘That would be fantastic,’ I said. ‘But how come you have a big white board like this?’
Arjeta’s uncle explained that for three years or so he had run classes on Islam for children from the area. Girls on Saturdays and boys on Sundays, and he’d got a grant for equipping this space as a classroom with benches and school desks.
Benches and school desks? As I got used to the gloom of the storeroom I realised that these other shapes were indeed 8 desks and benches – just like the ones that the kids learning with us were _not_ sitting on.
‘Erm, is there any chance…?’ I asked.
‘Well, they’re a bit dirty’ said Arjeta’s uncle.
‘Well, I can clean them up’ I offered.
It didn’t even need that. While I was still rolling up my sleeves, Arjeta had found a bucket. I went to buy some Serbian detergent from the shop and by the time I’d come out, a team of ten kids was at work moving the desks and benches out of the storeroom and wiping them down. Some of them were children I knew from lessons, but others just seemed to have gravitated to the latest adventure in the street. We hadn’t even finished the final wipe before some whippety teenagers had hoisted the desks between them and were carrying them down the road and up the stairs to our classrooms. I hurried behind them with keys to open up, and manoeuvered myself into a space where I could direct them as they and their mates brought all our new furniture into place.
The furniture movers disappeared as soon as they had come, though the girls hung around, still twirling their cloths, and laughing at the suds in each other’s hair from our cleaning frenzy.
‘It looks like a real classroom,’ said Arjeta.
‘O teacher, congratulations,’ said her friend, and flung her arms and her wet cloth around me in an enthusiastic hug.
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