Over the weekend we were told that there was a rumour going around Neighbourhood 29 – that we are teaching religion in our classes. What religion? I asked my informant – since we are a mixed bunch of Kosovan Muslims, a Kosovan Christian and British people of no faith.
Apparently Christianity. I was asked to meet with one of the leaders of the community, who told me directly. ‘But I’m not a Christian,’ I said. He seemed surprised. ‘I’m not a Muslim either’. Now he seemed genuinely confused.
‘So what do you believe in?’ he asked.
‘Erm, I believe in people.’
Nevertheless, however wonderful you know people can be, if you’ve been round them for any amount of time you know how rumours can spread among them. In my experience of Kosovo, this community we are working in is unusual in its observance of Islam (I have only been in one other Kosovan home where there’s been a prayer mat on the wall of the main room, for example, but this has been the case in every home I’ve been in here. The prayers five times a day, too, are a part of the rhythms of the community as I’ve not been aware of them in other parts of Kosovo. There are plenty of young girls wearing headscarves in our classes, and that’s rare enough even in grown women in Pristina). So the idea of Christianity being taught in our classes is not going to go down well. And it’s not what any of us are here for. Our aim is to teach reading, writing, maths and English, and to get these kids into school by September.
So what could we do to dispel this false rumour? At the end of our talk the community leader seemed convinced for himself, but said we would need to persuade others; he suggested a community meeting. We agreed on 5pm today, and I put a notice up (‘we teach reading, writing, maths and English; our aim is to get children registered in school in September. If you want to know more about our activities come to a meeting tonight’), and this afternoon I therefore set out some biscuits and fruit juice and assembled our small staff and waited to see who would come.
Fifteen men from the community came. They were serious, curious, some interested in bridge-building, some mischievously interested in micro-politics. They listened to the account I gave of our activities, our aims and motivations, and thanked me, then asked questions.
‘So this song you sing every morning? We’ve heard of schools set up by foreigners which are apparently just about learning English, but where they start the day with Hallelujah.
No, no I assure them. How to explain?
Well, it goes like this…
And in this small room full of sober, rather incredulous, bearded men, I break out into the tune of Frere Jacques. ‘Miremengjesi, miremengjesi/ A ki flejte? A ki flejte?’ (‘good morning, good morning/ Did you sleep well, did you sleep well?’). The banality of it is immediately obvious, to none more than the singer; I barely make it through to the final line. At least some of them have the good humour to smile at me after that.
There were more questions, some more discussion but I think we achieved something by the end of the meeting. I think most of them left the room believing that we’re just teaching exactly what we say we are. Our landlord told me he thought it was just that people couldn’t believe that anyone would give up their time for teaching if there wasn’t a bigger prize to be had. Maybe I convinced them that education is a big enough prize for me.
Hopefully everyone gained something. There’s an organisation I hadn’t heard of who are working on school dropout who I’ll go to meet with, and two men seriously followed up my suggestion that if they really want to know what goes on in our classes, not only could they ask the children, or take advantage of our open door policy and drop in any time, but they could become volunteers with us. We’re building collaboration and something like trust.
The other big news of today? The first outing of our new vacuum cleaner. The walls in the classrooms are really poor quality plaster, meaning nothing will stick, and anyone who brushes against them walks away with a white back. There’s a huge amount of dust (I noticed the photos I took last week have a haze to them which is nothing about sentimentality) and we finally decided to buy a hoover. I had trouble with the word in Albanian, which translates literally as ‘broom’ (fshise) ‘electric’ (rrymes), and the woman who came to clean today laughed at my pronunciation and helped me through it syllable by syllable. ‘Fshise’ I got OK, and then I worked on the other word. Rrymes comes out very like ‘rumours’. It’s a neat coincidence: hopefully that’s the machine we put to work today – the rumours broom, sweeping unhelpful stuff away.
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