I know it’s unoriginal to say so, but I would like there to be more than one Health Day in a year. But not if it meant I had to spend any more than one afternoon in every 365 sitting in a Milosevic-era ‘House of Culture’ that smelt of urine.
In fact I’ve been told that it’s this House of Culture in Fushe Kosove that became notorious as the location where Milosevic gave his 1987 ‘no-one should dare to beat you’ speech which is seen as the beginning of his rise to power on a platform of ethnic cleansing. So urine is the least of the feng shui issues in this auditorium.
But once I got over those various ghosts there was some important stuff to listen to. I had been invited here by an NGO called Health for All which works in Neighbourhood 29, and was presenting their recent survey of households to identify the health situation and potential issues. The findings were frightening.
38% of births in the Neighbourhood last year were home births. That probably means births in a place with one standpipe of cold water outside, and no reliable electricity supply. It means less chance of children being registered, and of the basic vaccines being given. Thirty eight per cent!
Ten percent of women have had an abortion. Twenty five percent have had a miscarriage.
The figures rolled on, and I tried to relate them to Gjelane and her classmates, thinking of the 14 year old girls we have studying with us who may be entering these statistics themselves within a few years. They were grim realities and I wondered how much education you’d need to be able to stand up against these multiple causes or indicators of poor health. Would six months in a catch-up class really make any difference?
Thankfully the audience was saved from statistics and despair by the drama sketches which a local youth group had put together to address Issues. A claque of young guys at the back had been getting rowdy during the presentation of statistics, and I realised that this was what they had come for.
The curtain went up, and we were treated to an unconvincing play about gender-related violence, with an excellent young actor going through an implausible change of heart after he’d knocked his girlfriend about. But it got better with the family planning sketch which rounded off the afternoon.
A young woman tells her husband that she’s pregnant. He’s furious, shouting that they can’t afford another kid. Discussion of whose fault it is, and she reminds him that he should wear a condom, like the ones that are given out free at the centre. He ruefully agrees, at which point she bursts out laughing and confesses that she’s not really pregnant.
A risky game, but husband is jubilant, sweeps her up and whoops at her ‘Let’s go and get 100 of those freebies and use them up immediately’. Giggles and riotous applause.
I’m not sure whether it was the intended effect, but the crowd – especially the claque at the back – left the auditorium definitely feeling healthy, on a surge of springtime libido. Perhaps it’s just as well there’s only one World Health Day every year.
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