I’ve now visited nearly 30 of the homes in the neighbourhood we’re working in. I haven’t seen a book in any one of them. My guess is that there will be a Quran kept safely in many, but other reading material is definitely limited.
But today 42 children left our classes clutching their very own book. Even better, it was a signed copy which came thanks to local author, Arlinda Beka. She’s written two books of verses for children to support mathematics – Let’s count together and Geometry for me, with rhyming text accompanied by bright pictures. I met Arlinda a few years ago and bought some copies of her books, which found their way into our classrooms in Fushe Kosove.
The kids have loved them, to an almost implausible degree. The little verses stick in the mind, and Kosovan kids are used to recitation, which seems to form a significant part of primary schooling and kids’ culture. Ask any Kosovan schoolchild what they’ve learned in class and they will put on a pious face and trill out a verse with idiosyncratic pausing and breaths entirely unrelated to meaning. Afir turned up one morning after we’d been using Geometry for me in class and said to me, ‘teacher, teacher, listen…’ and assumed the recitation position before garbling out ‘Dear children/, I am triangle;/ you can always see me/ in the roofs of the houses’ (it sounds better in Albanian where it rhymes).
Arlinda heard that we were using her book in our lessons and she asked if she could come and visit. The next thing I knew she was offering to give a copy to every child registered with us. She arrived today, with three big boxes of books.
All the children were gathered in one room at the end of classes when Arlinda arrived, and I introduced her,
‘We have a very special visitor today. Do you know why she’s special?’
One girl put her hand up. ‘Because she’s beautiful?’
She is indeed beautiful, and all the more so as she sat with the children clustered round her, signing a special message to every single pupil in the book she gave to each. The children looked at her in awe, and I experienced something similar; I felt I was present at a rite of passage, as I watched each child hold out their hands for their first book. Arlinda made them promise they would learn to read it themselves, and I made a promise to myself too. There’s no reason it’s not possible – by the time September comes I want every child in that room to be able to decipher the words on those pages.
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