The other side of life in Kosovo

Old Rob here. (I used to be just ‘Rob’, but now we’ve younger Rob the volunteer teacher, and I got relegated.) I’m guest-blogging – rather like those has-been B-grade actors who occasionally crop up on the daytime cop shows.

So, I lead a secret double life. During the day, I do diplomaticky things. I have meetings. I talk to politicians. I write stuff. I try to understand the European Union. The theory is that I’m helping to help Kosovo become a sustainable independent state. Sometimes, as the shadows lengthen across the car park and my administration meeting enters its third hour and I give up trying to make sudoku puzzles from the 2012 calendar at the back of my diary, it doesn’t feel like that very much. I come home, I see what’s in the fridge, what’s in the fridge starts back-chatting me, and I collapse in the chair.

Then Elizabeth tells me how the day has gone with the catch-up classes; she shows me some photos; perhaps I look at this blog. It turns out that – in a very small way, my car full of donated clothes and my Sunday full of The Ideas Partnership accounts – Kosovo has been helped, without me even noticing it. It’s the other side of me here.

Help comes in different sizes. You can try to move a whole country an inch. It sounds impressive, but it’s quite heavy work and rather hard to notice the change. Or you can try to move a single child a mile. That’s very hard work, but the noticeable change is dramatic, described in a scratched word written by a child who four weeks ago couldn’t form a letter, measured in the number lines across the improvised classroom, illuminated by a smile.

Today I took the rare chance to visit the catch-up classes during teaching hours, visiting with a excellent colleague of mine who has been a really generous supporter and wanted the chance to see what she’d been helping. We arrived three-quarters of the way through class time. The first thing you see as you come up the steps to the flat we’re using is the children’s shoes, neatly laid out in their little pairs on the flight of steps leading up to the next floor. By the number of steps they fill, five or six pairs to a step, you get an immediate idea of how many children have turned up. Yesterday was a record. As you walk into the hall of the flat itself, you see the bathroom, the door to the little office and storage space, two doors to rooms being used for classes, and a curtain slung across an archway to separate off the largest of the teaching spaces.

Whenever I arrive during classes, the curtain is bulging and shaking and vibrating with life, the lively shadows of the lesson beyond. Today, as I stacked my shoes in the hall, the curtain billowed and someone rushed out and gave me a big hug. I didn’t see who it was – their head only came up to my pin-striped stomach – but I rather liked it. Visiting the Minister of Justice, for example, or the Italian Embassy, I don’t tend to get many hugs. Which I think is a shame. It’s nice when people seem glad to see you.

I helped for a moment with a bit of geography (the children were drawing maps; I liked that) and handwriting (not so good; I’ve now evolved as a keyboard-only species), and then saw the end of morning assembly. Forty or fifty children sitting at, on or under six small tables in a single classroom, bobbing and grinning and stretching up eager hands in the hope of being noticed for a gold star. And, in a couple of cases, not paying attention and messing about and fidgeting and chatting to their mate. Thoughtfully awarding stars to those children who’d behaved particularly well or made significant progress today, while maintaining order in this hive of exuberance and mischief, some of the teachers looked pretty exhausted. They’re paying the price of the project’s success: classes that we thought might gather ten children have attracted fifty, and that multiplication of success is being measured in their patience and stamina.

I handed over the bags of shoes and clothes I’d brought along (a complete stranger phoned me yesterday evening wanting to hand over what he’d collected and driven back from his family in Italy), and we drove back to town and the office. Smart car; security guards; water-cooler; I had a couple of meetings, drafted an elegant communique, sent lots of e-mails. No hugs. Then home at last, and writing this, and so I’ve now spent half an hour remembering the faces, the maps and the gold stars. Ah, yeah, I did do something. Good things are happening here after all.

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