‘Imagine I’m the Minister for Education…’ I begin. The children are looking blank. I’m attempting to build a classroom of advocates – kids who are self-confident and know their rights and have some of the skills to assert them.
‘What do you say to me?’ I ask the children who are being encouraged into this little role play.
They’ve obviously heard this rhetorical question before. One of them remembers what worked last time.
‘Faleminderit,’ chirrups Emine.
Ah yes, they have lovely manners now, the children who’ve been coming to our classes in Fushe Kosove. They know that when I hand out the yoghurts in the morning I expect a ‘faleminderit’ (‘thank you’). They’ll say it when they’re given a pen, too. They’ve all written thank you letters with ‘faleminderit’ in big capitals to the donors who have made this school happen.
But it’s not the right answer this time.
‘What are you saying faleminderit for?’ I grumble. ‘Save that for when he’s given you your place at school.’
Because today we are writing letters to the Minister of Education. After a series of frustrating meetings with the Ministry representative, still no sign of the promised action plan for how these children are to be integrated into state-funded education, and a dwindling amount of time before school starts in September, I am not feeling minded to say ‘faleminderit’. I am fretting that the possibility of the children being admitted to school for the beginning of the new term is fragile. I need to do more; we need to do more.
So I go over it again with the children. It’s a child’s right to go to school – ‘whether you’re in Africa, in America, in England or in Kosovo’ I say.
‘Or in Belgium’ adds Astrit.
Yes, in Belgium too.
And you want to go to school, right? So now you have to tell the Minister why.
I didn’t prep or prompt them, I just wrote down what they said (and when the top group had their lesson, they wrote it themselves without help). The letters they wrote were heartbreaking in what they showed that these kids know about what they’re missing.
‘Dear Minister, I want to go to school because without school you look stupid.’
‘I want to go to school because when I go to the pharmacy I want to know what the tablets are for’
‘If you don’t know how to write then when you go to register your birth certificate you can’t sign it’
‘If you don’t know how to read or write then people cheat you’
‘I want to become a doctor’
‘If you don’t know how to read then when a letter comes from KEK [the electricity company] you have to go to your neighbour to ask them to read it for you’
‘When you know how to read and write you can get a job’
In the bottom group they copy out a sentence each. I collect the papers in, planning to present them to the Ministry. At the bottom of Emine’s she couldn’t stop herself. With a little heart she has doodled the word,
Well, Zoteri Minister, if you can give a commitment to these children being educated by your institutions by the beginning of September, I will send you a letter myself, and I will doodle more than one heart around the word faleminderit.
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