It’s almost scary when you get the things you wish for. Maybe I should have been thinking bigger. World peace? Johnny Depp? But I had no time for Johnny right then...
Elizabeth Gowing has a knack for making what might seem a fairly esoteric story into a gripping read. Her first book was about an interest in honey-making in Kosovo. For her next, Edith and I, she followed in the footsteps of an Edwardian lady traveller in the region. And when I first started reading this new story, The Rubbish-Picker's Wife, about an unlikely friendship with a rubbish-picker’s wife in a minority Muslim Roma community in Kosovo, I did wonder for a moment whether it was a step too far into obscurity. Yet before long, thanks in part to her lovely writing style, I was hooked.
Gowing, a trained teacher, had been living in Kosovo for four years and was working with NGOs and international charities when she first visited Fushë Kosovë, where people lived in shacks surrounded by mud. She was there to offer a few bags of equipment which might be useful for families in need – most of them earned their money by scavenging through rubbish for recyclables. When a woman asked for money to buy medicine for her son, Elizabeth walked away. But she didn’t get very far. Soon she learned that none of the children in the community were attending school, mostly through a systemic prejudice among the majority Albanian population against people of Ashkali background. Slowly, she began to find a way to help these children to an education.
I was reminded along the way of the challenges I faced when trying to set up English sessions for the kids on our little Greek island – how exhausting it was setting it up with a lack of resources, but knowing that unless I did, they couldn’t progress. Funnily enough, then it was an Albanian family, a minority on a Greek island, whose child would have struggled to get to classes if I hadn’t been able to take him with me. I was also reminded of the sense of responsibility, and all the mistakes I made trying to do this in my first year of trying to integrate into island life, when Gowing wrote:
I had the same sense I had with speaking Albanian, that as I blundered through these foreign structures, although I could generally make myself understood I must be causing sensitive listeners to flinch repeatedly as I got things wrong, broke rules, and transgressed in ways I wasn’t even aware of.
As I followed her ups and downs in trying to get a schooling project off the ground, then building it into a sustainable organisation, the children’s enthusiasm for learning was a joy to read. It was no easy task to keep these kids in school when their families were used to sending them out to work to help put food in their mouths. But when the officials stopped finding excuses and started helping, it was clear that something significant had been achieved.
It was interesting to me to read that baklava is a Kosovo treat too, and what they call burek is so similar to spanakopita. That part of the Balkans was part of the Ottoman Empire just like Greece. There were more connections to my Greek life in this book than I’d foreseen, and I was pleased I’d had an opportunity to read this about this unlikely friendship.
The Rubbish-Picker's Wife was published this summer and is available on Kindle and Amazon and from bookshops.
Photo by Dorit Hoffmeister