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The Rubbish-Picker's Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo

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This is a true story of living and learning - being confused and comforted - with the excluded Ashkali people of Kosovo; an account of the challenges and delights of what happens when you find your community but it's a long way from home. Hatemja, a rubbish-picker's wife, lives in the poorest community in the poorest country in Europe. When Elizabeth Gowing is befriended by This is a true story of living and learning - being confused and comforted - with the excluded Ashkali people of Kosovo; an account of the challenges and delights of what happens when you find your community but it's a long way from home. Hatemja, a rubbish-picker's wife, lives in the poorest community in the poorest country in Europe. When Elizabeth Gowing is befriended by her, the women learn with, from and about one another. How can you find the best rubbish pastures for scavenging? How can you free children to go to school rather than to go out begging? How do you then convince the local school to accept them? Can mayonnaise deal with headlice? How best to teach the 36 letters of the Albanian alphabet? How would Facebook help evacuate a family from a rat-infested hovel? How do you make baklava? And through it all, how do you maintain a precious friendship that's helped you find out the best you can be?


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This is a true story of living and learning - being confused and comforted - with the excluded Ashkali people of Kosovo; an account of the challenges and delights of what happens when you find your community but it's a long way from home. Hatemja, a rubbish-picker's wife, lives in the poorest community in the poorest country in Europe. When Elizabeth Gowing is befriended by This is a true story of living and learning - being confused and comforted - with the excluded Ashkali people of Kosovo; an account of the challenges and delights of what happens when you find your community but it's a long way from home. Hatemja, a rubbish-picker's wife, lives in the poorest community in the poorest country in Europe. When Elizabeth Gowing is befriended by her, the women learn with, from and about one another. How can you find the best rubbish pastures for scavenging? How can you free children to go to school rather than to go out begging? How do you then convince the local school to accept them? Can mayonnaise deal with headlice? How best to teach the 36 letters of the Albanian alphabet? How would Facebook help evacuate a family from a rat-infested hovel? How do you make baklava? And through it all, how do you maintain a precious friendship that's helped you find out the best you can be?

30 review for The Rubbish-Picker's Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    Elizabeth Gowing is a writer who is new to me and her current book is not my usual reading. I was sent a copy of The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife to review, which is my disclosure statement – and on my usual basis I said I’d read the book, write a review and ask the author if she was happy for me to publish it, but I wouldn’t change anything I thought or felt about the book – all that would happen is she could ask me NOT to publish. It’s an interesting question why I accepted the book at all. Partly bec Elizabeth Gowing is a writer who is new to me and her current book is not my usual reading. I was sent a copy of The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife to review, which is my disclosure statement – and on my usual basis I said I’d read the book, write a review and ask the author if she was happy for me to publish it, but I wouldn’t change anything I thought or felt about the book – all that would happen is she could ask me NOT to publish. It’s an interesting question why I accepted the book at all. Partly because as the former CEO of a number of charities and think tanks, the premise interested me, partly, I think, because the snippets of Gowing’s writing I found online were fascinating: precise, very British (as in restrained but candid) and yet profoundly honest about her reactions to the places she finds herself in. I’m glad to say I found the book rewarding. There are three reasons it was a compelling read for me: The subject matter fascinated me It’s beautifully crafted The stories Gowing tells are sometimes humorous and sometimes emotionally charged, but always rendered with delicacy and precision. One of the dilemmas that Gowing explores is the micro-macro approach – should we install water pipes to help people have better facilities to wash and do laundry or should we train them to become water engineers and plumbers so they can develop their own communities? It’s a debate I remember having every week for several decades, or so it felt, at the UN, at DFID, at EU funding meetings, with individual benefactors, with donor agencies …. it was draining. Because Gowing gives us anecdotes that explore this dilemma, it becomes real and vivid again, and allows us, the reader, to begin to appreciate some of the policy decisions that charities, NGOs and government bodies make daily around health, poverty and development. The answer, by the way, is both – do both, and do them well. Another thing that struck me about the book was an early statement about the process of educating children excluded from school in Fushë Kosovë, a part of Kosovo with intense poverty and deprivation for complex reasons. As Gowing says, “We had the same trouble I’ve had in every primary school geography lesson I’ve ever taught of understanding whether Prishtina is in Kosovo or Kosovo is in Prishtina and the sheer implausibility of being able to put your finger right over Fushë Kosovë – blotting out this very building from the map. If you’re going to rely on education to give you a place in the world you can’t rely only on maths, literacy and English”. It’s hard for us to imagine a worldview that doesn’t have maps, that doesn’t extend beyond walking distance and that can’t work out whether a town is bigger than a country or not. It’s also very easy to assume that the internet age and mobile connectivity has destroyed this isolation, but it hasn’t, in my experience. The problem with deprivation is that it prevents people having the very tools that would remove deprivation. You may indeed have a mobile phone, but if you bought it from a market stall and it runs on black-market unlocking, you’re unlikely to have the time, money or knowledge to check out your village on Google Earth and get a sense of global perspective! Even though I worked in this field for some years, I’d forgotten how intractable it can be. Gowing’s battles to get the children accepted for school are beautifully rendered without judgement but with a real sense of outrage that there can still be places in Europe where universal literacy is an aim, but not a practical goal. I’d forgotten too how intense the relationships are when people expect to live and die in a house, in a village, in a community that their parents also lived and died in. Gowing delineates that too … the endless ramifications of community relationships for good, and for ill. A woman has her IUD removed because her spiritual adviser says she should, and then gets pregnant when another child will definitely go hungry and cause the other children to go hungry too. It’s easy to get angry about such accounts, but the truth is, that spiritual adviser will be there for the family when they grow and have children of their own – but the family planning clinic might not be! Something I would have liked more of is Gowing herself. She has real doubt about her ability to help, about her role, about whether she’s a do-gooder and a busybody … this level of doubt and enquiry into motive helped make the book rounded and honest. She also had some health issues that I wish she’d talked a little more more about – very few people in the aid and humanitarian world get out unscathed; my own health impacts include: pneumonia and septicaemia in Mexico, Helicobacter virus and bleeding ulcers in India and chronic fatigue syndrome in either Sweden or Denmark, not sure which because I lost a chunk of memory that’s never come back! Of course my own background makes me want to know more about Gowing’s experiences but I think most readers probably would have wanted a little more of this very human frailty to be explained and explored too. I really recommend this book, even if it’s not your regular reading material. I found it both fascinating and frightening and I felt confident I was being invited to enter a lived experience. This is not a book written after a month somewhere, by some hipster wannabe journalist who’s read Eat, Pray, Love and jumped on the bandwagon. It’s a deep, honest, tender and sometimes self-doubting account of the reality of absolute poverty and how we can all do a little more today, and every day, to alleviate the poverty and suffering of those right on our doorstep. If I sound preachy, don’t be put off – this is fine reading in the best tradition of Victorian travellers, it’s subtle, considered and honest and the fact that it has a deep and impassioned message simply enhances and shapes this excellent, beautifully written narrative.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    I came across this book because I have been slowly doing a personal challenge to read a book set in each European country. I would probably not have come across this powerful memoir if not for the challenge, but I'm so glad I did. British author and charity worker Elizabeth Gowing has spent a lot of time living and working in Kosovo. Here she tells of her friendship with Hatemja, an Ashkali woman living in poverty, and the many other members of her community who she also came to know. The desper I came across this book because I have been slowly doing a personal challenge to read a book set in each European country. I would probably not have come across this powerful memoir if not for the challenge, but I'm so glad I did. British author and charity worker Elizabeth Gowing has spent a lot of time living and working in Kosovo. Here she tells of her friendship with Hatemja, an Ashkali woman living in poverty, and the many other members of her community who she also came to know. The desperate struggle faced by these families, living around a rubbish dump and scavenging for a living, is quite an eye-opener. The book also tells about the charity which Elizabeth co-founded, The Ideas Partnership, and its work to help get Ashkali children into school, setting up informal classes so they can pass the test they need to take even to start lessons. Gowing honestly records her daily frustrations, upsets and triumphs, including many humorous incidents along the way, and allowing members of the Ashkali community to speak to themselves. This is an inspiring, disturbing and compelling read, available on Kindle Unlimited in the UK.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michael Huang

    This is the story of the author’s volunteer work in Kosovo and in particular helping a family who gets by through rubbish picking and beggary. When the author first encountered the family, she wasn’t sure the shaggy look was genuine or professionally staged. Later when she got to know the family better, their deprivation become clear. The family of 7 lives in a room with dirt floor of 2m by 2m. Everything happens here: sleeping, cooking, eating. That is why their little boy got burned by cooking This is the story of the author’s volunteer work in Kosovo and in particular helping a family who gets by through rubbish picking and beggary. When the author first encountered the family, she wasn’t sure the shaggy look was genuine or professionally staged. Later when she got to know the family better, their deprivation become clear. The family of 7 lives in a room with dirt floor of 2m by 2m. Everything happens here: sleeping, cooking, eating. That is why their little boy got burned by cooking that prompted the mom to beg for money for treatment. The author’s involvement with the family grew deeper while she’s trying to help. Before long, she started a makeshift school to teach kids in the neighborhood that were not admitted to the regular school because of, for instance, failing to enroll them at an earlier age. The book chronicles heartwarming achievements but also reveals layers of complications inherent in such work from all sides. It is not the best of writing but an eye-opener for me.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Celia

    I received this book as a gift because of my interest in the work of The Ideas Partnership and some involvement I had had with their projects. I was looking forward to reading more about the community and how it had all developed and was confident I would recognise certain events and people and I did. What I had not expected was such an honest tale that was raw in parts and joyful in others. I bridled at the attitude of some officialdom and had tears in my eyes when Hatemje gave Elizabeth her slip I received this book as a gift because of my interest in the work of The Ideas Partnership and some involvement I had had with their projects. I was looking forward to reading more about the community and how it had all developed and was confident I would recognise certain events and people and I did. What I had not expected was such an honest tale that was raw in parts and joyful in others. I bridled at the attitude of some officialdom and had tears in my eyes when Hatemje gave Elizabeth her slippers and said that she wanted to make a gift. It must be so difficult, even when necessary, to always be the recipient of help and I began to see the need of those helped to be able to give themselves in whatever ways they could. From reading this book, I can see how much Hatemje, the Rubbish Pickers wife of the title, has given to Elizabeth, friendship is a precious gift. If you want a saccharine feel good book about "charity work" then this isn't the book for you. Or maybe it is as hopefully you will discover as much as I have. I had great respect for Elizabeth and many others you meet in the books pages and that has grown. This book clearly shows the many levels and ways of helping, the challenges of systems not designed for easy navigation or change, the many considerations needed so that all keep their self respect and dignity and cultural beliefs are acknowledged and respected. Above all else this is a story of real people and how the actions of a few can impact so hugely not just on the here and now but on their future. This book puts the human into humanitarian and readers cannot fail to reflect on values and friendships, helping and being helped. One of the phrases quoted by The Ideas Partnership, the NGO supporting this work, is "Giving a hand up, not just a hand out" What better hand up than enabling children to have an education? I don't know if there will be a further book about this community but I want to know how lives change and hopefully improve for all the people I have met in its pages.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paola Fornari

    I bought this book because I have recently become acquainted with Elizabeth Gowing's writing and love her straightforward style. I was also impressed by her professional, down-to-earth Ted presentation, 'A Journey through Kosovo,' which I watched recently. Although I knew absolutely nothing about Kosovo and the Ashkali people before starting the book, I knew that Elizabeth's project was a subject that would interest me. I have spent much of my life in developing countries, and in my last postin I bought this book because I have recently become acquainted with Elizabeth Gowing's writing and love her straightforward style. I was also impressed by her professional, down-to-earth Ted presentation, 'A Journey through Kosovo,' which I watched recently. Although I knew absolutely nothing about Kosovo and the Ashkali people before starting the book, I knew that Elizabeth's project was a subject that would interest me. I have spent much of my life in developing countries, and in my last posting, Dhaka, in Bangladesh, I became friendly with people from several different marginalised minority groups. But I never had the courage to get as involved as Elizabeth has, and I am in awe of her and her determination. I love the detail in the book, from the pink trainers to the slippers to the backpacks to the IUDs, headlice and soap making. I love the way Elizabeth is gradually drawn in to something much larger than she ever expected, and takes it all in her stride. I love the assortment of wonderfully strong people she manages to draw to her help. I love getting to know the Ashkali people. I felt for Elizabeth, when she has to make tough decisions about who to hire, or when she has to struggle through red tape, or eventually tear herself away from her project. I enjoy her humour, her efforts to understand the culture at a deep level. But the word that keeps repeating itself in my mind when I think about this book is honesty. Elizabeth does not shy away from relating her fears, admitting her mistakes, voicing her doubts, expressing her feelings of guilt, and involving us in all her thought processes throughout her journey, and leading us by the hand over the hurdles she faces. Thank you, Elizabeth. This is an inspiring book. It will remain with me for a long time.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Peng Wu

    A surprisingly good (true) story, one of the best memoirs I read in 2019 (the other one is Educated). It is the stories of the real people’s lives that make this memoir touching.

  7. 4 out of 5

    mrs j symon

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ivana Godula

  9. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis

    Amazing story

  10. 5 out of 5

    Iris Aliaj

  11. 5 out of 5

    Julie Wetzel

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mrs Patricia Willmot

  13. 4 out of 5

    Vera

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline Donovan

  17. 4 out of 5

    Katja

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tracy Oppenheim

  19. 4 out of 5

    Blerta

  20. 4 out of 5

    Janet Ross

  21. 5 out of 5

    glen william arthur gidley

  22. 4 out of 5

    Emma Selby

  23. 5 out of 5

    E A Watkins

  24. 4 out of 5

    Charlotta Lahnalahti

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Gray

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  28. 4 out of 5

    Monika Kelpsaite

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tracy Oppenheim

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kate toohey

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