Cleaning Up the Act

Kosova is a mess. Not just politically, but physically. Crossing a muddy stream in a small village near the Macedonian border a local guy points to the plastic bottles, rusting metal and other junk floating along with the current. “See this stream?” he asks me rhetorically. “When I was a child not so long ago we could fish in in this stream.” Not only is there no longer any fish in the water, it is also quite useless as a healthy source of drinking water. Such is the sad, neglected state of the environment in Kosova.

Why don’t people just clean up their act and their neighbourhood? Ask them, and they’ll tell you they can’t. Most ethnic Albanians will be quick to point out that the problem ­ indeed, any problem in the region ­ is the fault of the Serbian regime. In 1989 Belgrade took complete and heavyhaned control of Kosova, revoking the autonomy the region had been granted in the 1974 constitution under Tito. It was to be the first step in Slobodan Milosevic’s catastrophic campaign for a Greater Serbia, fed by nationalistic fervour among the Serbs.
Most Albanians were fired from management, local government and teaching institutions and hospitals. Within a year the Albanians had set up a parallel system of government, social services and teaching, headed by the largest underground opposition party, the LDK. In spite of the fact that they constitute 90 percent of the population in Kosova, the Albanians insist that the oppresive rule of the Serbs make it impossible for them to make any improvements to their quality of life. “Before the Serbs came,” many Albanians will claim in all sincerity, “we had no problems here. And once we get our own state, everything will be fine again.”

But while the Serbs are certainly not making it any easier for the Albains to maintain the infrastructure, numerous practical issues remain which the Albanians could and should be able to tackle on a local level, regardless of the political situation in the region. The problem there seems to be cultural barriers which must be overcome if the Albanians are to reach their full potential as a community ­ if, indeed, they are ever to run their own state responsibly. One example is the mutual distrust (according to some, there were 600 bloodfeuds pending at last count) and the jealousi, and suspicion of anyone in the local community who shows initiative or leadership. These are just two of the age-old traditions that keep them from moving ahead. Another is the focus on the prosperity of the close family, arguably at the cost of the community as a whole. While the strength this gives the family as a unit is admirable and an asset in hard times, it also narrows the perspective for progress in the longer term.
A trip through any rural Albanian village reveals a surprising number of beautiful, at times downright opulent houses being built ­ Swiss-style chalets with satellite dishes on the roof, dozens of rooms and great walls surrounding the large property. Yet the school in that very same village will most likely be falling apart, and the roads in desperate need of repair. The same will be the case with the medical clinic and any other communal features. The beautiful houses (in which only a few rooms are used, and even fewer heated and furnished) are unlikely to be connected to a sewage system, because very few villages have one. Instead, the local stream is used to remove refuse of any kind and send it on its way.
So while there are clearly some very practical steps that could be taken to help improve the lot of the poorest people in Europe, any outsider must approach that challenge with care and consideration. It is not just a question of doing it or showing them how to improve things. Real success also requires a thorough and thoughtful explain as to why it makes sense for them to take the necessary steps.

Five new ways to a better village life

In a bold new program, IRC is trying precisely that approach in four villages in the southern part of Kosova. “Community building” is a multi-faceted project aimed at improving the quality of life for the villagers. By implementing five different aspects of the same concept at the same locations the effect should be all the stronger and impress upon not only the local villagers but others, too, the possibilities of working together towards common goals.
Firstly, IRC plans to improve facilities at the local primary schools. The schools are typically shared by Albanian and Serbian students. While it must be said that the “sharing” is not always particularly fair, IRC will be improving sanitary conditions and teaching resources for both ethnic groups. Classrooms and walkways will be repaired and in conjunction with the Open Society Fund the program will supply computers, microscopes etc. to new, shared classrooms.

Much of what is needed is quite basic. A school of a thousand pupils or more will have only a couple of outdoor lavatories for the entire school; these lavatories are usually in horrible condition, with either no sewage treatment at all or a pathetic, overflowing septic pit. Of course, there are no facilities for handwashing. Indoor plumbing is limited, and there is little or no fresh water available to the students. In some cases the quality of the water supply may be suspect. IRC’s two engineers (a local Albanian and an American volunteer) will assess the needs of each institution and in consultation with the local authorities decide what can be done.

The teachers who will be using the new equipment and facilities will be offered training as part of the community building programme. The “sharing” of facilities between Albanian and Serbian pupils is an important aspect of the projects; it is hoped that the cooperation needed to put the new facilites to use will encourage further joint ventures at the schools. This will require careful maneuvering by the IRC team in order to pursuade the two sides to work together as partners for mutual good, rather than play off one another as opponents with inherently opposing standpoints.
As with the schools, the medical clinics in the villages will be given an overhaul by the IRC community building team in consultation with the local health workers and authorities. The focus there will be on sanitary conditions; in most of the clinics toilet facilites for patients are either lacking or in unspeakably bad condition. “Turkish style” squatting toilets are the rule, there are no facilities for washing hands and in some cases the toilet (often there is only one) is located outside the clinic exposed to the elements. As with the school lavatories, the sewage from the medical clinics’ lavatories is most often led straight out into the local stream or feeds into a decrepit, leaking septic pit.
IRC will try to upgrade the techical equipment at the clinic to enable them to better diagnose and treat disease, and the medical teams there will be given computers to improve the clinic’s record keeping.

In any Kosova village, plastic bottles, scrap metal and a range of other debris can be found scattered in gutters, along roadsides and in the local streams and fields. In the four project villages IRC and the local population will together plan a village clean-up campaign to get rid of the accumulated junk once and for all. The villagers will provide the labour, ie. they will be cleaning up their own neighbourhood, and IRC will ensure that a local dump is established for proper disposal of the collected trash. A rubbish collection system will be set up for the village so that hopefully future garbage will not end up in the local environment.
While these practical, highly visible improvements will do much to improve the health and quality of life in the village (and, hopefully, local acceptance of the whole program), the real challenge will be changing the attitude of the local population. By teaching them about the connection between environment and health, they should begin to appreciate that they are not only ultimately responsible for their local environment, but also that they are in a position to make a real difference if they face up to that responsibility.

Based on previous positive experience from programs in other villages, IRC will be offering groups of village women health education. The classes, held in the village on an informal basis, will cover traditional subjects like breast feeding, hygiene and children’s health and anything else that the villager’s themselves wish to bring up; they will also touch on more controversial subjects such as family planning and the women’s role in society.
Even more challenging to the villagers will be the men’s groups. Here, again, the villagers will essentially set the agenda themselves; the planned subjects are agriculture and other issues of interest to village men, but it is hoped that areas like family planning, gender relations and the importance of sending girls to school can also be approached.
In both groups issues of ecology and community awareness will be raised. The same will be the case with the last group addressed in the community building programme ­ the children. The hope is to arrange a summer camp for the village children where they can meet kids from other villages and get a chance to learn about issues like basic health to ecology in a fun and stimulating environment.

The approach taken by the community building program offers two immediate advantages. First of all, by actively involving them in the process and giving them tangible results all along, it gives the people in the village the best possible incentive to move on independently once the programme is over. Many villagers claim that what they need is an example to follow in order to break the spell of apathy that leaves them with so much to be desired.

Secondly, IRC here has the perfect opportunty to improve the practical implementation of a strong project concept before moving on to the next village down the road ­ where they will most likely have heard of the results achieved by the time community building comes to town.