My main activity in Kosovo, day and night, is running
the Ideas Partnership charity. It's an umbrella
organisation we set up four years ago, as we began to realise that
little things we were supporting with our own time and money could
do better if we were organised, and could apply for funds, and so
It helps a women's shelter, who produce honey
face cream. We also initiated bigger projects, all to do with the
environment, education, culture, and the Roma community.
Today, for instance, I was taking a child who had had an
epileptic seizure to the doctor, because the mother can't
afford to do it. This is why we set up projects to develop women's
micro-finance, like making olive-oil soap, making cloth bags
instead of using plastic ones, recycling glass jars which their
husbands salvage from city garbage tips. We now have about 60
volunteers and four paid staff. I'm a volunteer, but I put in four
days a week.
Other things I do, which pay the bills to greater or
lesser degrees, are writing, translating (from Albanian to
English), and education consultancy. I've translated two
biographies. I've only learned Albanian since we came here, but I'm
lucky because, although it's very different from English, it wasn't
standardised until 1972, and if I make a mistake, people just think
I'm from a different village.
We came here seven years ago because of my partner's
job, when he was employed by the British Government as
adviser to the Kosovan Prime Minister.
There's a great community feeling - Pristina is
a small city, and Kosovan society is very interconnected. I love
living in a capital city but being sure, whenever I walk out my
front door, that I'm going to meet someone I know, be greeted by
name, be smiled at. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe,
so there is a great sense of potential and energy.
I was given a beehive for my first birthday in Kosovo in
2006. It was a wonderful present, a magical process: take
meadows of wildflowers, add an intelligent community of insects,
and produce something you can spread on toast. And because I had to
meet local beekeepers to learn my new craft, it gave me a way into
understanding Kosovo - not just through its cities and politics,
but through its land and food and rural traditions.
Kosovo is much safer than London, in terms of
physical safety. There are still huge political tensions, and
despair between Albanians and Serbs. But I called my first book
about Kosovo Travels in Blood and Honey, because all our
friends expected it to be all about war and violence, but the war
ended 14 years ago, and really, my experience has been all
I've just written Edith and I: On the trail of an Edwardian
traveller in Kosovo. Edith Durham was an anthropologist and
writer, an aid worker, and a feisty Edwardian traveller. Everyone
in Kosovo has heard of her, and there are streets and schools named
after her. She was the first woman to be represented on a Republic
of Kosovo stamp. But no one in Britain has ever heard of her.
Edith and I is influenced by those thoughts of
how you're inspired by the lives of others, and how your
life becomes affected even in small ways by what you're
I wanted not to tell someone's life story
chronologically. That inevitably gives you a slow
beginning (childhood illness and precocious minor achievements); a
fascinating middle section (the real reason you bought the book);
and then what you know is going to be a depressing final section of
increasing illness, frailty, and eventually death. I wanted to tell
the story of a life in the way that we actually find out about a
life, plunging into the middle and the most notable stuff, and then
discovering the background so that by the time you get to the
childhood information, you're interested in it.
There was a huge surge of enthusiasm among the
country's majority Albanians when Kosovo was liberated from
Serbia's MiloŠević regime in 1999, and put under UN administration;
and again when the country declared independence five years ago.
Now people are very disillusioned with their politicians.
I went to the dedication of the new Roman Catholic
cathedral recently, celebrating the centenary of Mother
Teresa's birth, and that was pretty special. Roman Catholics make
up about two per cent of the population here, and there are some
Protestants now, since missionary activity after the war ended, and
Serbian Orthodox Christians. Most people are Muslim. Actually,
Albanians are very tolerant of religious differences.
I hate the way that the Kosovan landscape - a
stunning countryside, with hedgerows of wild flowers, and wonderful
mountains - is messed up with litter. It's a kind of symbol of the
political cynicism, too: no one believes that a small act of care
will ever change the bigger picture.
Kosovans could teach us spontaneity and
I appreciate things about Britain I never noticed
before: salt and vinegar crisps, water from the tap, a
decent education system. Some of our relationships have really been
strengthened, as people have come out to stay, and shared
adventures with us. And people have come out to volunteer from our
village in Cornwall, or raised money, or sewed curtains for our
I've probably thought more about where God is in all
this than I ever have since starting our charity's work
with the Roma and Ashkali community in Kosovo. You can't help but
ask this question when you visit the children playing barefoot on
rubbish heaps, here in Europe.
The most important choice I've made was in the night
after the day that I'd discovered 21 Roma and Ashkali
children, aged about nine and living near Pristina, who
told me they wanted to go to school. The school had told them
they'd missed their chance. I couldn't sleep, and the next morning
I asked my partner, Rob, if he thought I could take six months off
from my other work and start teaching these children. Within three
weeks we had 50 children attending our classes, and by the end of
the six months, we got 62 children registered for school.
I never intended to do any of these things, but
once you see a need. . . I knew that I couldn't live with myself. I
don't think many could. One knows, in theory, that all forms of
poverty are interconnected, but you see it here so clearly: if
children haven't got shoes, they can't get to school, and then they
miss their vaccinations, and some get TB . . . So, when we set up
the women's business projects, it's on condition that their
children go to school.
Having researched the life of Edith Durham,
I've been made painfully aware how short everyone's memories are.
What about Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich? He was a
British Prime Minister in the 19th century. I can imagine him
becoming PM and thinking "Yesss! Now my name will always be
remembered." And none of us has even heard of him.
We have a home in Port Isaac in Cornwall, which
is a regular retreat and a place to recharge. But I love exploring
I mainly read non-fiction. I was influenced,
for example, by The Tipping Point and the idea of how
little things can make a big difference.
I love the sound of the sea outside the window of our
home in Cornwall. Sometimes, in a big city, I can convince
myself that the ebbing roar of traffic is just as comforting.
Jesus clearing the traders from the Temple is my
favourite Bible story. It's a good reminder that
challenging authority can be righteous, productive and
I am ashamed to realise that what last made me angry was
a child. She had come to a performance we'd arranged for
the Roma kids, and had almost spoiled the performance by refusing
to sit down so that people behind her could see, and by walking
across the performance area. I was really shocked at myself:
unproductive, inappropriate, and stupid. So, when I saw the girl
yesterday, I made a special effort to understand her, to
communicate properly, I think she's not very happy much of the
time, but she was smiling yesterday.
I'm happiest sitting on a train with a good
When I do yoga, I like the tradition of
dedicating the practice to someone who needs strength. Last time I
attended a church service, I found myself making a commitment to a
family in Kosovo who I know are in terrible need for a home.
I wouldn't mind getting locked in anywhere with my
Elizabeth Gowing was talking to Terence Handley
MacMath. Edith and I (Elbow Publishing, £9.99,