“…after Pascal had learned I was not, actually, a boy, but something previously unheard of: a girl in pants. The news surprised him greatly, and I don’t like to dwell on how it came about. It had to do with peeing in the bushes. But Pascal quickly forgave me, and it’s a good thing, since friends of my own age and gender were not available, the girls of Kilanga all being too busy hauling around firewood, water, or babies. It did cross my mind to wonder why Pascal had a freedom to play and roam that his sisters didn’t. While the little boys ran around pretending to shoot each other and fall dead in the road, it appeared that the little girls were running the country.”
~ from The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
How well I understand the wonder at a culture as I witnessed in Kosova, where the girls seem to do all the physical labor, and the men are seen sipping tea at a café.
Though Kosovar culture is in transition, influenced by their desire for entry into the European Union and Eminem lyrics, the role of men and women is still defined in traditional terms. Even those women who work outside the home must maintain the traditions of an Albanian housewife. These traditions, viewed by a westernized woman, look like backbreaking, wrinkle-making work. Not only is there the effort of housekeeping with intermittent electricity and water, but caring for children who finish school by eleven a.m., and many times for aging parents who live in the same home. If there is any group of women in the world more deserving of a day at the spa, it is Albanian wives.
My view is obviously skewed by my culture, where I expect a man to do his share of the housework, especially if both are working outside the home. In Mitrovica, with the unemployment rate hovering at 70%, most men are out of work, and spend their days looking for odd jobs on the street.
At my weekly meeting with Lumja and Safet, both 17 years old and juniors in high school, I asked about homework. We have to write papers, do math work at home, Lumja said in her usual energetic manner, scanning the air around her for the perfect word in English, her busy hands illustrating her points. But we go to bed early, since there is no power.
The family eats breakfast and lunch, but no dinner. Lumja and Safet return to their home villages around , when it has been dark for an hour or so in the winter. They go to bed early, but Lumja wakes up in the middle of the night, when the power comes on at , to study for a few hours with light.
In the morning, she does not have time to study, since she wakes at 4 or to help her mother with breakfast and housework. One morning her father asked Lumja, “Why does your face look like that?” “This is the only face I have!” she teased. He pressed further, why are your eyes red and tired? She had to admit to stealing power hours in the middle of the night for studying.
If she tries to study at school, in the break they have that is similar to our “study hall,” she is teased by her friends who won’t let her concentrate. Her sister, who is woken every night she leaves the room, calls her crazy.
Safet says he studies at night with a candle, or in the morning, since he does not have as much work to do as girls do. Since he opened that door, I stuck my western-thinking head through it. I explained that I know it is traditional for the women to do the housework, but do men do equal work, chopping wood and such? Lumja chimed in here – her brother mostly sits around watching television or playing video games. Safet admitted that girls have more to do here. Prefacing my comment to be as culturally sensitive as I could, I said, “I know I’m American, so my thinking is different, but – that’s just WRONG!”
Lumja said even though she’s a girl, both her parents want her to go to University. It’s just a matter of money. Just. Her father works to support his seven children, all but the youngest in school, and earns only 150 Euros a month as a guard at the Trepca mine.