The following article was written by me in 1994 after a 3-week assignment in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The article was published in a local newspaper. I include the article on this blog because it demonstrates how far aspects of other culture can inspire us - even if those aspects are not always good! Reading the article almost 25 years later, I am inclined to make changes but I have decided to let it be. After all, it is a product of its time.
Frequently, when Macedonians do not want to discuss something, they tend to lower their eyelids.
“But you don’t have to stick to the books surely?” I implored, but the eyelids drooped.
“Communicative ideas are very interesting but we won’t be allowed to use them,” was the typical response of participants on a seminar for Macedonian teachers of E.F.L. The course was held in Ohrid, a beautiful town on the lake of the same name.
The seminar had been organised by the Open Society Fund for Macedonia and The British Council in Belgrade which, despite the present difficulties, is doing a grand job. The Council drivers cover thousands of kilometres per week in order to keep operations going. I was flown to Budapest and thence by car to Belgrade and Ohrid - a two-day journey.
In three weeks, there were three programmes of twenty students and collectively they represented most of the institutions where English is taught in Macedonia. They face enormous difficulties in classrooms of forty children, and using text books that are unattractive and which reflect an approach to language learning that is long since out of date. Even the topics are depressing, concerning as they do, a Britain that has ceased to exist, even if it existed at all, and they are full of spelling errors. There is a drought as far as new idea and materials are concerned and although aspects of the communicative approach have trickled through, they have been incorrectly or only partly understood.
A resources centre has been opened in Skopje, but more are needed in other towns, not to mention the villages. Then there was the problem of lesson plans. Some of the participants told me that they had to send every lesson plan to the Ministry and that changing their approach would mean writing another for themselves and keeping one eye on the classroom door while they were teaching it. Other participants, generally the younger ones, told me this was not true. Like so much during my stay, information I received was conflicting.
But it was the collective feeling of depression that I carried away with me. This is doubtless due to the situation in Bosnia, the fact that Macedonia is surrounded by hostile countries and that the future is unclear. Does this explain the negative and backward looking attitude?
“In my past life I was a Turkish judge,” remarked one lady, while another told me that she had been a nun in the middle-east. Both said how happy they had been. Many of the married ladies talked of the early period of their personal relationships as if it were a golden age and they shrugged off suggestions that they could improve the present. Most of them had not yet reached thirty. And all the time the Macedonian songs played, over the radio, in the streets and in the restaurants, songs of lost love and better times. Sometimes I had the impression that I was walking in an emotional minefield.
The real difficulties occurred during the second week with the five men who were always alone. Even during those sessions when group and pair work were required, there was a reluctance even to make eye contact with them.
“They are Albanians, Muslims ," said one lady with a grimace, “they never integrate with us.”
Later on I discovered that Albanians were responsible for the drug trafficking, Albanians carry weapons, Albanians have all the wealth.
“But this is what the Germans said in the thirties,” I said. But the provocation was ignored. “We don’t discuss politics,” was the retort.
This collective reluctance to face the existence of a problem was disturbing. It was an impenetrable wall that no amount of provocation could breach and it hung over the classes like a mushroom cloud. Is it the fact that Albanians want their own schools, that they want to teach in their language or is it the fact that they are Muslims that is the problem here?
“The Muslims are trying to take over Europe, and they are supported by the U.S.A. because they are afraid of the European community,” said one university educated teacher.
No wonder then that the American soldiers, newly arrived in Skopje, were not so very popular. They rape people, and, it seems, are responsible for the increase in sexually related diseases in Skopje. They have been there for one month. Despite the negative feeling in the classroom the feedback from the participants was positive. They found the seminar worthwhile and once again I was perplexed by the conflicting evidence of classroom experience and the feedback sheets.
Macedonia is landlocked, surrounded by hostile countries and cut off from the rest of Europe. Perhaps the paranoia here is understandable.
But I guess that about one quarter of the participants will practise what I taught them and those will be the younger ones who still have some vitality, some hope.
But what can be achieved with one programme? What can be achieved with some teachers who insist that all the British hate all the French and that all Americans take drugs? I permitted myself one parting shot, just to try and change something.
“But if you can’t learn to live with the Albanians and the Muslims, the only alternative is civil war!”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” said the listener spreading her hands outwards.
“But. . . ,“ I began, but it was no use. She was looking at the floor.
If you wish to read further about Macedonia today, have a look at this BBC article from earlier this month.