Young banana sellers on a slippery slope

25th November 1994 at 00:00
One of the first things that strikes the few foreign visitors to Tirana, the capital of Albania, is the quantity of bananas on sale. Bunches of them are piled on upturned cardboard boxes and sold on main streets throughout the city. Many of the new street vendors are children of school age. Most of them are earning more than their former teachers, and more, for that matter, than university lecturers.

Europe's poorest country is going through shock therapy with a vengeance. With child malnutrition running at over 35 per cent and a cholera epidemic, the state of the education system is low on anyone's list of priorities.

Maqo Lakrori, an academic who became minister for education in the "stability government" of 1991 when the communist regime fell, said: "Before, there was no pluralistic tradition and no market economy tradition. Unfortunately we are seeing young people who prefer to occupy their time with things other than studying. We cannot imagine a real integration of Albania with Europe without a high level of culture and a high level of education."

As it is, attendance levels for children over the age of 14 are half what they were five years ago. Pupils are not the only absentees. Teachers earn so little, typically Pounds 7 a week, and those who have not already left the country or found private-sector work often have second jobs that prevent them teaching properly. The job has plummeted in public esteem.

Moreover, the dedicated band that remains committed to it has to cope with the fact that textbooks corresponding with the new curricula are scarce.

The fall of the communist government was followed by an anarchic period in 1991-92, during which the Albanian people vented their hatred of their former leaders on all property, as all property belonged to the state. The country has yet to recover from the destruction.

"About 1,000 primary and secondary schools were destroyed, mostly in the villages. Doors, windows, books, blackboards, everything disappeared from the schools or was stolen or destroyed," said Bashkim Berisha, director of education for children aged under 14. A typical school in Tirana uses open wood fires to heat the classrooms of those aged under eight, and nothing at all for the older children. But Tirana is hardly representative. In the north, near the tense border with the former Yugoslavia, Third World conditions prevail.

"I recently visited a school that was made from earth-baked mud blocks, " said Colin Raine of the charity Feed the Children. "It had no windows, just holes, no roof apart from just straw, no floor at all, it was just hard-packed mud, without furniture - and they taught 50 pupils in that school."

The region is mountainous, sparsely populated and impossible to reach by road. Some of the children attending these schools have to walk up to three hours each way in temperatures that can fall to minus 15C in the winter.

As the country has a per capita GNP of around Pounds 200 the money for redevelopment will have to come from elsewhere. The World Bank and the Soros Foundation, founded by Wall Street Investor George Soros, are each putting Pounds 6 million into the Albanian education system. They propose working closely with the education ministry to overhaul infrastructure, teaching methods and the style of administration.

The proximity of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the hostility of neighbouring Greece have made it extremely difficult for Albania to make the strides towards a functioning market economy that have been taken in other former-communist countries. The privations the tiny country is enduring seem likely to go on for some time yet.

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