Macedonia aims to replace some of the country’s most primitive rural schools.by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova 19 May 2011
ELOVO, Macedonia | A stench arises from the squat toilet in a privy near an elementary school in this mountain village, about 40 kilometers south of Skopje.
The toilet stands about 15 meters from the school, and students share it with worshippers at a nearby mosque.
The 50 students here wash their hands in a basin with water they bring from home, because the school’s only faucet, installed by the teachers, is shut down temporarily. They drink water from plastic bottles, also brought from home.
There is no playground. When something breaks, the teachers fix it if they can.
Principal Ali Nafiz said he has appealed repeatedly to the Education Ministry for help, to no avail.
Until now. The running water has been shut off because of construction of a new school next door, one of 21 that the Education Ministry plans to replace the country’s most dilapidated rural schools.
Teachers and students in Elovo have been assured that the new building will offer a decent toilet and a supply of fresh drinking water.
That will be a welcome change for Ramadan Eminovski, the school’s janitor, as well. He says in its 15 years, the outhouse toilet has never been emptied.
“It’s time to clean it,” Eminovski said with a chuckle. Once a student here himself, he said the only change he has seen since his schoolboy days is new wainscoting on the walls.
The three-room Elovo school is almost 60 years old. Many of the other schools on the chopping block were also built more than 50 years ago and as in Elovo many lack water and basic hygiene facilities.
Afrie Eminovska, the janitor’s niece, is a pupil at the Elovo school. She is lucky to live nearby. “When I’m thirsty, I go home,” she said.
When it rains, teachers race to place buckets and plastic bottles to catch the leaks, but rain has warped some of the floorboards. “The water runs down by the electric cable box and we’re afraid something’s going to happen,” teacher Zoran Kostadinov said.
Only one part of the school sits on a masonry foundation, the rest on deteriorating wood. Chair legs get stuck in the oilcloth thrown over rotting wooden planks. Parts of the roof dangle overhead; the weathered wooden windows have sealed themselves shut; the walls and doors are shot through with damp and holes. Even hanging a picture is impossible.
For warmth, teachers and students rely on a stove fashioned from an old oil drum. Still, some teachers say, they have what money can’t buy: a beautiful mountain setting.
Children here rarely go to the zoo or visit a museum. Local families who can afford it send their children farther away to better schools, but the poorer ones cannot afford the transportation costs.
Clean drinking water is also a problem for a crowded, two-room elementary school in Mojanci village, about 10 kilometers east of Skopje, that is set to be replaced.
Built in the 1960s and recently renovated with help from the Norwegian Embassy, the school has a new floor, windows, and doors. But the 70 students here wash their hands in a plastic basin with water they bring in buckets and bottles from local wells, even though it has not been tested. They shrug off concerns about its safety, saying it has not hurt them so far. They must also pour buckets of water down the new toilet when they flush.
Teacher Nesmir Sulejmani said the renovation is an improvement, but the building is still not suitable for teaching.
“We can’t say our school meets the conditions for the normal teaching process. The situation with the water is miserable. The children bring water for drinking from home in plastic bottles. And the conditions with the toilet are also primitive,” he said.
“It ‘s really hard for us to bring water from home every day,” said student Fitore Maslani, who shyly begged off saying more.
Basri Bajrami, mayor of the nearby town that administers the village, said his first priority when construction on the new school starts will be ensuring access to clean drinking water.
The students at the Pashko Vasa elementary school in Novo Selo, about 20 kilometers west of Skopje, also bring their water from home, but that’s not the biggest problem here. The school amounts to a wooden shack built in the 1970s on a precipice over a 15-meter drop, with no fence to keep the students safe while playing outside.
“We don’t have the basic conditions for learning,” said Mirije Ahmeti, a student. “We don’t have drinking water and we don’t have water in the toilet, either. … We’re afraid to play in the schoolyard because we could easily fall.”
Principal Nuredin Ismaili said the school is about 20 years past its useful life.
Still, he said, it is not the ramshackle condition of the school that has prompted the ministry to build a new, larger one, but rather an attempt to save money on travel expenses, as the ministry pays about 60 euros per day to send the community’s older students to a school farther away.
Ismaili said a local resident paid to have a well built for the school two months ago, but the water still has not been tested, so the water is used only for washing. “It’s strictly forbidden for the children to drink this water,” he said.
Every day the school’s janitor, Rafedin Ajdari, whose two children attend the school, throws buckets of water down the toilet in an effort to keep it clean.
The school replacement program, announced in March, will pool money from the Education Ministry with funds raised locally. Education Minister Nikola Todorov promises the new buildings will meet modern standards, including reliable indoor plumbing, warm classrooms, and better security.