Monday, May 2, 2011

The Gypsy Girl & William Brown

So I think I've mentioned the gypsies before. They're quite common. Gypsy women have knocked on my door a couple of times, glaring and spitting when refused money. Gypsy children will often tug at your clothing, whining and begging in a well-trained routine, until you have to shout at them (and mean it!) and swat their hands away. The men - goodness knows what they're doing. Picking pockets probably.

Anyway, I saw a rather beautiful thing today. Quite often, a gypsy woman will be begging cross-legged on the pavement, cradling a bundle that the passerby assumes is a child, looking accusingly as you pass. The girl I saw this afternoon looked particularly young to be a mother, and she had forgotten to do her job for a moment: she was playing with the grubby hands of the little baby in her lap, gazing delightedly into its face with open adoration. I have never seen such a look on a gypsy. As I drew near, I smiled at the sight; she looked up, still with the delight in her eyes. She saw me, and it took a few seconds for the light to fade from her face and the hardness to descend. She aged about ten years in that moment. It was too late for her to ask for money, and I could tell she was angry - either at me or at herself. Oh, I wanted to kneel down and put my arm around her and tell her that it is good to be delighted in your baby, and it's okay for strangers to share in that pleasure too. But I walked on, because I'm pretty sure she hated me for being one of 'them', as gypsies do.

It reminded me of something else. On Friday, I caught an overcrowded marshrutka. A boy of about eight or nine got up and gave me his seat. He was dressed in the black suit and cap of local schoolboys and carrying a satchel. (Such boys always remind me of William Brown, except they are much less jolly and they do things like giving up their seats for adults. And they have certainly never played cowboys and Indians, although lifelike plastic guns are their commonest plaything.) Anyway, I don't think this little boy had smiled in his life. He had the grim look of all men here; thin, serious, intense. Kyrgyz children aren't encouraged or praised at home. It just isn't done. And as for his schooling - well, Kyrgyzstan recently ranked 65th out of 65 countries tested for education standards, so I imagine his little soul is not being terribly nurtured and stimulated.

There was something in the gypsy's face that was like the schoolboy's face. Dull eyes looking anxiously at a hopeless prospect. And I am helpless. I speak no Russian or Kyrgyz; I have nothing to give them. I can't even smile at them - that isn't done, either. I can give a few som to a beggar, but that helps no one and only perpetuates the begging. The most I can do is buy them bread, but that's not what they need. How I long to show them love, and point them to the source of all hope and assurance and peace and joy! In this I am frustrated, being limited by my culture and my language. Frustration rises up like bile at my uselessness.

But then I remember - my presence here is a building block. I may not be on the front-line, but by teaching as I do I am facilitating the ability of families to start businesses, build lasting relationships, train local people in real skills. These are the things that bring lasting change. Perhaps one day I'll be doing a different kind of work, but for now I'm thankful to be involved in this way; it's how I can show love to the grim-faced children and the grubby gypsies and the homeless and the disabled and the babushkas selling their last possessions on the street. For now, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

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