Meeting the challenge: handshakes by Elizabeth Gowing

In front of the mosque, the rubbish heap steamed and the children crawling over its stench shimmered like visions of angels. It was hard to distinguish anything in the waste other than the forms of the waste-pickers – anything with soft vegetable edges was oozing into a soup of discarded nappies and rotten food, though off to one side I could still see the shape of a dead puppy glistening like a burst fig. Anything with hard edges had already been removed for recycling or reselling. The children were sifting what was left – the trashiest of the trash. Plastic bottle tops were slipped into their bags like coins. A broken toy would be huddled under a T-shirt like treasure.

The nearest girl noticed me through the methane haze and waved. I called 'hello' in Albanian and she stopped. This was a find – a stranger; she clambered down the heap towards me and came to inspect the broken toy of a visitor trying to speak her language. She stuck out a hand, stained and sticky; smeared with something that could have been ketchup from a discarded hamburger, or could have been blood from broken glass. The hand hovered between us for a second while I hesitated, thinking about the dead puppy and tetanus; thinking about basic human connections.

I shook it and asked her name.

By the time we were introduced, we were surrounded by other shapes down off the rubbish heap and transformed into children. They giggled and jostled, each child with their hand outstretched to me in greeting, each one with their particular blend of garbage juices across their palms and under their nails. I smiled and swallowed hard and shook.

That was my first meeting with the Roma and Ashkali community just outside Kosovo's capital, Prishtina. I went home and washed my hands in hot water, with soap, and then with disinfectant. I tried to erase the image from my mind, too, of children who should have been at school, barefoot in the squelch of the rubbish heap. After all, I was only passing through.

And when I couldn't wash it away, I went back. I met more children, and was invited into their homes – places made from the hard edges that had been missing from the dump; car doors and flattened oil drums. I met their fathers coming back dirty and tired from the palmful of change they had earned by selling on what they'd found in the skips. When I extended a hand in greeting they would shake it with fingers that felt like old leather gloves.

Not everyone worked in the garbage – the man I got to know best had previously worked as a rubbish-picker, but now Ahmet had an office job with an NGO and his hand that I shook each time we met was as clean as A4 paper – but his community still felt like a place dominated by that rubbish heap.

I became squeamish about eating. When I'd shaken hands with all the members of a family in a home with no running water, and their five year-old came in, triumphant with a golden packet of crisps he'd been given he gestured 'Take one, take one,' but I refused.

It was a family for whom I'd bought some medicine, and the father was angry at my refusal. 'You've helped us so much; please now accept some food from us.'

I wondered whether holding a crisp more lightly in my fingers would stop the transfer of bacteria. I almost dropped it, trying to pass it to my mouth without touching my fingers to any part of my lips.

'Mmmm,' I smiled, wondering what tuberculosis tasted like on the tongue, and knowing I was shamefully ungrateful.

Over more visits to the community, we finally registered some of those children in school, and I got better at mixing their microbes with my own in the warm press of a handshake. I felt proud of having made these human connections – seeing the hands and not the dirt that stuck to them, making friends with people like Ahmet.

One day Ahmet and I were talking about how some observant Muslims wouldn't shake hands with a woman. Ahmet himself was a devout mosque-goer

'Yet you always shake my hand', I said.

Ahmet looked uncomfortable. 'Actually, when we met and you held out your hand it was the first time I had ever touched the hand of a woman who was not in my family.'

I thought about all the Ashkali men who had made me feel welcome in their homes, about the sticky, unwashed feeling, the soap and disinfectant, the belief of contamination; and about the triumph of basic human connections, and who it was who'd worked hardest to make them.

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