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She is ready. Upright, she stands in front of her modest house. Golden Bag is emblazoned across the small black sports bag she carries in her hand. In the blistering sun, we walk slowly to my beaten-up VW Golf parked in the shade of the rough, unpaved road. Adjusting her headscarf, Ellma[1] squeezes into the back of the car between Marigona – my research assistant – and me. My husband drives.

We are on a mission. We want to recover money that has been stolen from Ellma’s bank account. Two hundred and fifty euros is missing from her meagre widow’s pension of five hundred. Half of her monthly income gone – just like that. Who would do something like this, steal from a war widow? Wanting to find the answer, we are on our way to the main bank in Prishtina. “They probably think that this old woman doesn’t know anything and can’t go by herself to Prishtina,” Ellma contemplates. With strength in her voice she announces, “They are wrong. I visited my son in the Serbian prison by myself. I picked him up from Prishtina when they released him. I was able to do that during times of hardship and worries and I will be able to get my money back from them today.”

Ellma regrets that she is not better educated as she thinks the bankers would treat her with more respect. But, growing up, conditions were difficult – her mother had died when she was still just a child. She sighs, “My father only granted me a few years of schooling” and continues with bitterness, “instead of investing into my education, he married me off when I was only fourteen.” Her husband had been twenty years older, “wearing a moustache”, she had been afraid of him. She groans, “Oh it was hard… I had my first child when I was seventeen and continued to have children.”

Ellma might be lacking a formal education and financial means, but not talent. She is a healer, a traditional massage therapist, and a bonesetter. She wants to demonstrate some of her skills to us. Her tiger patterned skirt rustles as she tries to find a comfortable position on the back seat of the car to pull me, with a firm grip, over her knees. The leather squeaks as my sweaty legs are lifted up. My feet bump against the window with a dull thud before I manage, with a little twisting and turning, to wiggle them through the open gap at the top. The headwind whistles as it touches them – I am thankful for the cooling breeze. My shoulders crack and my vertebra moan as she moves her fat firm fingers across my back, up and down. Car horns around us honk loudly – we are quite the scene. Bending over, she whispers with her raspy voice, “There is more to what I do.” My neck complains as I try to turn my head awkwardly while lying in this vulnerable and somewhat impossible position – curious to what she has to say.

Laughing, Marigona helps me back into an upright position so that I can take notes. It is then that Ellma takes us into her world of oracles and magical healing powers. I am gripped, fascinated, and curious. “Listen carefully,” she begins while I start scribbling frantically in my notebook. “When babies can’t walk or cry a lot, I take a cane on a Tuesday. I dress it with the baby’s clothes and put it in the chimney. It has to stay there over night and the next morning I check whether the clothes are missing. If something is missing, the baby will be healthy. If not, the baby won’t have a chance.”

Marigona interrupts her puzzled, “Who takes the clothes?”

“The Tuesday takes it,” is Ellma’s simple response. “When nothing is missing you can’t do anything about it. Of course, we keep taking the children to all kinds of doctors and healing places hoping that medication will provide a cure.”

I wonder. “Are there things missing when you check the cane the next morning?” I ask as our vehicle speeds on along the dusty road that bakes in the afternoon sun. “Almost always and the children are all right after that” she replies. I don’t get enough time to ask who or what the “Tuesday” is as she continues, “Now I want to tell you something else. When my brother-in-law’s daughter was very sick, they visited many doctors, but no one was able to help. One day, they came to me hoping that I could heal her. I looked at her and ordered her to lie down. Then, I went outside to fetch a black chicken.” Her tone turns instructional: “The chicken has to be entirely black and shouldn’t have any other colour in its feathers.” She explains how she returned with the chicken, held it upside down and cut its throat letting the blood drip all over the girl’s clothes. Next, she took the clothes and, together with the chicken, threw them up into an attic where she later drew a circle around the bloody bundle. In a voice filled with pride, she concludes, “The girl grew up healthy and gave birth to three boys.”

Weeks later, I learned that Ellma is known among her fellow villagers for her healing powers. People come regularly to ask for help which she provides free of charge. “She is a true humanitarian”, “Ellma knows what she is doing”, and “Ellma doesn’t treat just anyone, she has to trust you first,” the villagers told me in awe. Over time, I observed how she treated sprained ankles, set dislocated joints, provided massages, ameliorated headaches, and witnessed how she dealt with evil eye and evil energies in the ground that were blamed for making people trip and fall.

During the car ride though, my head buzzes with questions. Unfortunately, I have to save them for later as my husband is steering us into a parking space in front of the bank. It is a relief to step inside the bank where the blast of cool air from the air conditioning system is refreshing and welcome. A clerk leads us down a tiled corridor to a clean waiting area inviting us to take a seat. Ellma looks out of place, is visibly nervous and clutches her “golden bag” tight. I wonder what goes through her mind as she sits there, muttering absentmindedly.

A side door opens and Mr Gashi in his slick grey suit greets us in a friendly manner while pulling a chair toward us. He wants to hear Ellma’s story from the beginning and demands to see the paper work which Ellma produces with trembling fingers from her bag. They compare signatures and agree that they differ noticeably. “You know, I wouldn’t make such a big fuss about 250 euros if it wasn’t half of my pension money. I lost my husband during the war. Life is hard. We don’t have money to make ends meet – I struggle to buy school books for my grandchildren.” Mr Gashi has heard enough, he returns to his office, writes a letter confirming the fraud and sends us on our way.

As we are leaving, Ellma clutches her ‘golden bag’ to her chest and laughs cynically, “They are probably stealing as well; its all the same shit!”

***

Days later, we find the culprit. A young bank teller working in one of the bank’s local branches had stolen Ellma’s money. She had been desperate as her income was not enough to save for her wedding and to support her extended family who had trouble making ends meet. As Ellma had said: it’s all the same shit when there is poverty and hardship. And there doesn’t seem to be any magic to change that.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names are pseudonyms