Two women talking and listening to each other

Complaint

We were to meet with the Municipal Manager — like a city manager appointed by the council to be the executive administrator over an area including a number of villages — but he sent his young assistant instead. The absence doubtless worsened the general crabbiness, but if he’d imagined being fiercely grilled, had he come, he was probably right. The problems are numerous, and their history is long.

Old man complaining loudly while distressed woman looks on

It was the usual complaints for Chiatura’s local villages: bad water, bad service for water and worse for natural gas, bad roads, more. Overall, quality of life keeps declining. People seem generally happy here, if you don’t bring up the conditions of facilities and infrastructure, which have progressively declined since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Older people remember the good old days. Younger ones see a better life in streaming video.

How do you have a meeting with a hundred people with such strong opinions, the only shared expectation being that you get to say what you want the way you want to say it?

The history, perhaps mixed with legend, of Robert’s Rules of Order, the bible of parliamentary procedure, explains that U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert was called upon to preside over a church meeting that ultimately didn’t go well, at least in Major Robert’s mind — too much discord and chaos. He decided there had to be a better way, one that would at least be less rancorous, so he wrote one in a book. That was 1876. While I was still presiding at church meetings, Robert’s Rules was still our standard for meeting management, though the results were often less than inspiring.

Old man seated, leaning on his cane, pondering matters

The reason so many organizations in America and elsewhere in the developed world rely on Robert’s staid and orderly Rule’s is that everyone at the outset explicitly agrees to follow them. One person speaks at a time. The chair chooses who gets to speak at a given moment, and it’s the chair’s job to make sure all opinions are equally afforded expression. Those with minority opinions get a little extra attentiveness, because they are too easily intimidated into silence, even though they may bring a fresh idea that could lead to a solution. No one is allowed to speak ill of anyone else, and the conversation always stays on topic.

None of this happens as Robert’s prescribed in Shukruti’s community meeting. Shota, the leader of the community advocacy organization at which I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, starts the meeting with information about the village conditions and then people begin standing to say their piece.

The first person airs concerns; the next says something different but not opposed to the first. Soon someone does disagree, prompting sighs and harrumphs. Someone else starts to get agitated, either about the people who disagree with her or about the fact that nothing ever gets solved, no matter who wins the arguments. A woman who commands special regard rises to insist that people listen respectfully, which works for a few minutes. A man in front with the biggest voice and physical size in the room gets everyone quiet enough so he, if nobody else, gets to finish thoughts that are mostly heard.

Robert’s Rules are meant to make things fair for everyone and move conversations deliberately to the best decision achievable at the moment. If that’s the purpose of meeting, and if the purpose is realized, having such rules is probably a good thing.

IMG_1414_cropped

But is fairness to all wanting to speak, combined with correct decision making, what people really want or need in Shukruti at their meeting? The real decisions actually get made in municipality board and management meetings, or, as at least some of these people rather suspect, in meetings between corporate leaders with influence and government representatives seeking favors.

If citizens and neighbors realize, consciously or not, that their meeting and discoursing are unlikely to improve matters, maybe getting their thoughts and feelings out and acknowledged, if only by one another, brings some satisfaction. One disputed topic, with vociferous argument from both sides, dwells on whether elected officials are really doing their job, or are even to be trusted. The meeting gets all that in the open, rather than letting it simmer more anonymously in gossipy corners. Maybe nothing gets solved by the meeting, but people have to show who they are while they say what they believe. That’s something.

I’m impressed by the young people, young adults and children both, who are always at these community meetings and always quiet and attentive. They must agree with some of what they hear, but you can’t tell by looking at them. They must care about how things turn out, but they don’t presume to speak up. Shota loves to hear from them. It’s why he set up the Youth Council and teaches them about environmental concerns and community leadership. But here, though by no means lacking opinions or knowing how to express them — I’ve heard them speak with poised eloquence — here they’re quiet.

Though many of the older people will have departed this mortal plane within a few years, the young people with long futures at stake are quiet; nor are their ideas sought, not here and now. In a way, it’s fitting. The older kids are already in college or plan to be, and seldom do their plans involve lives and careers back home. There’s nothing here for them but the continuing deterioration here under inspection and discussion. In a way, the matters before the gathering are none of their business.

Youth and chilcren, standing and seated, listening attentively

Young man seated is Shota’s son, a college student in Tbilisi. The young woman is active in the Union of Chiaturians’ Youth Council.

Which is the point. What Georgians and Americans share in common is the inclination to think in terms of the near term future affecting them — personally. Self regarding individualism, it turns out, has become the marker for not only this era of America but also for this era of world culture. The contemporary imagination concentrates on a world in which the future is what happens with us on its ground, in its center and at its apex. It’s nobody else’s job to think of you, so you have to. It’s what we’ve learned to do best, and increasingly, it’s all we do. We don’t think about our kids’ future, because we don’t imagine it, not with any determination that would affect how we’d change our own lives.

So this small village meeting may be more like America’s election season than we suppose. We don’t really expect things to change much, even while we’re angry about how things are, and we imagine both a past we recall as better and a future in which we ourselves happy, whatever that takes. We dare the candidate we support to make us happy, while we neglect to conjure what a wider, happier world might be like. In all our passionate deliberating, what we mainly lack is not a workable set of rules for debate as a greater facility to imagine a gracious, decent and beautiful life for everyone.

And our children sit politely, watching us.

A young boy sits quietly while adults debate

Several youth at a meeting about environmental awareness

Shota

He works tirelessly protecting his region’s environment, mainly from local manganese mining operations fouling the river and from its trucks scattering manganese dioxide dust throughout the streets of the city and surrounding villages. He Man sitting outdoors looking pensivewon’t bear injustice without a fight, as readily in a restaurant (to his mind not serving his party fairly) or with leaders he suspects of heeding the voice of powerful interests more than that of local citizens.

Shota leads the Union of Chiaturians, an activist organization he started almost 9 years ago, frustrated that the otherwise scenic Kvirila River winding through the center of the city runs black with manganese effluence, o one in authority doing anything about it. While his habitual taciturn bearing hardly displays the passion driving his devoted work, no one mistakes it as resignation. He never gives up.

The Peace Corps has assigned me to work with Shota’s organization, supporting its growing capacity for effective advocacy.

Born and raised in Chiatura, Shota absorbed stories about his grandfather, who in 1924 organized with others to rebel against the 1921 Soviet occupation of Georgia, a country along the historic Silk Road with vastly more history of foreign occupation than of autonomy. The grandfather was captured four times, the last time leading to his transportation to nearby Zestafoni along with three boxcars filled with other “enemies of the state” and executed with a bullet.

The price of standing up to power is marked deep in Shota’s soul, and it must have been on his mind when he signed the 1991 declaration by the people of Georgia asserting their independence. He followed up by serving on Georgia’s first elected parliament.

Kvirila River, black with manganese effluents

Separating the city of Chiatura north and south, anyone shopping for bread or stopping at a bank sees the nearly black water daily.

On Monday morning I found Shota sitting with a member of the Union of Chiaturian’s Youth Council working over a letter drafted the day before in the neighboring village of Shukruti, where the gas and water systems, owned by the mining company, supply gas inconsistently and water just once a day, in the evening. The water is so full of toxic microorganisms that even washing dishes in it is dangerous. Drinking it is an invitation to serious illness, or worse.

The letter they’re polishing up will address environmental, water and service problems to members of the government. It’s just a letter, and letters are often ignored, but a letter from this organization should make a politician sit up and pay attention. The Union of Chiaturian’s collects water samples for testing and distributes the results, attracting attention from influential advocacy institutions like the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN).

Women listening attentively at a meeting

Meeting about water & gas supply problems at a community center for women’s empowerment in Shukruti, funded partially by US-AID.

This coming Friday CENN will provide a megaphone for the Union of Chiaturian’s activism, bringing to the city with them reporters from six news organizations to cover the mining company’s progress, or lack of it, in remedying these problems that have been called to their attention over many years.

What is the timeline for promises already made? Who will be responsible? Which representatives of government should be keeping track? And, are they?

Maybe today’s letter or Friday’s visit from the press or yet another public demonstration will be the one that sets the machinery of public life in motion enough for the movement to turn the corner. That belief keeps the Union of Chiaturians moving and shaking.

Several youth at a meeting about environmental awareness

On a summer Sunday afternoon, 24 young people meeting to learn about and act on Chiatura’s local environment.

One reason I’ve jointed the Peace Corps is my grandchildren—or, rather, my need to look them in the eye unashamed 20 years from now and answer their questions. When people were being publicly hateful and cruel, how did I respond? What shall I say I’d been doing while so many of the world’s influential adult were allowing global warming to worsen because of inattentiveness or greed or whatever it is that has stymied environmental efforts? My grandchildren will want to know whether I’d just wrung my hands or had actually made a difference.

One thing I’ll be able to say. I was half a world away helping Shota.

Cows

A nice thing about living in the so called Third World country of Georgia: cows, here and there.

Cow walking on trail among woods

This may be one family’s only cow, and it will provide them with milk for cheese, matsoni (basically yoghurt) and butter. The family I stayed with for three months of Peace Corps training had a cow. The only time anyone actually consumed the milk directly was me, in my morning oatmeal. The rest was purposed otherwise. We got most of the protein for our diet from the cheese, and since most of the fat had been skimmed off for butter, there was no cholesterol problem.

It’s brilliant, when you think about it. Every day after morning milking you take your cow to a pasture belonging to no one in particular, where others take theirs, too, then return it to your small barn at home for evening milking and a night’s sleep. Repeat. This cow seems to wander on its own and can graze along the way.

The practice delivers a lot of protein and a lot of nutrition, and it’s all virtually free—or at least very cheap, if you factor in minor expenses for animal care. Keep a few chickens as well, and you’ve got yet more nutrition, plus a little variety.

It’s not a bad way to live, and since incomes are tiny, it’s a smart way, too. And you’re pretty well fed by the end of the day, no taxes being exchanged in the bargain.

old man walking across weedy field

Old man out here

To step by deliberate step make your way
across the weedy field, once tended, toward
a thick foundation holding up air, where
once had been the stout milking barn,
enormous then useless,

while half way ’round our oblong sphere
that from far away looks like a
Christmas tree ornament,
they’re cleaning and dressing
each other, inside and out,
heart, body and soul, after
what some say was hatred and others
madness and others
faith but what may simply have been
not enough being noticed,
not enough getting a reaction.
Not enough seeming to matter.

Well, he matters now. And where did he
learn that—that mattering matters most?
Let’s hope not from the truly important,
the ones who decide,
the ones who get closer and closer
to being the one who decides; not, let’s hope,
from the smart, the wealthy,
the proud, the few;
not, let’s keep hoping, from the talented darlings
whose trillions of clicks
float their pedestals
higher and higher.

Let’s hope they, we, haven’t made it
the highest achievement to
teach someone it’s important
only
to matter—
never mind if you’re acting in or singing to or
running for or stumping across;
never mind what you do, what you say, whom you
demean.
As long as you matter.
Because if all that matters is to matter, then
smearing blood over the dance floor places
the wide riveted world in
the cold dead palm of your hand.

And then we’ve lost, all but the old
forgotten of us, our taste for the
noble worth of shambling across
the weedy field.

©2016 J. Christy Wareham
The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

old man walking across weedy field

A deceptively innocent diamond shaped opening
One day in Georgia, land of legendary magnanimity and Kartvelian good heart, someone sitting at a sewing machine, a bolt of white cloth at hand and with nothing of rightness and worth profitably to do, thought:
I propose a deed of mirth and merriment for myself and generations yet to come! I shall create a slip cover and fashion a diamond shaped opening — small and deceiving in size, though of disarming charm — at its center, such an opening as might invite the unsuspecting bed maker to stuff a hateful and resistant comforter into it. The guiltless comforter, only, will seem hateful, while the lovely and delicately adorned cover, purporting guilelessness, will lie spread across the still surface of the mattress, breathlessly waiting with eager hope and longing, to receive with ardor its intended yet recalcitrant contents.
Reach and wrestle as he might, however, the bed maker, though he fit a comforter corner neatly into its proper cover corner, all other corners could not be aligned, could not be straightened, could not be matched to all three remaining corners at once — not without leaving the comforter twisted and distorted in such evil derangement as would have prompted Jesus, He of infinite forbearance, to drive it shrieking into the sea, this vessel for demons with a life of its own.
All this the imaginative seamstress contrived in her heart. Yet even she did not conceive, thus could not have designed, that a bed maker from a foreign land — a sojourner of limited means and barest necessities, a stranger announcing to those of open and trusting hearts his noblest motives and selfless desire for the betterment of humankind — should come upon this predicament artfully designed for the cramping of the mind, the weakening of the heart and despair of the soul. Even so, this precise circumstance obtained.
Still, goodness and truth proved o’erpowering and in righteousness prevailed. Yay and verily, the mind did not fail; the visitor’s heart quailed not. The enemy, its plans and most diabolical purpose undone, has been defeated. The cover and comforter were brought to yield, and now in their repose, perfected in their purpose for the warmth and ease of the somnolent visitor, they will fulfill that very aim which had been meant to be prevented. Not since St. George slew the fearsome dragon has such valor been found on the face of the earth. Let us lift our voices in thanks and praise!
A Georgian comforter and slip cover, mystifying to an American

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Three young Georgian men, all named Giorgi.

Giorgi

These are the Three Giorgis. They are not a singing trio, or they didn’t sing for me. But with faces like these, if they could sing, they’d be famous.

I was leaning over the cemetery fence shooting photos, when the guy in the middle, Giorgi, interrupted and introduced himself. I introduced myself, Christy. Giorgi introduced me to his friend Giorgi, as well as to Giorgi, his other friend. One of the other Giorgis, the one missing from the second photo, asked me to take a picture, which I did, as you can see. Also, he asked to shoot a photo of me between the other two Giorgis.

At other times I would have worried about my camera running off without me, as I was held fast between two, to me, large Giorgis I didn’t know. But Giorgi the Shooter, the one with my camera, didn’t look the sort who’d take off on me, and besides, as it happened, I was sporting my racing Birkenstocks. Giorgi took a nice picture, even if I appear somewhat pale with trepidation in it.

Me, flanked by Giorgis.

We parted friends, but not before the farthest left Giorgi friended me on Facebook, of which I am proud.

Exterior of church under darkening sky -- outskirts of Kareli, Georgia

Mother’s Day

Yesterday evening my host mother Nana asked if I’d like to visit the church, an offer I’d had to turn down a couple times but just then found the strength to set aside my language textbook for a bit. It turned out not to be the big church in town but this sort of chapel farther to the outskirts. An old guy was there knocking down the grass and weeds with his scythe, and he unlocked the place for us, turning on the lights.

Chruch with woman and groundskeeper

Nana took two small tapers, handing one to me, and dropped what looked to be a Lari each into the sheet steel coffer. I figured I must have come to church with my host mom for Mother’s Day (the night before), so I said a prayer for my own mother Ila Wareham, lit the taper and placed it in the sand before the icon of St. George (giorgi, გირგი), patron saint of Georgia.

Icon of St. George, patron saint of Georgia, and lit candles

St. George, patron saint of Georgia

Georgian Orthodox chapel interior

We left, and after the caretaker relocked the door and went back to his grounds work under the darkening sky, we were almost immediately walking past a house from which a woman leaned out the window to chat with Nana. And they’re sisters!

Sisters Nana and Dela

Nana & Dela

So that was an occasion for a second supper and numerous opportunities to turn down (usually successfully) offers of tcha-tcha, the official homemade “white lightning” of Georgia. Having proven I’d eaten enough to feed a horse, we made our way back to the house, a pleasant evening well spent.

 

Flash Cards

I can barely sit still here. I can’t stay away.

The brave and faithful Keti Chikovani calmly begins each of twenty YouTube Peace Corps Georgian instructional videos (the link takes you to “Lesson 14: Emergencies”) greeting us with “Hello. Welcome to Peace Corps Georgia Language Podcast, brought to you by Peace Corps Georgia,” and proceeds — “Well, let’s start,” exactly the same, every single time — so hopefully determined to work us through the paces that I feel almost guilty, anonymous and ashamed as I am before my glowing screen, failing her every attempt to nudge me into the barest familiarity with, never mind fluency in, a language invented by people who apparently hadn’t the merest intention from the beginning for anyone, anywhere, to understand them.

So I have flash cards. Stacks of them. They defy me. They do not hate me, for I feed them. They devour my devotion, drink my disquiet,  quaff my qualms, sate themselves on my self loathing. My flash cards would be purposeless pulp without me, my desperation finding its meaning therein. We need each other, but the direst need flows heavily in one direction.

flash cards

Flash cards are my torment and my salvation.

The idea is to be ready. Among the tidbits of information Peace Corps staff have recently dribbled out to us is the caution that we will likely live in a town or village where, maybe, there’s a person with modest English facility, thus leaving us each one with the responsibility for meaningful communication. We will want to command respect of the locals, they encouraged. We will want to establish friendships. Fluency in Georgian will ward off loneliness, inform our menu choices, extract us from dicey situations, and allowing a degree of hypothecizing optimism, grow neurons.

We must learn Georgian, in any event, and soon.

The challenge of Georgian, in particular, is that it’s a language like no other. Among vast realms and cultures branching across the centuries from the Indo-European language tree — everything Germanic, Latinate, Slavic; also Hindi, Urdu, Gaelic; and on and on — you will not find so much as a thin twig of Georgian. It birthed itself there, this language, as if the immaculate issue of a jovial God, just under two millennia ago in a land the size of West Virginia, where Russia glowers from the north and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan abide uneasily to the south, their southern neighbors being Syria, Iraq and the sort. Maybe a language no plundering army could so much as guess the meaning of afforded Georgians a certain safety in opaqueness.

Plunderer: Where have you hidden your treasure?!
Georgian: უკან ბეღელი შიგნით ღვინის დოქები.
Plunderer: Never mind. What about your virgins?
Georgian: იმავე ადგილას, დებილი

It probably worked. It’s working on me.

The Georgian alphabet, with its 33 letters of artfully delicate swoops and squiggles — no capitals — strangely advantages me. My English cursive hand, it turns out, has long resembled Georgian writing to those reading my chicken scratch, and with the same disorienting effect my flash cards now have on me. To those of you forced to decipher my handwriting over the years, I offer deepest apologies — ვწუხვარ (vtsukhvar). I had no idea.

There is packing to do, during the week and a half we’ve got left. Some have gloatingly posted pictures on our volunteer Facebook page of their already packed bags (2 x 50-lb. bags, not 49 & 51, plus carry-on), but others of us, with important things to do, remain in process. If we think we’ll need rain boots, now’s the time. Some things we’ll find “in-county,” some things not, or they’ll be costlier. At 63 years, I mostly banish from consciousness the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer (28!). I’m a little creaky in a joint or two but nowhere near rickety, not yet. At least I don’t have to sort out the intricacies of outstanding student loans while saving the world unpaid. Leaving to spend two years on the other side of the globe reminds one suddenly of all the things that more or less take care of themselves just by one’s being home.

Tomorrow and the next day will be for Chloe & Jack, the two older grandchildren of three. We’re visiting a sustainable farm to see pigs, cattle and chickens, even though, if I’m assigned to a smallish town or village, chickens and a pig will keep me company out behind my host family’s house. Two good things already, then: I won’t go hungry, and I’ll know where my food is coming from.