Saturday, November 7, 2009


by Jesse Tatum

On Friday, 30 October, the rain showed no signs of stopping in Gori . . . but that did not stop Gori’s team of community organizers from mapping.

After an hour of hopeful glances out the window that were continually dashed, a group of four of the CaucasusMap Project’s team in Gori decided to head out, anyway, to finish the western end of the village of Shavshvebi, a few kilometers northeast of Gori.

Earlier the same morning, Lika Demurshvili, 23, said that one of the team’s biggest challenges is transportation: “Finding a minibus or a city bus that runs more than once a day back from the villages is difficult.”

Standing beneath the archway of a building next to Gori’s bus station to avoid the rain, Lika’s comment was all too clear.

Beka Managadze, 23, was running circles around the station, in a vain attempt to find or negotiate a ride for the team. I offered him my umbrella, but Georgian men do not use them, apparently. None of the minibus drivers would stop for us to disembark at Shavshvebi, even though it is on the Gori-Tbilisi route.

Waiting on Beka, I began to complain about the sudden change in weather (Tbilisi had, after all, just received three sunny weeks in the mid-20s C°) when we noticed some sparrows picking at a few soggy bread crumbs. “I like birds,” Lika D. said, “and these ones never leave—they stay the summer and the winter.”

In the end, after half an hour, a taxi was the last resort. Piling in to the back seat, it was bad disco music and cramped legs for a wet stretch on the Tbilisi-Gori highway, with an extra fifteen minutes stuck behind a nasty accident.

The west end of Shavshvebi was silent. Beka got the taxi driver to wait for us, and we split into two groups—Beka and I as one, and the three girls, Lika D., Lika Asanidze and Nino Khakhutashvili, in the other. I gave up on assimilating and used an umbrella. Beka was kind enough to ignore this.

Away from the village’s only paved road, it was a mix of mud, stones and cow droppings. Beka asked me if we had villages like this in the States. He said Shavshvebi’s school was not functioning due to a lack of funds; the children must go to schools in the neighboring villages. He was thriving in the conditions, marking several points on the GPS, and happy that he did not have to deal with any dogs. “I don’t like dogs,” he said, “especially in the villages.”

At the top of the road we saw the Khurvaleti IDP settlement directly northeast of Shavshvebi, across the highway. Beka mentioned that they will be mapping the settlement and others in the area next month. The team has also been using volunteers from the settlements to help in the process, providing trainings on using the GPS devices and the editing work and lending an ear to all of their stories.

“Of course they all speak of home,” Lika D. had told me earlier, “because right now they just live in temporary housing [provided by the government]. One young boy said to me, ‘It’s like we are living in a dream.’”

Having reached the end of the road and taken a moment of silence in front of the settlement, Beka and I heard the noise from which we thought we were lucky enough to have escaped: frenzied barking. The dog rushed out from behind a house, while his owner looked on. To spare Beka, I feigned picking up a stone, and the dog cowered for a brief moment. We said a quick hello to the owner, who told Beka he would have invited us in for wine, but his windows were broken, and he did not want us to be uncomfortable. We politely thanked him and began walking down the path, back to the taxi and out of the rain. Another dog spotted us, and this time Beka was first to try the stone tactic. It worked once again.

We made it back to the taxi without any more over-curious canines.

The mapping process is an intimate, on-the-ground experience: from feet pounding path or pavement to eyes visually marking specific points, places and roads, recording them on the GPS device to, finally, fingers tapping the keypad of the computer, where the editing process can begin. The result: a map to which one can continually add, tweak for accuracy, and one that provides an incomparable amount of detail.

In fact, aside from the project’s obvious usefulness for foreign residents or tourists, Lee Allen, project coordinator for CaucasusMap, notes that the team will give a symbolic presentation at the end of the project, in November, to the local authorities. The maps’ potential for ameliorating local projects, Allen states, is unlimited: improving opportunities for tourism, being used for urban planning and logistical purposes and any other infrastructure schemes that arise in the future. It is about empowering the local community, according to Allen, and he has promoted this idea by hiring locals, helping to improve their existing abilities and allowing them to play a leading role in local development.

Rain or shine, Allen’s team of local community organizers is out on the street, mapping any and all points of interest, dedicated to finishing the two-month project early and making the case for continuing with similar future endeavors. Before November ends, they will have finished a large part of the Shida Kartli region, even to its northernmost border with South Ossetia where the threats of unexploded ordnance and surly soldiers remain a reality in several villages, notably in Kareli (18 kilometers west of Gori), as Allen and another team member, Khatuna Kharkheli, pointed out. For more information, see HALO’s website.

The team’s efforts have already paid off (see the map), and each member is eager for the project to be extended to other regions in Georgia—even to those villages with bigger, crazier dogs.

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