Follow Joshua O’Donnell’s vast range of experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia. Living on his host family’s farm, he helped to grow lemons and harvest hazelnuts. As a teacher, he created a library and taught Hemingway. And as a community member, he helped to secure a water supply and celebrated at traditional feasts.
|Joshua O'Donnell, Republic of Georgia|
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Photographed, written, and narrated by returned Peace Corps Volunteer Joshua O'Donnell.
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Hazelnuts, Hemingway, and Heat
By Joshua O'Donnell
Peace Corps Volunteer
Republic of Georgia, 2001–2003
My name is Joshua O'Donnell. I taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia from 2001 to 2003. I would like to tell you about my experience in Georgia. My village was in the southwestern part of the country, not far from the Black Sea and the border with Turkey. It is in the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. This is me with my dog, Bella. It is summer, which means it was really hot. Georgia has an extreme climate with hot summers and cold winters.
This is downtown in my village, and really this is about it. There are around 250 families in the village. On the left is the police station and to the right is an unfinished church—although it is completed now. Behind the police station are the school and a small health clinic. In the grove of trees behind the church is the football field where village children play soccer. My house was nearby.
This is one of the few stores in town. They had just enough room for one person inside. Here you could buy soda, coffee, cookies, and sometimes bread.
For my two years of service in Georgia I lived in this house with my host father, mother, and two brothers. My host grandmother was often there as well. We had about five acres of land, and my host father farmed lemons, kiwis, and hazelnuts, and he kept bees. We also grew a variety of other fruits and vegetables, especially grapes and corn. In addition, we had chickens, three cows, and a pig.
This is my younger host brother and great friend, Dato, with one of his cousins, Ana. The family lemon grove lies behind the large metal door. In winter the lemons have to be covered in plastic to protect them from the cold, so there is a permanent frame around them.
This is my host mother, Lia, on the left; my older host brother, Goga; and my host grandmother. To the right are the lemon trees. When Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union, my host father's father was the head of the community's agriculture cooperative, which was a relatively respected position in that society. Thus, my family had been fairly well off. After the fall of the Soviet Union and Georgia's independence, the economy changed a great deal for all Georgians.
My host father, Vazha, is hard at work shucking hazelnuts to sell at the market. Hazelnut harvesting, a labor-intensive job, is done entirely by hand. The family spent many evenings together sitting in this spot shucking the hazelnuts, and I would often accompany Dato to sell them in a larger town about 15 kilometers—or about nine miles—away. The trip took about an hour by bus.
Dato and I are returning from a nearby town. We have been to the market, and the canister of gas is a bit heavy, so we are sharing the load. The blue van with the yellow stripe is the local bus. There were seats for only 10 people or so, but the driver would often fit in 16 or even 18 passengers, some of them standing bent over or sitting on a makeshift seat on the floor. It was probably the least comfortable traveling experience I have ever had.
This is the front door of the local school. You can see a bit of Georgian on the sign: the large letters say “skola,” or school. The school had broken windows and crumbling walls, but when I left, the school director was writing a proposal to remodel, and I have heard that it is in better condition now.
The English classroom in the school where I taught was large but sparsely equipped. I tried to keep putting up visual aids to fill the walls as much as I could. Keeping consumables like chalk and paper was always a challenge, and so was getting the kids to come to class. For most of the kids, school was not a priority, but they would come when they did not have other work to do at home.
Another reason kids may not come to school in the winter was because it was very cold in the classrooms, which are all heated by individual wood stoves. Wood was not always available, so many classrooms had no heating at all. This stove, in my classroom, was not very efficient. Even with sufficient wood, it was still a challenge to get it going well enough to make the classroom warm. Sometimes for wood we would go to a dilapidated, unused wing of the school, and we'd chip out the old wall plaster to break off the wood framing inside.
This is a photo of a group of students I taught for about six hours a week for more than a year. I affectionately called them the “Jokers,” and they were all excellent students. Dato is holding my dog, Bella. Zaza is holding the novel that we read and discussed, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Reading the novel was challenging, but they did very well.
A few of my students are standing in front of the English library that my colleague and I built. The books were donated by various organizations and individuals. We had a simple system of organizing and checking them out. Most of the books were children's fiction and storybooks. The students and the community used the library often, and during my service very few books were lost or damaged.
Here I am with my fifth-grade class in my first year of service. They were really great kids, and I enjoyed teaching them. The woman in back, below the poster, is Gulico, my fellow teacher. She and I worked together on everything. After I left, she won an excellence-in-teaching award and was granted a trip to the United States to work for a few months in a rural public school.
This is the water system for my house. The bucket hanging in the background drops down into the valley about 50 yards away to a pipe that my host father had driven into the earth to access a natural spring. The water trickled out of the pipe, taking about two minutes to fill the bucket. The bucket would then be cranked back up and the water would either be taken to the kitchen or put in the metal reservoir hanging on the post on the left. That water would run through the hose to the faucet. This was the way we got water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and irrigation.
Because obtaining water was challenging for the community, my colleague and I decided to initiate a water project. We wrote a grant proposal to CARE International and received funding to repair the old water system, which hadn't been used or maintained for about 12 years. This incredibly beautiful place, about six miles from our village, was the source for our water project—a river in the valley with relatively good water.
This is the water project in full swing. We are building two reservoirs for water from the river. Heavy sediment would sink to the bottom and only the top layer of the water would be allowed to continue into the system. Here we are making the frames. In the end they would be concrete.
The biggest room in our house served to entertain guests. These men are singing traditional songs during a supra, or feast. It was common for the Georgians to break into song at supras. Preserving their culture is important to Georgians, and skills in the arts, such as traditional music, are highly respected.
Georgians love to feast, and they prepare an abundance of wonderful food for special occasions. Traditional toasts are made throughout the meal. My host family here in the dining room in our house is joined by my colleague, Gulico, and my school director, Mzia.
Thank you for sharing in my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Georgia.
* Map of the Republic of Georgia courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.