Working with the Temi Community, Georgia
Lauren Arthur (2008, English)
I travelled to Georgia for four weeks, my main aim being to undertake volunteer work for a community called Temi. I went with three other Cambridge students and the project was in association with TravelAid.
We spent the first five days of our trip exploring Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, and numerous other places that represented what Georgia had to offer. We felt that it was important to gain a sense of Georgia’s identity as a country before experiencing the relatively isolated community of Temi. Tbilisi is a city with a great deal of poverty, but also a lot of charm.
Our project work at Temi began on Monday 16th August. Temi is based in Gremi, a village in Kakheti, Georgia’s eastern province. The community for vulnerable people was founded 20 years ago by Nika Kvashvili and now has over 80 residents. The site is large, and at its centre is an old house built by a Russian doctor in the 19th Century. More recent additions to the site include a modern dormitory for residents with special needs, a workshop, a laundry house and a bread house. Temi, which means ‘community’ in Georgian, aims to eventually be self-sufficient. It grows its own produce and makes its own wine, which is currently being assessed for organic status. Temi is still growing and developing and this is something that we experienced first-hand during our stay.
Nika is a very interesting man. After attempting to infiltrate the corrupt social systems of the Soviets and failing time and again, he set up Temi. Georgia still has no institutions for adults with disabilities, so for many Temi is their only hope. We heard some horrific things about why some residents had come to Temi: one ten-year-old boy had fallen five storeys after his mother told him they would make more money as beggars if he was paralysed. Another girl had watched as her mother was murdered; she was left mute for years afterwards because of the shock.
Temi is a sanctuary for people like this, yet at the same time it is far from an idyllic haven. The community is obviously a poor one – at one time they ran out of money for food and lived only on porridge. All of the able-bodied residents have to work hard to maintain the standard of living that Temi now has, but this means that the younger residents are left somewhat neglected. Whether mentally disabled or not, a lot of the children and young people crave attention and can be violent and destructive if they do not get their own way. Discipline is sometimes instilled by adults who are mentally disabled themselves and therefore not able to judge situations particularly well, leading to inconsistent and unnecessarily harsh treatment towards the children. Temi currently has a system where longer term volunteers are allocated orphaned children, or children with unfit parents, to ‘adopt’. This seems to be a step in the right direction, but when these volunteers leave after six months to a year, very young children are still left feeling abandoned.
I do feel reluctant to criticize, however. It is easy to visit a place like Temi and attempt to fit it into a Western mould. This is very wrong and Nika told us himself that the Temi ‘model’ will not work in the Western world. Nika aimed to build a community that could survive in the harshest of conditions, i.e. in any developing country. As Cambridge students, he emphasised the importance of us coming to Temi to educate its residents – we gave numerous language, art and music lessons – but at the same time we were expected to participate in manual labour. We cleaned recycled wine bottles, harvested crops, painted an accommodation block and worked in the kitchen. Nika was very realistic about the fragility of Temi as a society; we were witnessing the development of the first generation of residents. Every member of Temi, no matter how able-bodied, is expected to contribute in some way towards the community’s survival and self-sustainability. Nika’s realism and rationalism were refreshing, as he explained that sentimentality is not very useful in a community or society like Temi that is fighting an incessant battle for survival. We certainly witnessed the truth in his beliefs.
The part of the trip that I found most valuable was working with Temi’s disabled residents. As volunteers, our only compulsory role was to supervise a play/ interaction session for one hour every weekday for those with extreme special needs. I work with disabled teenagers in the UK and was so pleased to see that some sort of therapy session had been established at Temi. Temi has a very positive attitude towards the treatment of its disabled residents and my concerns that the horrific, very well-documented Eastern European habits may remain were banished immediately. What I did find, however, was that due to the very limited resources available, many of the residents are not being challenged enough by the games that we played and the exercises that they have to take part in. Whilst we were at Temi, we put together a Volunteer Welcome Pack, which advises volunteers about resources and equipment they can easily bring to Georgia to develop these sessions further. Since I have returned home, I have made contact with various people I work with who have said that they are willing to help Temi with forms of physiotherapy and the possible provision of specialist equipment. Hopefully, with careful thought and organisation, these things can be implemented in such a way as to abide by Temi’s ‘self-sustainability’ ethos and I look forward to hearing about how the residents have benefitted.
Both Temi and Georgia have taught me a great deal this summer and the funds provided by the THA have been invaluable. Our experiences of Georgia as a country and our encounters with its people have banished many Western preconceptions that Georgia is a volatile and hostile place. We were treated with extreme hospitality on so many occasions and encountered a fervent pride and patriotism amongst the Georgians. Temi itself is a fascinating place and I have promised Nika that I will be more than happy to help publicise the Temi concept and its progress. I would now love to travel to other places where communities like Temi are being established to see how they manage to survive around the world. It was a real privilege to be associated with Temi’s ‘first generation’; I feel that I have truly seen a society in its evolution. I found it utterly captivating how aware Temi is of its faults and how it consequently manages to strive for improvement and I have no doubt that there are many more Temi generations to come.