Tblisi is the capital of Georgia. It sits astride the Mtkvari river (yes, that is 4 unfriendly consonants in a row) and is surrounded on three side by mountains. There is evidence of habitation here since 3000 BC, although the city has been sacked many times by Byzantines, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Turks and Russians. In 1795 the city was completely destroyed by the Persians so almost everything has been rebuilt since then. Under Soviet reign a lot of very ugly architecture was created and many of the huge concrete slab apartment blocks still remain. But there are also a lot of really elegant buildings from the pre-soviet era, as well as more modern architecture, and of course a million churches. Although most Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, Tblisi is known for its religious tolerance. This is particularly evident in the "old town" where mosques, synagogues and churches stand in close proximity. Discounting the tourists, Tbilisi is home to Armenian, Azeri, Greek, German, Russian, Ukrainian and various other populations. You can sit at a corner café and hear a dozen languages passing by.
This is why I love traveling. Your fundamental assumptions get a good shake up. All day I have been pondering: Why should I expect a dozen?
So my first road trip was to the village of Gergeti, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains. To get there you travel 200 km along a road known as the Georgian Military Highway - truly one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world. It was built in the late 1700's by 800 Russian troops to connect Russia to Georgia. Gergeti itself is only a short distance from the Russian border. Many of the signs here are in both Georgian and Russian.
One of the highest mountains in Europe, Kazbek, is in this region. It takes 4 days to climb, which I did not do. However I did make a hike up to Trinity Church, which was built on top of a smaller mountain in the 1400's. In western Europe you can see lots of huge ornate cathedrals; Georgians seem to prefer simpler structures built in majestic locations.
As it turns out there is a more obvious path around the north side of the mountain, but I "chose" a longer, more strenuous, but beautiful hike along the southern side. What I thought was a trail along a stream turned out to be a cow path that soon petered out. Fortunately I had a good landmark to keep my bearings.
But enough words, see for yourself.
I'm back on the road, this time to the Republic of Georgia. I'll start with a little geography and history lesson. First of all: where is Georgia?
The unique location of this country has had a huge impact on its history. Geographically Georgia is sandwiched between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges to north and south respectively. To the west is the Black Sea, and to the east is Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.
Politically, Georgia is trapped between three giants: Russia, Turkey and Iran (Persia). To a large extent the history of Georgia has consisted of trying to play one invading giant off against another - with varying degrees of success. Georgia originally became a cohesive state around 400 BC, but subsequently became caught in a centuries long feud between Rome and Persia. The kingdom of Georgia finally achieved independence around 1100- AD under Queen Tamar (coincidentally the first female ruler). In many ways this was the zenith of early Georgian history. Interestingly there is no real word for "queen" in Georgian, it just means "wife of the king," so Tamar is often referred to as a king. (I'll write later about the Georgian language, but one feature is the lack of gender pronouns: he, she, it are all the same).
Tamar only ruled for 29 years and shortly after her death Georgia was invaded by the Mongols, followed by Persians and Ottomans for the next 500 years. Finally in the late 1700's Georgia signed a treaty with Russia basically making Georgia a protectorate. This ended up being a poor choice. When Iran invaded in 1795 Russia offered no assistance and the capital of Tbilisi was sacked. When Russia was finally moved to act it simply annexed all of Georgia and in 1802 Georgia was fully incorporated into the Russian empire. After the Russian revolution in 1917 Georgia declared independence and for about 2 years was an English protectorate, but then the country got steam-rolled by the Soviet Army in 1921 and that was that for awhile.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Georgia declared independence - once again - and has remained mostly independent ever since. However two regions, South Ossetia and Ajaria, while technically part of Georgia, are ethnically distinct and have maintained their autonomy. This has led to simmering tensions and in 2008 things blew up. The Russian army came in once more and pretty much squashed the Georgian army, and then left. Since then Georgia has tried to join NATO (yet another "friendly" giant) but has thus far been denied, although technically Georgia is an "Independent Partner."
The upshot of all this history is that Georgia has an amazingly rich cultural heritage. While the Georgian language and ethnicity are truly unique, there are strong flavorings of Turkish, Persian and Russian culture here, not to mention Armenian and Azeri. The food, architecture, art and music are all influenced by Georgia's big neighbors, and yet Georgians are intensely proud of their own unique heritage and traditions. Georgia is at the crossroads between East and West. When you explore this small country you encounter centuries of diverse cultural history.
Well, sorry to say, but the days here are getting shorter than in Ithaca and it's time for me to head home. "Winter" is approaching, in that there are fewer than 12 hours of daylight in a day. (That being said, the last three days have been in the high 70°'s low 80°s, so I can't complain.) It's been a good trip: I've met a lot of nice people, seen some great schools, some beautiful places, and had a lot of fun. The next few days I will finish up teaching and tie together some loose ends, and then it's back to Ithaca. Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog, it's been great to share this adventure. A special great big thanks to Betsy and Emma who have, literally, kept the home fires burning.
This is my final video for this trip, I hope you enjoy it.
This is a photo of Preston Geswint, a retired South Africa teacher with whom I sometimes visit other schools that are part of the NMMU project. Preston missed his calling as a tour guide. Everywhere we go he knows people and he knows all sorts of interesting facts about the area. In the middle of nowhere he points out the ruins of a British fort, or a 300 year old German church. Preston knows the townships thoroughly and has sensitized me to the sub-segregation of "coloured" vs. "black" townships.
Although the term "coloured" is considered mildly derogatory in the U.S., in South Africa it is a neutral term that refers primarily to the product of racial intermingling that occurred hundreds of years ago between the early Dutch and indigenous people. Under apartheid inter-racial relations were strictly illegal, so most coloured folks trace their mixed ancestry much further back. In the Cape region, coloured people are the largest ethnic group. There is a distinction between "Black" and "Coloured" culture. In 2009 an award winning film, I'm not Black, I'm Coloured, explored some of the attendant issues. In the school where I have been teaching, Sandisulwazi, there are students from both backgrounds, but they speak different languages and live in adjacent, but separate, townships.
Several times Preston has led me deep into a township and then informed me that he is going to stay there with friends, but will give me directions to get home. He says, and it's true, that it is the best way for me to learn the area and the people, although it's also a little stressful. Preston is a master of giving "African directions" which generally make no reference to compass points or street names, but rely instead landmarks ("the 4-way with a large pothole") or vague qualifiers ("you go that side, far, far, far"). In fairness, nothing in a township runs in a straight line in any direction, and there are no street names, so there really isn't any other option. In any case, Preston's directions are unfailingly good, although memorizing them is like internalizing a short story. He generally has me repeat them back until I get it right.
The amazing thing is that when you get lost, you can actually relate the "story" to some passerby and they can tell you exactly where you messed up and how to get back on track, generally in more of the same vernacular. I should also mention that I have never felt unsafe traveling through a township, or met anyone who was not friendly and willing to help. Usually they want to hear how it is that an American is wandering the township roads. It is sort of the opposite of driving through a game park: I am the strange animal and everyone wants a peek at me.
Below are some typical township sights.
With such high unemployment South Africa has a surplus of available labor. When you walk into a restaurant there are three times the number of wait staff you would see in the U.S. When you pull into a parking lot there are people whose only purpose is to direct you to an empty (and generally obvious) slot. And petrol stations are not only full service, but you feel like you are making a pit-stop during the Indy 500 because of the multiple people tending to your car.
With this glut of labor you might expect that things would move briskly, but in fact they generally move much slower than their American analogues. If you want, you could spend hours between your last cup of coffee and the check in a restaurant. Minus some strenuous arm waving, the friendly staff have no intention of disturbing your leisure.
Today while one attendant pumped petrol for me, another cleaned my windshield with lavish dedication. First he got a bucket of sudsy water and lathered the windshield. Then rinsed, and squeegeed; lathered, rinsed and squeegeed again, and then got a fist full of paper towels and rubbed particular spots that were somehow not yet satisfactory. The whole operation took longer than the time to fill the tank (and I might add that the pumps can not be set on automatic, they need to be held, and furthermore the attendant filling the tank took a breather in mid-operation, so it's not like that task was efficiently dispatched either). This doesn't even count the time required to run my credit card (and for some reason they need to record not only your license but also your odometer reading). All in all it was about 20 minutes of care taking for my vehicle. You might picture me drumming my fingers on the dash with mounting irritation, but I have learned that in Africa you have to "embrace the pace." Any efforts to accelerate a process will be both futile and bad for your mental health.
Which brings me to a critical point: there is a sort of flip side to African time. It is easy to look at the standard of life in the townships and get frustrated at the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid, especially in the last 10 years. In some ways it is hard to see how life has improved at all for the poorest South Africans. But as one teacher pointed out to me, it is instructive to compare the transition in South Africa with the efforts to achieve racial equality in the U.S. Even if we don't start the clock until the civil rights era in the mid 50's, the U.S. has had triple the time on task. In addition, the African American population in the U.S. forms about 12% of the total population, whereas in South Africa the oppressed population constituted more than 80%. That's a lot of people's lives to improve. South Africa has far fewer resources to accomplish that goal relative to the United States, and has additionally been battling a full fledged AIDS epidemic for the last 10 years (and by the way, there is universal free health care in South Africa). With more time and resources has the U.S. really had a larger impact on racial inequality? One need look no further than our own school district's data.
All of which is not to excuse the slow pace of change in South Africa, but to put it in perspective. And this is where "African Time" comes in. As I said, you have to embrace the pace. Transition has been slow and painful, but also largely peaceful. That same attendant who was cleaning my windshield has had to wait a long time for some big changes. Patience and acceptance of a leisurely pace have kept this country in one piece.
One of my colleagues here observed, "When Africans are mournful they sing, and when they are joyful they also sing." I'd say that's seems to be true. My first clip here is of Sandisulwazi students entering school on a Monday. Not sure if that counts as mournful or joyful, but the students spontaneously burst into song as they entered the school compound.
This second clip is from the equivalent of a student of the quarter presentation this last Wednesday. Not a lot of teaching was accomplished this day. It started with a song, then some of the students started dancing, then some of the parents (several of whom are wearing traditional Xhosa dress) got into it. My camera unfortunately ran out of gas just as the whole ceremony devolved into a dance party. The principal was trying to restore order, but eventually he gave up and joined in. Okay, not enough furniture, teachers, books or calculators, but a lot of spirit. That counts for something.
Xhosa is the predominant language in the province of the Eastern Cape. Although structurally similar to Setswana and Zulu, Xhosa is famous for its "clicks." There are three basic clicks, which are consonant sounds, these are combined with 5 different vowels (very similar to the vowel sounds of Spanish) to create a total of 15 click/vowel combinations. I have a link to a great youtube video for an example of the clicks (see below, trust me it's worth it). An animated conversation in Xhosa -- and it seems all conversations are animated -- sounds like someone is making popcorn in the background.
One of my life goals -- one which it seems I will not attain -- is to become fluent in Xhosa. It is such a beautiful and dynamic language. I find myself eavesdropping on conversations just to listen to the music of the language. Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa speaker, and one of our superintendent's favorite words, ubuntu, is a Xhosa word.
umntu - means "a person"
abantu - means "people"
uhuntu - is "community"
ubuntu - is "humanity" or "human kindness"
In this next video you can here some Xhosa tongue twisters.
Several people have asked what I'm doing (aside from the beach). I guess you could say the theme of this venture is, "Technology and Education." The first half of my trip I was visiting schools that are doing innovative things with math and technology, particularly with a view towards developing a partnership between South African and Ithaca High School students. I think I've made good progress on that front.
The second half of my trip, here in Port Elizabeth, I have been working with the university which has a substantial project placing computers in impoverished schools. In South Africa not only is there a national curriculum, there is a national sequence of topics. That means everyone is teaching how to solve linear equations at the same time across the country. Many poor and rural schools lack qualified teachers, especially in math and science. It makes sense to take advantage of technology to help fill the gap. That might mean watching a video, a live internet broadcast lesson, or using interactive software. Is a computer as good as a teacher? Nope. But it is a lot better than no teacher. The best is a combination of both.
I spend a lot of time at one particular school, Sandisulwazi, which has not had a math teacher for more than a year. This is rural poverty at its worst. You never escape this life if you don't get a high school degree, you don't get a degree if you don't pass a major math exam at the end of senior year, and without a math teacher the odds of passing are pretty low.
The school is so impoverished that they don't have enough furniture for the rooms. (The five broken desks you see in the photo are all there is for a class of 30, most of whom sit on the floor). I have to bring my own chalk, because there isn't any at the school. There are not enough books for the students, and most of them don't have calculators (and yet they still have to learn trigonometry and logarithms). The thing is, there are a lot students in this school who have outstanding ability and motivation.
But thanks to this project, they do have a functioning computer lab with internet access. (It's also the only room with enough chairs.) So on days when I'm not there I can give them assignments to watch videos on specific lessons and to do problems with online software. It doesn't replace a full time teacher, but it keeps them in the game.