In autumn, 53-year-old Otar can hear jackals howling and worries about whether hungry bears will attack his cattle. During the winter, he says, the silence at night can be disconcerting.
Here in the remote mountainous parts of Ajara, an autonomous region in Western Georgia, all the villagers tell a similar story: snow is seen as a potential threat. The region features some of the highest levels of precipitation in the Caucasus, and it’s not unusual for several meters of snow to fall during a typical winter season.
“I’m afraid of the winter,” said Otar, looking up at the mountains, which shadow his house. “What if an avalanche comes? It will destroy my house.”
Otar recalls the worst winter - back in 2004. “I remember we had so much snow, it was up to my chest. It destroyed all of our crops and all we had to eat was bread for three weeks.”
In a neighboring village, Sediko is braced for the winter. She has peeled countless cabbages, and her aged hands have counted out the dolma into storage dishes so her grandchildren have enough to eat during the cold months. Downstairs in the wooden cellar beneath her house, rows of jars filled with chilli paste line the shelves ready to be sold in the market once the snow melts and the roads are open again.
“It’s a very dangerous place. When we see an avalanche we run to our relatives for safety. ” Sediko pulls back her white net curtains, and looks at the imposing hills beyond.
In Georgia, more than half the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Coaxing crops from the land, along with caring for livestock, is especially tough in the mountainous parts of Ajara. Sediko points at the fence around her field, which was built with advice from Oxfam. “We’ve built special barriers to protect the field. There was a time when the melting snow spoiled our [fields],” she said.
These days, Sediko is prepared and the cupboards are overflowing with fresh cabbages. But there were times when her grandchildren didn’t have enough food. “We had hard times. We couldn’t’ even afford sugar and oil, and had to boil water, salt and wheat to make a powder to feed our grandchildren. They were very weak and thin,” she said.
Sediko took advantage of Oxfam initiatives to obtain tools and training to produce her own crops. She no longer worries whether she’ll have enough food for winter. Sediko flashes a toothless smile, “Now at least we’re not hungry, and my son can feed his newborn baby. We can even afford symbolic foods and gifts on special occasions.”
Sediko isn’t the only one in the area who has benefitted from Oxfam programs. Not too far from Sediko’s home, Jemal operates a bee farm. In recent years, he has obtained medicines that he uses to coat the honey frames of his hives in order to improve his bees’ chances of making it through the winter. “The frost affects my bees during the winter, and they become weak,” he said.
Stronger bees have translated into more income. “Before I was only able to make 2,000 lari each year, but now I’m making 3,000 lari during the bee-keeping season.” With the extra income, Jemal fixed the windows of his home to stop leaks.