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Georgia: Amid Democratization, Village Elder Tradition Survives in Mountainous Svaneti Region

Bauchi Qaldani, 84, was called an "elder" since becoming the oldest man in his village at the age of 26. (Photo: Temo Bardzimashvili)

In the remote mountain villages of Georgia’s northwest region of Svaneti, 84-year-old Bauchi Qaldani of Adishi is universally regarded as a wise man. And Qaldani, a village elder now in his fifth decade as a mediator and matchmaker, is still ready to dispense his wisdom whenever called upon. "I was born for others," he says.

Law and order is finally taking hold in Svaneti, which for decades had a Wild West-like reputation among Georgians. Nevertheless, in this region's clan-based, gun-ready culture, village elders still play a central role in day-to-day life.

As elsewhere in Georgia, older men fulfill a critical function in deciding disputes in the villages nestled in Svaneti's mountains, peaks that range from 3,000 to over 5,000 meters in height. Elders are never elected. Rather, they are simply the people to whom everyone goes to for advice based on their age and their reputations for giving even-handed guidance.

Qaldani has been considered an "elder" since becoming the oldest man in his village at the age of 26. He used to travel about 10 days each month to other hamlets in Svaneti to help settle disputes or to negotiate marriage proposals. Poor health forced him to retire several years ago from elder councils, but people still seek him out for advice.

Svan elder councils, like any court, have their rules. Some matters, like matchmaking, require a group of three or four elders. Others, like murder, or abduction of a girl for marriage, require at least 12 elders to reach a decision.

The two families involved in the issue at hand select the elders. Selection processes vary, but families deemed plaintiffs generally get to choose either half or all of the elders charged with deliberating a problem. The family deemed defendants selects the remaining number or can challenge a certain number of the elders chosen by the plaintiff family.

Before starting the mediation process, Svan elders take a vow on icons including one of Georgia's patron saint, St. George -- that they will use all their knowledge to handle the matter properly. The oath carries heavy weight in Svaneti, where villagers see an active link between the spiritual world and ordinary affairs. Breaking the vow means forfeiting a community's respect and support.

The decisions reached can have lasting effect, as Qaldani learned 39 years ago when he mediated his first dispute involving a wrongful death.
The case involved a drunk driver who had driven his car off a cliff, killing his passenger, but surviving himself.

Svan custom dictated that spilt blood was enough for the family of the dead passenger to seek revenge. "The law can punish a murderer, but even when he gets out of jail, the family of the person killed would still be seeking him," Qaldani explains "This is when elders try to make two families reconcile, to prevent further deaths."

The families involved in the drunk-driving death reportedly wanted no additional bloodshed, yet respect had to be shown for the victim's family. The elders hit on a compromise -- a compensation payment of 120,000 Soviet rubles (roughly several hundred times larger than the average monthly salary at the time) for the family of the deceased.

Qaldani calls it a "good" decision, but notes that not all wrongful death disputes are resolved so easily. He declined to give details. Coming from a family once involved in a blood feud, Qaldani says he knows the price of such arguments, and is not eager to dig into past troubles. "What's the point reminding everyone of what has been more or less settled?" he states.

Marriage proposals can present a similarly delicate diplomatic task. Qaldani, a seasoned hand at matchmaking, learned the art of such negotiations as a 35-year-old watching three older men plead a suit. He outlines the verbal dexterity required; "Sometimes you even had to lie. Not to lie in the literal sense, but, rather, to make people do what you want them to do," he says. "But you yourself had to believe [what you said] is for the better. You had to be honest with yourself."

Kidnapping young girls for marriage -- a custom still occasionally practiced in rural communities in the South Caucasus -- had its elder-approved list of compensation payments. In the 1960s, kidnapping a girl without her consent (9,000 Soviet rubles) cost more than twice the rate for kidnapping a girl with her consent (3,000 4,000 Soviet rubles), Qaldani recalls.

The role of elder has its costs, too. During Qaldani's mediating and matchmaking missions, his wife, Natalia, had to cope singlehandedly with seven children and keeping house. "When he was away, I could barely handle all this cleaning of the cowshed and pigsty, milking the cows and looking after the kids," she recalls. Still, she managed to reconcile with her situation. "[H]e was half mine, half other people's," she says sadly, but with resignation.

Gazing down at the floor, Qaldani admits he could have spent more time with his family or on building up his farm and becoming rich. He then pauses and looks up. There are no regrets, he says: "I always was valued by everybody so much."

Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Amid Democratization, Village Elder Tradition Survives in Mountainous Svaneti Region

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