Shabatoba: Becho, Svaneti

Having alluded to the proud Russian tradition of the subbotnik (not really voluntary work Saturday) in my last article, I now refer to it by its Georgian name with the same roots, the Shabatoba, from the words in these languages for Saturday. Actually, it is somewhat flexible in detail, and can even occur on any other day, replacing that day’s normal routines, if called for.

The entire population of Becho public school no. 1 found itself outside when I turned up last week from my first-hour lesson in filial Kartvani school. The former’s already magnificent yard was getting a serious makeover, as we will shortly be having a weekend festival there. Animals were strictly forbidden; every scrap of garbage must be picked up. The winter’s leaves and pine needles, too, were destined to be raked up and burned. It must be spotless!

Rakes, twig brooms, anti-fire cones for carrying water, plastic gloves and woven sacks were our weapons in the fight against a general relaxed air. Nature would be tamed. All hands were on deck, cheerfully pitching in, anything to avoid regular lessons. The schoolyard is, from what I have seen, the best in all Svaneti: huge, flat, grassed, both deciduously and coniferously treed, fenced, with a volleyball net and soccer goals and all the space you could ask for to run and play in. It had only recently shed its several feet thick winter whites, but the debris of that long season and the preceding fall must go before we begin our numerous sports and intellectual competitions in three teams, from grade one through the oldest teacher, while parents and other guests look on or cheer.

Well, such a fine yard does not spring up without plenty of hard work to level, plant, weed and maintain it. How many decades had these huge trees witnessed? While other schools, including my former haunt of Etseri, looked on, green only with envy, otherwise muddy brown or stony gray. There really is nothing to compare to it. Now, a number of world flags, as well as long strings of colored triangular paper pennants, stretched above us from second story windows to high up in the trees. I hope they will last whatever weather brings us between now and then: snow is unlikely, but rain is practically a certainty.

We still have team flags to design, mottoes, activities to sort out, a jury, point system, prizes, food and drink. But it’ll really be worth it, adding much to the great atmosphere I feel in this place, also unmatched elsewhere. Which causes the other, between the yard and the prevailing mood? Chicken or egg?

If I was a pupil in such a school, I would feel natural pride in what we have, and would also want to keep it as pristine as possible while using it to the fullest. The other failings, chiefly the long winter cold in huge, poorly heated classrooms, would seem much less when I looked or went outside. So, we sweep and rake up and burn, here, too, in friendly competition with each other as well as in cooperation; teachers and children together. There are far worse ways to spend either a school day or a Saturday!


Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1350 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

20 April 2017 20:32