Imagine a man who taught himself English by reading the works of Shakespeare. Who fought against a Communist system in a bid to make the world a little bit better. Who has given up a life of potential prosperity to live in the Georgian countryside, where he shelters those who come to him without a place to go. A man who decided he wanted to make a difference and actually did. Nika Kvashali is hard to believe.
He is hard to believe when you meet him, too – formidably committed to his principles, overwhelmingly hospitable, envelopingly charismatic. When I went to Georgia last summer with the charity Travelaid, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think I could have imagined Nika. Even after spending two weeks in his community in the foothills of the Caucasus, I was still intrigued and almost baffled by him.
He has the most powerful vision I have ever personally encountered. This is probably a necessity for a man who, at the end of the Communist years in Georgia, fought to be allowed to work in a state orphanage, and, when this was refused him, opted out of the ‘system’ that he felt had failed. He opted out to start Prometheus, a rather grand and official name for a huge farmhouse in the village of Gremi, surrounded by fields and filled with orphans, single mothers and their children, the mentally handicapped, all those whom the ‘system’ would reject and has rejected.
Gremi is still a work in progress: the summer’s big improvement was a cowshed with a proper roof and concrete floor, for the community’s small herd of cattle. Next will come further loft conversions to provide new and better-equipped rooms for the community members. Also on the list is the purchase of more land in the village, to build on one day.
And it doesn’t stop there. Ideally, Nika would like to start a network of communities, all over Georgia and then all over Europe. His ideal is a mix of orphans, mentally handicapped children and adults, the elderly, and students needing lodgings for university, all united under one roof, and all contributing something to the life of their own community. Gremi itself is an example of this ideal organic system: those who can, cook, clean, build, educate and fundraise for the ‘temi’ (the Georgian word roughly meaning community). The more able support the less able, and take joy in it rather than resenting it. It sounds like an unachievable utopia, but it works surprisingly well.
It nurtures an open-minded, welcoming group of people, for whom learning about and experiencing new cultures is a genuine excitement. Gremi receives visitors from Switzerland and the UK, and the people delight in extracting from those visitors as many details about life in their countries as they possibly can. Even the children are accepting of strangers: in Gremi you are taught early, it seems, to look outward as well as inward. This is true of other Georgians, too – there is a real hunger to hear about and understand other cultures, despite the strong sense of a Georgian culture that is fundamental to the country and its people. Though national identity and multiculturalism might seem incompatible, this does not seem to be so in Georgia.
Nika Kvashali might be called an idealist trapped in a country still isolated by its past. His aspirations to change the system all over Europe are awe-inspiring, but they do not seem feasible to us, given the weak links Georgia currently has with powerful western European nations. Most UK residents do not even know where it is or that it exists. It does not seem right to tarnish Nika’s vision with weary worldly ‘wisdom’, but it is almost impossible not to do this just a little.
Are the circumstances that seem to restrict Nika exactly those that sustain his idealism? Could he really remain faithful to his grand plans if he lived in Germany, Italy or the UK? Would he even have them there? Is the idea of a harmonious, inter-cultural society one that can survive in western Europe today, or is there something about Georgia that nurtures it rather better? Perhaps it is because Georgians are so desperate to rehabilitate their country that they have the courage to dream big – almost as if they were starting from a blank canvas. Perhaps it is just something indefinable in the Georgian spirit, or that Nika Kvashali is a very special man.
Whatever the answer, there is much to learn about what charity and tolerance genuinely mean from visiting Georgia – here’s hoping that its particular brand of multiculturalism makes it big.