Most Georgians, even in the mountains, see sheepherding as a job for men.
Her work, therefore, surprises some locals. One middle-aged man sarcastically observed that she “even dares to herd sheep” along with studying and working in Tbilisi.
That attitude angers Mariam. “It’s not a question of what one dares to do,” she stresses. “It’s the way life goes. One has to work, no matter what.”
Dirt roads, long winters, hardscrabble living and spotty mobile-phone access make life harsh here. Many families have opted to abandon their ancestral villages for a better life in Tbilisi or elsewhere. Ruined houses dot the landscape.
Fifteen years ago, Mariam and her 20-year-old-brother, Mirian, had to leave as well. Conditions in Tkhiliana’s school were so primitive that their parents, both local school-system employees, had them start school in Dusheti, a town of about 25,660 people 57 kilometers (35 miles) to the south. They lived there with their grandmother.
“Me and Mirian were crying a lot. We were little . . .” Mariam recollects.