This is the story about a village nestled in lush forests, and its people who live cut off from the world - its residents are constantly on the move to reach the world that lies beyond the tall trees surrounding their homes.
Kbilari sits at 849 metres above sea level, in the heart of Chiatura municipality, central Georgia. There is no public transport or service for the 16 families - people have to walk through the woods to reach Mechkheturi, the closest settlement with a school. The facility is about two kilometres away and it provides education through the 9th grade - from there kids can occasionally catch a ride to Mandaeti, a village of about 1,500 people which is five kilometres from Kbilari and it has classes through the 12th grade.
The school in Mandaeti serves a large area and it provides transport with a minivan, but does not reach Kbilari. When classes in Mechkheturi and Mandaeti start at the same time, the bus driver extends the route to Kbilari. But that happens rarely and depends on the driver’s personal decision - this service is not the priority for the school, local government, or the country.
The only transport in Kbilari is the school minibus to Mechkheturi - it is available only three times a week, it leaves at 7:30am it does not return during the day which means villagers have to walk. The latest means of transportation from Chiatura to the village leaves at 2pm. As if the villagers don’t exist after the noon, as if their needs and necessity to move disappear after 2pm.
Children have to cross about three kilometers of forest in order to access the transport taking them to the school in Mandaeti, which deals with about 150 students, 10 of them from Kbilari.
I visited the school in Mandaeti. The idea of teachers willing to discuss the obstacles the children face to access the education system turned out to be wishful thinking - they claim all is running smoothly. The deputy director Simon Chachanidze denied there are problems with the transportation, even in Kbilari - students attend regularly school minibus thanks to a minivan from Mechkheturi, he notes.
He maintains that I would not be able to find details illustrating the problem, simply because there is no problem. Representatives of the local government were on the same line and soon after my visit questions about who I was and why I was interested in schools and transport started to pile up.
Reaching out to the students proved to be as difficult. A school representative was with me the entire time, I was not allowed to take photos and the conversation with the students was basic. A 10th-grader confirmed that transport was mostly unavailable, but later changed her statement and said that she would only walk to school when she wants to, or when she’s late.
After leaving the school, I decided to walk to Kbilari by myself. In a minibus from Chiatura to Mandaeti I met a few residents who agreed to be my guide.
The driver showed me the road leading to Kbilari. I was not alone, there were students heading back home coming from the school in Mandaeti. We trekked together on the bumpy road. We were deep in the forest. I would not have the courage to wander through those woods alone like these kids do on a daily basis.
In winter, when heavy snowfall is common and wolves stray in the forest looking for food, the children miss school. After two kilometers on foot we reached Kbilari. It doesn’t take long to visit the cluster. High trees start right after the last house. It was already dark and I was afraid to walk back to the main road.
There are no cars in the village, but several carts are around, loaded with wood. You need to be creative to cover that short distance between the village and the rest of the world - residents do their utmost to study, work, care for the family and keep the settlement alive. Employment is difficult, basic agriculture employs most of the villagers alongside the nearby manganese mines in Chiatura. They are disillusioned, but still hope that somehow the village could get same basic infrastructure. They do not want their names to be disclosed as they fear to lose their jobs.
People are hospitable and welcomed me in their homes. Food as well as stories abounded - a regular joke has it that it is easy to kidnap a bride in Kbilari, because nobody would adventure through the forest to rescue her. If a dog starts to bark, kids rush to the windows, hoping for a guest. At least once a month a trader visits the village with a kind of grocery-on-wheels, but he needs to sell for at least GEL 400 ($180) in order to make the trip profitable.
Little by little people leave and the village becomes every year emptier - youngsters move to bigger villages or as far as Tbilisi and the elderly are left behind with their memories. They tell stories of when families would prepare for the long, dark winters stocking up with products as the snow used to fall for days, blocking the doors and leave them homebound. The village streets rarely get cleaned and the roads are closed for some periods of time in winter.
As I was leaving, I met a horse patrol - the encounter was a stark reminder of the challenges that residents in Kbilari face. It made me think of the times in which I was lazy to walk from my apartment to school, which was right at the end of my building. Meanwhile in Kbilari children have to walk a few kilometers everyday, through the woods, facing the elements - wind, rain, snow, in freezing cold and in scorching hot. Just for their basic right to receive an education.