When Chemtai Yegon, a young woman from Kenya, came to Georgia a few years ago to teach English and study Georgian, she faced a lot of challenges, like her first real winter with frost and snow, ‘no one speaking English’, and some encounters with aggressive and even racist people. Despite all of this, she decided to stay and is happy here with a nice job in Tbilisi.
Chemtai spoke with DF Watch about how she ended up in Georgia and about her experiences as a foreigner living in this country.
Chemtai Yegon: I came to Georgia in 2012 and when I finished my university I wanted to teach somewhere where they don’t speak English, because I love languages and culture and stuff like this. So I wanted to find a job that could let me travel, work and at the same time be able to communicate via another language.
My first choice was Japan. I applied. By that time I had only one year of teaching experience and in Japan they needed at least three years of experience, so I didn’t manage to get that job back then. Then I was still looking for jobs abroad, countries that don’t speak English and then I saw Georgia. I didn’t exactly know much about Georgia, I didn’t even know where it was on the map. Then I started to Google it and saw the language, writing and I just loved it, I also saw the traditional dances, which was so nice, so I decided to try out Georgia. Then I found the Teach and Learn Georgia program, which needed volunteers for one year and I applied. After a quite tough interview via Skype I got accepted and came to Georgia.
DFW: What did you study at University and did you work in Kenya?
Chemtai Yegon: Teaching English and history and I worked in my country for a year.
DFW: How was your first weeks and months in Georgia?
Chemtai Yegon: Oh, wow. It was quite new, very new for me, because I did online already about what to expect; I was speaking with other foreigners, who also lived in Georgia online to share their experience with me. I wanted to travel and I wanted a different language, so I was really ready to come here. First week was training with Georgian trainers who were explaining what to expect, taught useful language and then I was placed in a village with a host family in Kekhijvari, in the Kareli region. I was the first foreigner there and not white, but black. So you can imagine their shock.
DFW: What were the reactions?
Chemtai Yegon: Even though they were shocked to see me first time I could tell they were very open. They really wanted to just know you, wanted to touch my skin, touch my hair; but you could tell it was just curiosity. They were not negatively shocked like ‘I don’t want it’, they were just curious and this family that I was placed with, it was amazing. There were mother and three girls and father was working in Greece. At first I decided to stay in Georgia for one year, but my relationship with this family was just so awesome, they made me see the beautiful part of Georgia. People say Georgia is hospitable, but sometimes not always true. But this family was really nice.
DFW: How did you communicate with this family, wasn’t it difficult as they didn’t speak English and you Georgian?
Chemtai Yegon: In the beginning there was a lot of body language, most of the time just showing what I wanted and because I really wanted to learn Georgian I was paying a lot of attention to them as they speak and by two months I could speak basic Georgian.
As part of the job we had to teach the kids from the family as well and one of the daughters liked English very much and she really paid attention, while I was teaching her and she wanted more and more and her English was good and she would help me communicate.
I spent six months with this family and then six months in Gori, but I was going to them almost every weekend. I have friends in different families and some of them had really terrible experiences and after six months they left, never wanting to come back to Georgia again. It is really important the first people you connect with in Georgia, I think they tell you a lot about Georgia. Some people had negative, some positive, most had positive experience.
DFW: How were the kids in the school in the village?
Chemtai Yegon: They were awesome, they were happy to see someone different. They were more motivated to hear what you told them. It kind of added a bit of fun into the classroom and they were paying attention more, paid attention more, wanted to impress their new teacher, but I think they enjoyed it more.
DFW: Did you stay there all the time or were leaving on weekdays or other time?
Chemtai Yegon: I stayed there the whole time. It was winter and for me it was first time to be in real winter and it was really cold and for the first six months I went to Gori only for once or twice for shopping. After six months I moved to Gori to teach in another school with another family, also very nice, but I already had this connection with the first one and I was going back to them very often. The family in Gori was a bit more modern. The house was also more modern, because this was in a town. I was teaching in a bigger school, had more classes, more teachers to teach with together.
After Gori my contract got finished, as a year had passed. I decided I still wanted to stay in Georgia. Level of my Georgian was still low. I still wanted to teach here and I thought I would grow as a teacher here. Then I saw an advertisement to teach in Ilia State University by the British Council and I applied and started the work.
DFW: Apart from Ilia University do you have any other job or activity?
Chemtai Yegon: No, because I work full time there.
DFW: What is your community here? Do you have more foreign or Georgian friends?
Chemtai Yegon: I started living here in the village. My only friends were Georgians and a few foreign teachers that I’ve met from that program. We would meet once in a while, but most of them have left. In Gori I had met more foreigner friends, but after I while they also left. So for me I have more Georgian friends, who are still here but of course I have other foreigner friends as well not as many as Georgians.
DFW: Do you still plan to travel to Japan?
Chemtai Yegon: Yes, I do. I will probably go. This is another language in which I have interest. I have not decided yet how long I will stay in Georgia. But right now I know I am staying because I have this very nice job. You learn more, you give what you know. I feel I am growing as a teacher.
DFW: For all the time you are in Georgia have you been home?
Chemtai Yegon: Yes. Four or five times. I went for my sister’s wedding and I go every December. I have five siblings, two brothers and three sisters. All living in Kenya. Two of them are older and three younger ones are still in university.
DFW: What did they say about your decision?
Chemtai Yegon: They didn’t want me to go. Especially my parents. They were convinced that this was really dangerous, because at this time there were so many cases on the news about Africans being taken to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, being abducted and used as sex slaves. So that’s why they were worried. I was a bit worried myself, but not so much because I was speaking to some foreigners in Georgia online, but it seemed real because I read about Mikheil Saakashvili [former president of Georgia] introducing this new project wanting foreigners to come and it seemed genuine. So now they are ok. The minute I got here I called them.
DFW: What kind of people are they, is this very traditional family or modern? For example do they want you to get married soon?
Chemtai Yegon: They are more traditional. I live in a village in Kenya. So they are bit more conservative, especially my grandparents. My mother not so much anymore as before, but when I was coming my grandmother said, not to dare run into marriage so quickly. My mother also used to be like this, but then my sister she married outside of my tribe. We have different tribes in Kenya and in the beginning it was very difficult to mix from different tribes. There are 42 tribes. We have different languages, food, clothing, songs and traditions, but all speak English and we can understand each-other. For my generation now it is possible to marry from different tribes. My mother was ok with my sister. My grandmother is still more conservative , but she loves my sister’s husband.
DFW: Could you say it was a risk coming here?
Chemtai Yegon: I would say it was. Because I didn’t know what to expect. I was very hopeful that it was going to be easy living here. The most thing I was worried about was a winter as I have never experienced such cold.
DFW: And how was your first winter?
Chemtai Yegon: It was so tough. My family put that wood heater in my room. Even though it was close to my room I still was cold and so they got specially a heater for me. I was cold walking to school.
DFW: Did you have the cultural shock?
Chemtai Yegon: The biggest shock was how people smoke everywhere. I was picked up from the airport by the driver of the organization. Nice man, very kind, very polite, but when I was in a truck and he started to smoke inside, I was astonished, I was so confused. I’ve never seen in my country that people smoking inside the closed place with someone who is not smoking. Now I am very ok. I am no longer shocked.
Another thing: I knew there would be a shock to see a black person, but still you never know how it is going to be. People are looking at you at every step you make, especially in a village, in Gori also. Even if you are sneezing, they look at you every second you step out of your house.
DFW: What kind of experience you had? People saying something bad?
Chemtai Yegon: Yes, especially now when I understand Georgian and I know what they are saying. Sometimes these are good things, sometimes – bad and they don’t know that you understand. At least once in two days I hear something negative saying while I am walking in the street.
DFW: As a foreigner living here in Georgia, what do you think is the main challenge?
Chemtai Yegon: I think it is different for black skin foreigners and different for white skin foreigners. I would like to change the stereotypes about the black people, especially in the town. In the town they are more racist, in the village I could see people were shocked to see me, but their shock was genuine because they were curious. In Tbilisi it is more kind of racism. They say bad things simply because you are a black person. Some children can be mean, but I think it is because they hear their parents what they say when they see a black person and they carry it forwards. Those can also be older men or women. When on a bus they are commenting – oh, why are these people here, the government shouldn’t let them. They also think black person could be sick or having Ebola or something. I think it’s the parents who teach the children to be negative. Sometimes I just walk, child is just walking, playing on their own and then the parent notices you and would tell the child to stop, you are missing something, come and look and then child will think – oh, this person is different, so we should stare. If the parent won’t do this then it’s better.
DFW: Would you prefer living in the city or a village?
Chemtai Yegon: Definitely in the village. If my university was in the village I would go tomorrow. Nine out of ten taxi drivers I get in would try to get your number, ask you something – let’s do this, let’s do that. I think it happens for most of the foreigners, women. I use marshutkas or buses most of the time.
DFW: Why do you like living in Georgia?
Chemtai Yegon: the reason i stay here despite all challenges, is that I have great students, great colleagues, who make worth it; it would be hard to stay here without great friends and colleagues, especially my students. Despite some negative comments I hear on the streets, I just get to class, have a good session with my students, learning, laughing and they have so much love to share. They make me know what’s important