Every summer, female ranchers drive their cattle nearly 2,000 meters above sea level to graze in the Adjara highlands near Beshumi. The mountain plains are so picturesque—rolling hilltops and waves of grass nurtured by the curtain of fog that hangs down from the skies—that the area is famous as a resort for city dwellers from the Black Sea town Batumi. But for the ranchers, summers in the highlands are full of hard work and hours caring for the cattle their families depend on back home in the valleys.
Ranching, traditionally seen as “a man’s job” in many cultures, is delegated to the oldest women in the village in Adjara. As men can not leave their jobs in the valley for the four-month grazing season, the oldest woman in the family is charged with caring for the livestock. From mid-May to mid-September, women from six villages in Khulo municipality manage the alpine farms, make dairy products, and stock up for the winter. They spend their summers without any men, gathered together with their grandchildren in traditional wooden houses, with cattle and poultry on the first floor and beds on the second.
Approximately 250 families visit the pasture every summer; 70% are female ranchers and the rest are tourists.
Mariana Chogovadze, 30
"I do not want my daughter to work so hard. That would be a shame. I prefer for her to study, work, and have her own money," says Mariana Chogovadze, 30, a pharmacist who started farming this year.
She was forced to leave her jobs in the small town of Khulo, in Adjara to care for the family’s cattle this summer during the seasonal grazing in the region’s highlands.
"My mother-in-law, who has been caring for cattle for years, broke her hand ten days after she took the cattle up to the mountain. I had to replace her, and I had to leave three jobs. It’s good that they support my decision, and I’ll be able to go back to work in September," says Mariana, who simultaneously worked as a caregiver in a kindergarten and a cleaner at a school and a social service agency in addition to her shifts at the pharmacy before leaving for the summer pastures.
This year, she is the youngest caring for cattle on the Chakidula pasture, which is located near Adjara’s Beshumi resort,37 kilometers from her village, Dekanashvilebi. Most women grazing cattle in the area are school-educated housewives who have been leading their families and farms for years, both in the valleys and the mountains. Mariana dreams of giving children a good education so that they will have a better chance of finding jobs far from the hard work and sweat of farming.
Meri Dumbadze, 74
"I have three grandchildren, and I want all three to study. If you get an education, even if you work for free, you get to go out into society, know the culture, and make more friends. There is a big difference between educated and uneducated people,” notes Meri Dumbadze, 74, a farmer in Akhori, a village in Adjara.
Meri dreams of giving her grandchildren the opportunities she missed: as the eldest daughter, she was forced to leave school after 8th grade so she could help at home after her mother got sick.
She started milking cows when she was six and has not taken a day off since. Today, Meri is the oldest rancher in the district and she cares for four cows, two calves, 35 chickens, and a potato garden singlehandedly while also raising her grandchildren alone
"One day, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I counted my neighbors and realized that no other old female ranchers are left. Some have died, and some have been replaced by their daughters-in-law in the mountains. I am the only one left,” she says.
As Meri does not have a daughter-in-law, all the work falls to her. For the past six years, she has been raising her grandchildren, milking the cattle, driving them to the pasture, and making dairy products. Even when she finishes her farming chores, Meri cannot rest: she knits clothes for the children and spins wool to make dowry mattresses.
Nazi Solomonidze, 65
Despite the never-ending responsibilities and hard work, 65-year-old Nazi Solomonidze thinks that the life of female ranchers has improved. "In the old days, we had one television in the neighborhood, and we all used to gather there,” she recalls. “We washed the laundry by hand, and we had to overcome many difficulties. Earlier, a single girl had to wear a headscarf all the time. Do you see a headscarf anywhere now?"
Dariko Bolkvadze, 50
After a busy day in the ayalis (pastures in the local dialect), the women visit each other and drink coffee to unwind from work. 50-year-old Dariko Bolkvadze, who takes care of her bedridden 88-year-old mother-in-law as well as their cattle in the mountains, can find time for a cup of coffee but not to care for herself. "I can’t even take care of myself, my girl. I haven’t even been able to dye my hair, because there are so many things to do! But what can you do about it?” she says, noting her mother-in-law is sick. “She needs to be taken care of. No one knows what will happen to us tomorrow and the day after that.”
Eter Shavadze, 45
"Ever since I was a child, I have not loved the mountains. When I was with my grandmother, sometimes I would think of some reason to go back to the valley," she recalls with a smile. "But what can you do if there is no other way? My mother can't take care of my cows anymore. So, I came up to the mountains with her this year. This place is like a prison for me. There are no trees anywhere, and I don't like plain fields.” Eter prepares dishes for Shuamtoba, a local celebration, while looking after 14 cows and calves on the pasture with her mother.
Shuamtoba, which is held in the fields on the first weekend of August, is when the women’s relatives travel up from their villages in the valley to visit the women. Concerts, sporting events and entertainment are held. After the feast, the guests return to the valley, and Adjara’s female ranchers continue their work and life in the mountains until the middle of September.
This photo story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.