by Julia Hakobyan and John Hughes
Editor's Note: An issue of stories devoted to village life cannot avoid unpleasant reality; many Armenian villages tolerate sub-standard living conditions. But neither should highlights be overlooked, especially if the success of one village encourages perseverance by others. Here, then, is a look at how some revival efforts are paying off, with a hope of many more to be repeated.
On a February day in the Kotayk province, the tranquil village of Goght is reached over narrow, twisting roads where snow is disturbed only by tire treads leading to the Arakelian house.
Karine Arakelian, 19, and Aramais Markarian, 23, have decided their love is warm enough to survive the cold and have chosen to be wed in winter.
It is a village of about 2,000 and about 200 of them funnel toward tables heavy with the wedding feast. They are greeted outside by a rooster with colorful ribbons tied around its neck and legs, a gift from neighbors.
Karine is bright and, of course on this day, happy. She knows that Aramais will be a good husband. She has known him for many years. But what makes her especially happy is that after the marriage she will not be far from her parents. The newlyweds will live with Aramais' family in the house next to the Arakelians.
"In many villages it is still a tradition for parents to choose the wife or husband instead of their children, but not us," says Aramais. "We are dating for over a month and it was our decision. Our parents did not even object when they learned that we want to marry in winter."
When the feast is over in the bride's home, the wedding party heads for the village church. But the bride's brothers do not let the groom take his bride from their parents' home without a ransom. They stick a knife on the door and let them go out only when the groom's friends pay 5,000 drams (about $11). The groom's relatives are dancing outside with gifts, including the rooster, and apples beaded on a stake.
Artavazd Hakobian, one of the guests, approvingly nods his head looking at the happy couple and smiles when he is told "next it is your turn."
Hakobian, 32, is a desirable catch. He is a handsome graduate of the law department of Yerevan State University, and two years ago was elected head of Goght village. It is a post his father held during Soviet times.
He knows the village well. Knows it enough to call it "one of the best, if not exceptional" in the country.
"We have everything in the village to be rich and prosperous," he says. "It is only a matter of time and diligence."
Goght, some 40 kilometers from Yerevan, is an agricultural village. All families keep cattle, but they make their living off fruit—especially apricots.
Apricots from Goght are sold for export and, during summer, successful families earn money for their annual livelihood; some up to $4,000.
In the often glum reality of Armenian village life, Goght is a shining success story. It is an example of international goodwill finding locals willing to apply themselves to exploit the gifts of nature.
In 1999, a World Bank program sponsored the renovation of irrigation pipes in Goght, and now 80 percent of the village has regular water supply, both for drinking and for irrigation.
Besides apricots, villagers cultivate apples, pears, walnuts and cherries. Additionally, 73 families have contracts with Grand Tobacco, a Yerevan-based company, to grow its product.
During the last three years some 100 hectares of orchards were made on privatized lands. "Each year the number of apricot orchards has increased," says Hakobian.
A model for hope
Far on the other side of the capital, in the province of Armavir, the number of apricot trees in the village of Karakert has grown by 50,000.
There, near the border of Turkey, an American-Armenian has provided the trees, planted on land donated by a "wealthy" (by village standards) resident of Karakert.
It is in Karakert, too, that seeds of hope are being planted by a project that combines private charity with international assistance in a "Model Village" program spearheaded by the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) under its founder, New York businessman Garo Armen.
"There is a huge disconnect between the progress made in Yerevan and the lack of progress—not only the lack of progress, but actually digression—in Armenia's villages," Armen said on a recent trip to Armenia. "No one took ownership of prioritizing the cultural needs of a village like this. We said we are going to pull everything together and make sure it is properly spent."
Last May, COAF claimed ownership of connecting the "disconnect" by launching a Strategic Development Plan for Karakert. The two-year scheme calls for rebuilding the infrastructure of Karakert, and revitalizing life for its 5,000 residents.
With specific line items ranging from $1,000 for computer, fax and phone for the municipal office, to $230,000 for construction of a new school, COAF outlined an $839,700 plan for immediate application and an overall $3 million idea for reversing the trend of "digression".
The plan gained the financial backing and support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Development Programme, World Food Programme and others.
In a survey of five villages by COAF "Karakert was the most hopeless", Armen said. "The whole world advised me not to do it, because it couldn't be done."
But it is being done. The first new school will be operational by summer and the existing one is fixed with a new roof, windows, septic tank and central heating. Water pipes have been installed to deliver utility water to all homes from a well dug by the United States Department of Agriculture.
A medical clinic that previously had no vaccines or medicines has been renovated and stocked and a pediatrician was hired in Yerevan and relocated to Karakert. As a result, the frequency of visits by patients has increased and now villagers from surrounding settlements are coming to the Karakert clinic. COAF also bought a car for taking villagers to the clinic and has established a referral system for treatments in Yerevan or Armavir.
But before anything else, Karakert's rubbish had to be dealt with.
Before last year, there had been no garbage collection in Karakert since the late 1980s. COAF bought two trucks, some shovels, hired locals as garbage men and, literally, started to clean up the place.
Among other actions, a wood-working shop is being built in Karakert, where furniture for the new school will be made by locals. Future plans also call for supplying a machinery park so that trained villagers can use farm equipment for hiring out to other villages.
"Some of the ideas came from the villagers themselves," Armen said. "They said give us this and that and we will do this and this."
From "anger, frustration, hopelessness," a year ago, Armen says the villagers of Karakert are now showing "action-oriented optimism. It is no longer 'What is our fate going to be?'"
Armen is hopeful that success in Karakert will "plant multiple cells in other regions" and lead to a republic-wide renewal of Armenian village life.
Something to build on
Meanwhile, though one official in Yerevan says there is "nothing positive" to say about the condition of villages, plenty of efforts exist to, at least, aid survival.
In 1995, the Armenian Social Investment Fund (ASIF) was started (through World Bank) and a second phase in 2000 that provided $29 million to finance construction or reconstruction of schools, homes for the elderly and health centers.
ASIF also provides for financing reconstruction of water systems, one of the most essential needs of all villages.
For all programs, the beneficiaries should invest 10 percent of the estimated cost of the program. In some cases the investments are not only financial, but may also be manpower or building materials.
"The principle of the 10-percent community investment aims to provide a more interested participation of the community to provide its further maintenance," said president of the fund, Ashot Kirakosian. "For example if it's a school building and the beneficiary has made some investments in the reconstruction of the building, it will maintain it with more care."
To receive funding, a village meeting must be attended by at least 30 percent of the adult residents, who must agree on the most important use for applying the money.
"We have worked in all the marzes (provinces) of Armenia and it is very interesting that the reconstruction or the construction of schools makes up 62 percent of the program," said Kirakosian. "This shows the attention our people pay to education. In some places water is brought from afar in buckets, but they insist on reconstructing the school."
The fund's water program has been applied in nine provinces, bringing drinking water to 46 villages and irrigation to six.
Agriculture is the heart of village survival.
Last year the Ministry of Agriculture allotted about $10 million (including credit) toward programs aimed at improving production.
As a result, agriculture output grew by 14.5 percent last year, more than three times the increase shown in 2002-2003.
According to Hrach Tspnetsian, who heads a department in the Ministry of Agriculture devoted to villages, in each of the past two years the government subsidized the purchase of fertilizer, making it possible for villagers to get it at below-market costs. And, nearly 5,700 tons of fertilizer was distributed free to villages hit hardest by last year's late freeze.
The Government of Armenia also participates in the Food Production Growth program initiated by Japan. Since 1998, the Japanese have extended about $22 million in credit to Armenia, which, according to the Ministry of Agriculture has been used to buy 53 grain combines, 226 tractors, various farming implements, and 70,000 tons of fertilizer.
While Armenian villagers may work with equipment funded by Japan, the Americans are promoting know-how for turning farming into an enterprise. Among other programs targeting the needs of rural life, USAID has started its Agribusiness Small and Medium Enterprise program in Yervandashat, Hoktemberian, Chambarak, Gavar, Martuni and several other locations throughout Armenia.
Further, USAID's Public Works Program helps with kindergarten renovation and utility pipeline construction and it also helps finance wastewater treatment technology. More directly, it also supports school feeding programs and soup kitchens for elderly in various provinces.
Colors worth capturing
There is food aplenty on the first day of marriage for the newest family of Goght. The Arakelian table is a trophy to even a village family's ability to splurge for a festive occasion.
And if it should not be sufficient, Janik Petrosyan is ready for business at his Golden Rooster restaurant, a Goght institution that is a rare thing for any village.
"When the weather gets warm, we take out the tables and put them in the orchards," says Petrosyan, 68. "Starting in June, many tourists come here after visiting Garni and Geghard. Those who visit once, always come back."
Residents of Goght are fond of telling how prominent Armenian painter Martiros Sarian, visited the village and called it "unique and extraordinary". And without saying that Sarian immortalized Goght on canvas they just say: "Look at the paintings and you will see the colors of Goght."
The famous painter saw a village of bright, vibrant colors—the hues of life many hope will shine again in the hundreds of villages across Armenia.
ArmeniaNow.com reporters Gayane Mkrtchyan and Gayane Abrahamyan contributed to this report.