Calling All Curious People

Posted on June 12, 2012 by

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So it happened like this.

I have recently become the World’s Biggest Fan of Betsy’s Hotel, where I invariably meet new and interesting expats who hail from across the globe, but who often fall outside the sometimes rather inclusive TLG circle. From Special Agents for the US Embassy’s Diplomatic Security Service to CEOs of Georgian wineries and entrepreneurs of every variety, the conversation at Betsy’s is never boring. But believe it or not, this is not a post about Betsy’s, although I do recommend you check them out. This is a post about one of those conversations.

“This is such a super idea,” I say. “I wish we could get more TLGers in on this, especially the ones in the regions. I should blog about it.”
“Well why the heck can’t you?”
“Well, it’s an amazing program but it’s not exactly English-focused. TLG is kind of… English-focused.”
“TLG isn’t just about teaching English,” Mark says. “It’s about having people from other parts of the world become part of the Georgian community.”

Gently abashed that this man had managed to vocalize better that I could — I who have been here 13 months and counting — the bare essence of what makes TLG such an incredible and important program, I reconsider.

He’s totally right, of course. Especially with this Program reaching into its third year, I think it’s safe to say that TLG has successfully reached far and wide beyond the classroom walls. We are here to teach English, but we are also here to — always politely and respectfully of course — shake things up a little. We’re here to offer new ideas and perspectives that might not have been culturally considered before. And in that light, TLG and Mark’s project, called Radarami, walk down the same path.

Radarami is a made-up, Georgian-sounding word comprised of two real Georgian words that mean either “what and why” or “what and how”, depending on where in Georgia you happen to be standing. Radarami is a non-profit based in Tbilisi. What they do – to quote from the source – is pick “recent, zeitgeisty nonfiction books”, something that addresses or confronts a topic or issue that might not be widely discussed in Georgia. Then they translate the unabridged text into Georgian and ship them to libraries and bookstores all over the country. The books, regardless of length or subject, sell for two lari apiece, which I have to say is a gigantic improvement over the 45 lari price tag I saw on a recent book at Prospero’s.

This two lari price was chosen deliberately in order to make the books accessible to any Georgian who might be interested in picking it up. But it sometimes makes things difficult on the business end according to Mark – because before the books can be published, of course Radarami needs to secure the rights. And with the books selling for two lari a pop, there’s a cap on how much the organization is willing and able to fork over. As Mark said with an ironic smile: “We’re a nonprofit. No one is going to make money on this. That’s why it’s hard.”

Fortunately there are some authors and publishing companies happy to work with them, and Radarami has circulated three books so far, with a fourth coming out shortly. The chosen topics include globalization, climate change, and sociology. I have no idea what the fourth book will be about, but honestly it could be anything, as Radarami’s goal is to touch on as many broad categories as possible.

Radarami takes pride in the quality and authenticity of their translations. Accuracy is important of course, but they also focus on style and feel. As the project gets further off the ground, there are plans to get well-known Georgians to write intros to each of the books. The books are published, all with a similar, easily-identifiable look, and shipped out to the four corners of Georgia.

If this was all that Radarami did, it would still be pretty darn cool and I would still be writing about it in hopes to get as many TLGers aware and on board as possible. But this is only part of it, and the best part is yet to come.

So now I ask you – who here among us can resist the allure of a secret code???

Each Radarami book comes with a secret code inside. Readers can text this code to the organization, and when Radarami receives 20 texts from a particular walkable area, it sets up a meeting for these people to meet each other – essentially forming a reading and discussion group. And then from this point on, using the Radarami secret code, readers can send texts to each other that will be received by all 20 members. “We bring them together,” says Mark, “and we give them a way to communicate. We want the people who want to read everything. Every month they get a new and interesting book that they can afford. And then they can talk to each other about it.

“It is a recruitment method for the curious people.”

And I just think that is so tremendously awesome.

Radarami is all about new ideas, new approaches, new ways of thinking about old problems. It is doing exactly what TLG is doing, in a different way. TLG focuses on English and education, but Radarami snatches up those people who haven’t had a chance to learn English yet or just plain don’t want to, for whatever reason.

We are spoiled here in Tbilisi, where such a large percentage of the Georgian population speak at least some degree of English. The other day, I watched a young girl wipe out on her bike and automatically shouted to her “Are you okay!?” not remembering that she might not have a clue what that meant. But she replied “Yes, thanks!” without missing a beat. From the smiling uniformed worker who takes your order at McDonald’s, to the nice lady who stops you on the metro to tell you that you left your bag hanging open like an idiot, English is surprisingly prevalent here in the Capital. Sometimes it is easy for me to forget that not all of Georgia is like this. Back when I lived in Poti, I met very few adults besides my English co-teachers who were fluent enough in English to have even a basic conversation, let along to enjoy reading in the language.

I have mixed feelings about the term “cultural ambassador.” But I have had enough conversations with Georgians on every kind of benign and touchy topic imaginable to know that the term does to some degree apply. But what about the non-English speakers in a TLGer’s neighborhood, village, or school? Radarami offers a pretty cool opportunity to engage with these people – even if it’s just a gesture of “Hey, I thought you might dig this.”

First though, I think I’m going to see about downloading the English versions of some of these Radarami books onto my kindle. It’s only a shame I can’t read the Georgian translations, because now I feel like I’m kind of missing out on something.

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