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Kristine Aghalaryan

Zhaneta Hovhannisyan - Cleaning Barns and Getting Paid in Cow Dung

When I reached the house of the ten member Hovhannisyan family in the village of Shatvan, Mrs. Zhaneta was baking bread on an electric heater placed on the floor.

On most days, Zhaneta is not to be found at home. She’s usually out looking for the odd job to keep some food on the table. Being constantly out of work has also forced the family to take out a loan.

The problem is that no one in the family, including 53 year-old Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, can’t remember the terms of the loan or even the bank.

“It was a bank in Martuni,” Hovhannes muttered, adding that he remembers placing the cow they own as collateral.

Unfortunately, the cow fell ill and died.

Turns out the family was able to secure a $1,000 loan from the AKBA Credit Agricole Bank by providing some personal guarantors. The money was to be used to buy hops seed for planting.

A dry spell destroyed the crop in the field. Hovhannes has paid off the interest but the principal remains.

The matter was turned over to the courts. Those who gave their personal guarantees have now been told to pay up. Hovhannes can’t say if they will or not.

He and his son Hayk, recently discharged from the army, earn around 3,000 a day taking the cows of their neighbours to graze. The family has a 1.5 hectare plot of land but they have no seed to plant.

“Hey, who’s going to loan me the money to buy seed with?” Hovhannes asks.

The village of Shatvan in Gegharkunik Marz lies in a sink-hole zone. Three years ago an earthquake struck the area leaving a large crack in the family’s house.

As a result, the Hovhannisyans only reside in two of the house’s three rooms but the kids freely run in and out of the damaged sections. Some of the family is thus forced to sleep on the floor.

Mrs. Zhaneta at least sees to it that the kids, including her daughter’s four children, get the available beds.

The occasional work she does find in the village is cleaning out the cow dung from neighbours’ barns. She can earn up to 3,000 AMD per job, sometimes a bit more.

Sometimes, she gets paid not with money but with the dung itself. This is then dried and stored for fuel during the winter. Zhaneta uses the most of her salary to purchase flour for bread making.

The family diet is mostly soup, with meat being a rare luxury.

They haven’t had a decent New Year’s celebration for the past five years and family birthdays pass without any festivities.

Zhaneta is only 52 but looks much older.

Bearing the responsibility of feeding and clothing a large family in such conditions takes its toll.