City Farming In Albania
By Alyson Chisholm B.Sc.(Agr.) (C) 1996
Alyson has been involved in agricultural development work in Shkodra, Albania (1994-96), in Cana, Lesotho (1991-93) and in Mochudi, Botswana (1988-90). She now makes her home in Vancouver, BC.
I have just recently returned to Canada after three years of living and working in Albania. For those who have never heard of Albania, it is a tiny, formerly communist country bordered by Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and the Adriatic Sea. It was the last of the Eastern European countries to end communist rule and it did so relatively peacefully. The country is now experiencing a transition to a free market economy and democratic government after 50 years of centralized control and a harsh dictator. As you can imagine, the transition is a gradual and often painful process for the Albanian people. This transition period is especially difficult because the level of isolation and oppression experienced by the average Albanian under communism was greater than anywhere else in Communist Europe.
During the rule of Enver Hoxha, Albania's version of Joseph Stalin, all land and possessions were collectivized and controlled by the State. People could own nothing and had no say in their lives; people were not allowed to travel outside the country except under special circumstances, and then those who returned were watched very closely to make sure they told no one of their experience. They were, however, allowed to lie and tell people that Albania was the most developed country in Europe. The arm of the "Sigurimi", or secret police, was long and the arrest of one person usually resulted in the internment or persecution of his/her entire family.
Following the end of communism, Albania's population went wild and destroyed as much of the communist-built infrastructure as they could. They destroyed schools, hospitals, irrigation systems, greenhouses, government buildings and industrial sites. Now, this struggling country is trying to build an economy and is also having to deal with rebuilding destroyed and decaying infrastructure. The jobless rate is very high, corruption is endemic, services such as hospitals and schools barely function and water and electricity flow erratically. The lack of law and order allowed for the development of illegal trade with Serbia during the war, and this has changed focus nowadays to concentrate on illegal traffic in drugs and people. The Mafia is a significant force in the country and people have little recourse to justice. Albania has gone from being a communist country to becoming a developing country, as the gap between the richest and the poorest grows greater every day.
I lived initially in Tirana, the country's capital city, and later in Shkodra, a large city in the country's North, I witnessed an incredible amount of initiative in people while I was there; people knew that there was no one to help them but themselves. People sold everything imaginable, either on the streets or through holes cut in their walls. The preferred commodities were bananas, cigarettes, alcohol, fruit and vegetables as well as an assortment of other consumer items. The social welfare system supported unemployed people by paying them $5.00/person of working age per month. This would buy about 14 loaves of bread, to give you an idea as to the cost of living, and most people had to rely on the support of the extended family to keep them fed and clothed.
People also supported themselves by raising their own food, in the cities as well as the rural areas. Many people lived in apartment buildings and had no access to land, so they grew tomatoes in old bowls and paint cans on their balconies. People who did have an enclosed yard would often plant vegetables in the small space of soil that may be available. The preferred crops were onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage, leeks and peppers. Onions and garlic would be hung up to dry and last throughout the winter, whereas tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and cabbage were usually pickled in brine or vinegar, when they were not being eaten fresh in salads.
Many people only had space on their roof for gardening, so would often plant grape vines in the ditch outside their house, train the vines up the side of the house and then onto a rooftop trellis. This way the harvest was safe and accessible to the family, though the root stock was often at risk to vandals and bad drivers. The most impressive example I had seen of rooftop gardening was at the home of a 70 year old man who lived near us. His house was built of plastic, wood and metal sheets, covering a concrete frame, and he and his 40 year old wife cooked and heated on a wood stove. He had no yard at all but managed to create a bountiful garden on the roof using any available container which could hold soil. Onions, garlic, tomatoes and grapes transformed what is usually an uninspiring cement structure, into a wonder of greenery and sustenance.
Leonora, a woman I worked with in Shkodra, lived with her husband's family according to Albanian tradition, and helped her father-in-law raise two pigs in the unused downstairs of their house. The pigs ate the family's kitchen waste: bread, leftover food, vegetable parings, etc. The pigs were kept for special occasions, for example to supply meat for Leonora son's birthday feast. If their neighbours minded the smell or noise, they said nothing; most people are in the same situation and understand that people do what they have to in order to survive.
Another neighbour in Shkodra kept chickens in her back yard for eggs and meat and fed them on food scraps. People coming to stay with us from out of town always complained about the noise of the neighbour's rooster, but I was never very bothered about it myself. Unfortunately, the rooster did not have a good fix on day break, and crowed whenever the mood hit it. Otherwise, though, it seems to have served its purpose.
Every small space of land was put to use and an empty lot with grass growing in it would soon be grazed by urban sheep. I used to go running early in the mornings and met a lot of livestock on my way. Horses usually grazed in the park across from the Town Hall, the park having the benefit of available drinking water in the fountain. Sheep picked daintily off of garbage heaps which were located at almost every residential street corner and smelled strongly of decay. Cows would be herded along the quiet, early morning roads to take advantage of grassy verges, playing fields, cemeteries and empty lots. Livestock in the city did make for a few inconveniences for drivers and pedestrians, but considering all of Albania's problems at the time, this was not a high priority issue.
Working in developing countries has allowed me to witness what good use people can make of their local environment, if they are left to their own devices. there is so much around us which we can use in a sustainable fashion, but our society has brought us up not to recognize or utilize these resources. In many parts of the world people are raising food in urban environments and, with some forward thinking, planning and consultation with one's neighbours and town council, this is a perfectly feasible way of supplementing one's diet with high quality food, anywhere in the world.
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