Feature 29 Sep 14
In the impoverished town of Puke, the fall in remittances sent by relatives abroad is pushing families ever deeper into debt.
|A family in the town of Puke, in Northern Albania | photo by : Klodiana Kapo|
In the town of Puke, in northern Albania, the number of those using cash to pay for their groceries in the small shops that line the streets of is dwindling.
Most inhabitants of the town sign the debtor’s list when they take a few basic items home.
Little notebooks with lists of debts are common in the town’s few bars and coffee shops as well. Locals sign their names in them day after day, after consuming a cup of coffee or a shot of rakija.
In 1936, one of Albania’s most famous poets and writers, Migjeni, served as headmaster of the run-down high school in Puke.
It was the setting for many of his short stories dealing with the dire poverty of the area. Little seems to have changed since he penned them.
The town is so poor that, at the local pharmacy, customers often cannot pay upfront even for a few aspirin, which cost only 20 cents.
“When the end of the month comes I don’t have a penny left in my pocket,” says Dilja, a mother of four. Until her next salary comes, she is “just counting the days”.
Despite hardship and a struggle to make ends meet as the only breadwinner in her family, Dilja considers herself lucky. At least she has a job. Others have it much worse, she notes.
“My neighbour told me the other day that the she had ran out flour to make bread,” Dilja sighs.
“I’m not sure if she managed to get any because the shopkeepers won’t sell to her any longer after she ran up debts for almost two year,” she adds.
Under Albania’s Communist regime, the economy of the town was based on mining and logging.
But after the regime collapsed in 1991 the mines closed and the forests that surround that town became decimated.
Few private-sector jobs are on offer. The only major employer of substance is the local government – for those lucky enough to secure a position in it. A good part of the young and able have gone abroad.
|Market owner in the town of Puke shows its list of debtors | Photo by : Klodiana Kapo|
It is their remittances, which they send home, that have enabled their families to wipe out their debts from time to time with the local shops.
However, the amount of money that the migrants send home has dwindled in the last few years. The debts owed by their families – already struggling on the edge of the poverty line – have grown.
According to the 2011 census, 8.6 per cent of families in Albania live on the remittances that migrants send home. But, since the global economic crisis hit in 2008, the remittances have fallen steadily.
Most Albanian emigrants are concentrated in Greece and Italy, the two EU member states worst hit by the economic slowdown that followed the European debt crisis. Many are now unemployed.
According to Albania’s Central Bank, in 2007, Albanian migrants sent home a record 951 million euro. By 2013, this figure had fallen to 545 million euro.
In impoverished areas of Albania, locals often run up more and more debts to merchants. In the shops of Puke, the money is owed for such basic food items as cooking oil, rice and sugar.
Minja, who owns a pharmacy, says the local merchants do not have it easy, either.
They are struggling to walk a thin line between making a profit and upholding the moral obligation to help neighbours in need.
She says that during the last few years, poverty has worsened steadily in the town, because migrants send less money than before to cover their families’ debts.
“During these years, hundreds families in town have accumulated a total debt of about 500,000 lek (€3,600) to the pharmacy,” Minja says.
|Minja, a pharmaciest with a big heart in the town of Puke | Photo by Klodiana Kapo|
“I will never be able to collect a good part of this money,” she adds.
Minja notes that about 30 per cent of the families who live in villages surrounding Puke have no family doctors and are not part of the government sponsored medical insurance scheme.
“Those who aren’t part of the scheme are not treated properly because they don’t have the money to buy drugs,” she says.
“Without medicines and treatment they are not able to work or take care of their livestock,” Minja adds.
The pharmacist says she is well aware that she may not get all her money back when she gives out drugs on credit.
But she cannot deny medicine to people she grew up with, she says.
“I can’t deny medicine to people who are sick, even though this pharmacy supports my family and although few people realize what a struggle it is,” Minja says.
“The last time I took a two-week vacation was five years ago,” she adds. “I cannot afford them.”