Old-Style Markets Thrive in Albania’s Mountain Villages

feature 05 Sep 14

In remote villages near Elbasan, ‘shopping’ is not a drive to the local chain store but a stroll to the weekly market – where villagers trade livestock and ply their ancient crafts, as in times past.

Gjergj Erebara
BIRN

Gjinar

Villagers trade livestock in the rural market of Gjinar, Elbasan | Photo by Gjergj Erebara

At six in the morning on a Thursday this summer a butcher in the village Gjinar used a slash hammer to knock out a cow, sliced its throat and let the blood drip from the dead animal’s carcass.

Then he hanged the carcass upside down on a hook and proceeded to skin it. Two hours later, only two thighs were left. The rest of the meat had been sold.

A few metres away, a family of merchants parked their old van at the centre of the village, offloaded a number of iron stalls and rolled up their sleeves to arrange stocks of second-hand clothes.

Gjinar is located up a mountain slope in the Shpat area, which is part of the Elbasan region of central Albania.

Back in the 15th century, Shpat was the centre of Albanian resistance against invading Ottoman armies.

Difficult to reach, Partisan fighters also used it as a clandestine base in the Second World War, battling Italian and later German invaders.

At the crack of dawn on Thursday, locals from Gjinar and surrounding villages gather in the village to trade goods, sell produce and livestock, buy tools and meet each other.

As in many other rural areas of Albania, and the Balkans the tradition of a market day lives on here, despite the pressures coming from supermarkets and the wholesale distributors of the global economy.

According to Armanda Hysa, an anthropologist at University College in London, the tradition of holding a weekly market continues to thrive in Albania, Kosovo, southern Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Some scholars suggest that the seven-day week has its origins in the organization of a market, once every seven days, in many cultures,” Hysa says.

“In other cultures, the week is three days long for the same reason,” she adds.

Local blacksmith sells his artifacts in the rural market in Gjinar | Photo by Gjergj Erebara

The market tradition became almost extinct in Albania during the Communist era from 1945 to 1990, when trading became a monopoly of the state and private property was outlawed.

However, it made a comeback in the early Nineties, following the collapse of the regime and subsequent liberalization of trade.

In the Elbasan area, with its rugged mountain terrain and scattered poor villages, with few economic resources, every village has its market day. Local traders will recite them by heart.

“In the mountain pass of Shmili, it’s on a Friday, in Belsh the big market day is on Saturday, and in Qukes it is on Thursday,” says Ardian Peqini, a trader from Elbasan, who brags that with his small motorcycle, he has made rounds in all of them.

“Once in Moker I bought an old cart wheel for 100 lek, kept it home for a few years and sold it for 1,500 lek,” he says with pride. “Good business,” Adrian adds with a smile.

Back in Gjinar, the goods for sale in the market are many. Villagers sell the little produce they make from their small plots – butter, calves, pigs, sheep and lambs.

Blacksmiths advertise clasp knives, work tools, dog collars, horseshoes and collar rings for cattle.

An elderly couple had only two sack of corn to sell that day.

“It’s good corn that can be used to feed a cow, for seed, or even to make bread,” the woman says.

“I picked each and every grain from the corn cobs with these hands,” she adds, holding up her palms.

In many countries, work tools are produced in high quality steel and molded by computerized machinery. Here in Gjinar, blacksmiths continue to hammer them by hand.

“I produce these tools at home and sell them twice a week, in Gjinar on Thursday, and at Belsh on Saturday,” Ramadan Sadiku, a blacksmith from the village of Valsh, says.

However, in a sign that this world is under threat, in Sadiku’s stall, next to the horseshoes hammered in iron, a bind painted in black with Chinese markings written on top can be seen. “Too cheap to be made by hand,” Sadiku sighs.

Clothes are a different story. Traditional dress disappeared a long time ago, and every market day traders travel to villages to sell them second-hand garments.

One family of travelling merchants complained that business was poor.

“We have been everywhere, sleeping on the road, but have not seen any money,” the woman lamented.

Market scene in Gjinar, Elbasan | Foto by Gjergj Erebara

However, Pellumb Oga, an agronomist who had recently lost his job and turned to carpentry, says his trade is booming.

“My oak barrels will last for 200 years, not like industrial barrels, which get deformed and have to be thrown away in two or three years,” he maintains.

Oga’s boast was almost drowned out by the loud bargaining of a villager and a trader, fighting over the price of a rooster.

In one of the Gjinar’s restaurants, that same rooster would later be served with rice pilaf, dripping with butter.

At about 10am, the market came to an end. The villagers gathered in coffee shops to discuss the proceeds of the day before returning to tend to their fields.

As the villagers chattered away, the traders dismounted their stalls, loading the clothes back in their vans, ready to move up to the next village where market day comes up on a Friday.

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