When I first started to investigate Albania after my Peace Corps invitation, I found an old tourism video on Youtube. What fascinated me was the casual mention of Permet as the center of Herbal Medicine in Albania. I asked my Albanian contact about this, and he forwarded me a link to a report from USAID on the economic feasibility of Herbal Medicine in the post communist Albanian economy. As a practicing naturopath and acupuncturist, the prospect of learning herbalism while in Albania, I set my hopes on being assigned either near Permet or another region where herbalism was prominent. Being placed in Berat was an architecture admirers dream come true, and I was determined to see if this beautiful part of Albania also had an herbal tradition I could explore.
During my first week at my assigned school, I was introduced to Demokrat Keli. I was told he was a Mjekësi popullore, which is loosely translated as “folk healer.” In the States, we would call him a medicinal herbalist. My director and counterpart thought because I was a Mjekësi popullore from America, Demo as he preferred to be called, would have much in common with me professionally. With my broken Albanian and nearly three decades of herbal teaching and practice experience, Demo and I were able to communicate. He was anxious to start teaching medicinal herbalism in the schools in Berat. He was from Berat and has an active practice both in Permet and Berat. As I started my project for a school garden, I incorporated him into the initiative. I felt it was a way for him to not only share his knowledge, but get a foot in the door so to speak in terms of teaching herbalism to the children.
As I started to spend more time with him, I learned his personal story, and was intriguing. I asked if a friend could serve as an interpreter for a more formal interview and drew up a list of questions for him to review before our appointment. We met at the Berat Library, and an amazing biography that paralleled Albania's recent history emerged.
Demo was born at the beginning of the Hoxha regime. As a child, he was part of the Pioneer Youth movement, which for him in Berat involved hiking in the local mountains, summer camping trips learning survival skills and plant identification. It was during his summer days as a Pioneer scout, he started to fall in love with the local flora and fauna. As he will tell you, he knows the local mountains like the back of his hands.
Demo is educated as a chemical engineer with an emphasis on textile dye and design. Berat is home to a textile mill that was part of the Hoxha economic plan where workers were given housing and work in a centrally located factory. Demo was a manager at the textile plant in Berat during this time. The isolation of the Hoxha regime resulted in limited availability of pharmaceuticals and few medical doctors. There was little awareness or concern for toxic exposure from the dyes from the central government, and any sort of complaining or documenting of problems could land one in a work camp or worse. Demo noticed a trend with the textile employees. One of the side effects of working with the dyes was increased kidney problems. From infections to stones, the worker’s kidneys seemed to be the leading cause of illness and lost productivity in the plant and surrounding community, with no options for any sort of treatment. As a caring person versed in the local flora and fauna, Demo turned to historical books he found at the local library as well as the traditional knowledge regarding herbal medicine to help his workers. He was so successful, he was considered “the Kidney man,” by locals. Demo boasts that there are no kidneys he has not treated in the Berat region. As a regular on local Berat TV after the fall of the communism, Demo has educated the public on his skills. According to him, he has earned the ire of local physicians who view him as harming their business when it comes to helping the people of Berat with regional medicinal herbs.
I had the deep honor of joining Demo on several walks in the local mountains to watch him in action. Demo travels with what I call a “magic bag” when he gathers herbs. He pulls out various clippers, a scythe and climbing tools from his bag while explaining the local plants. During one walk, he told me he had special secret locations he did not want others to discover where he collects various plants. His most successful method is to put a very realistic rubber snake across the path, which seems to deter hikers from following him into a hidden enclave. The other things Demo pulls from his bag were an herbal snake bite kit (an antique looking glass bottle with a dark herbal antidote and a tourniquet) and dog repellent fire crackers. Demo also has a long rope with which he lowers himself down cliffs to pick certain delicacies.
On another occasions, I was able to visit Demo’s flat where I got to see his library and his home medicinal herbal artisan kitchen. He had numerous potted plants, tinctures macerating in large glass containers, and a closet filled with dried herbs. He told me he has clients from all over Albania and Greece, where he creates signature dried herb tea blends for various health issues. These wild crafted herbal formula's are wrapped in white paper packets, with the directions for dosages hand written on the surface. During larger artisan gatherings and festivals in Berat, Demo can be seen in the town center educating locals on his skills and selling herb teas. In the Summer months, he is a weekend regular amongst the artisans, selling his teas in the city center.
A typical conversation between us entails him saying the Albanian vernacular for a plant. After very slow and difficult conversation trying to find something we understand, I will ask him what the Latin binomial for the plant is, to which he dutifully gives me an answer. I then try to decipher the Latin pronounced in his Berati dialect and repeat the name with an American accent, writing it out, to which he agrees this is what he is talking about. During my interview, I asked him what his favorite herb was, he told me it was, (literal English translation) “snake bush.” After our now familiar language exchange, I figured out he was talking about Hypericum, for which the rest of the English speakers know as “St. John’s Wort.” When I asked him why he liked this plant, he said it was because it was so effective. He uses this plant for people who are depressed or stressed, as well as for trauma. Demo told me that the plant was used by the Illyrian physicians successfully for battle wounds. He said that “snake bush” was so effective, it actually helped the soldiers to get back into combat quickly, and was the secret to their battle successes.
Demo has taken the medicinal herb garden project at the High School as the culmination of his life’s work. He plans to have the garden designed into six zones reflecting the different regions in the area of Berat. He is leading weekly lessons at the High School and regular walks in the local mountains showing the students the plants in their back yard so to speak and how to use them. One of my favorite visuals was after class, Demo was surrounded by students asking him questions regarding certain health issues. He was writing down suggestions on a stack of hand torn business card sized papers he keeps in his pocket, and inviting the students to join him on a walk.
Democrat Keli is part of a proud and ancient healing tradition in Albania. It is rewarding to see him interacting with a new generation. As the garden comes into reality, it will be interesting to see this new generation of herbal practitioners carry on this heirloom practice into a bright future.