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Issue 434 -- May 22-28, 2010
Khat: The Legal High Of East Africa
Khat (also pronounced "chat" or "qat") is a leafy shrub found in the mountainous areas of East Africa. It's a major cash crop for Ethiopia and a popular high in the whole region. For the Somalis, as well as the Hararis in Ethiopia, it's a social drug and a way to relax. It's also popular in countries further afield such as Yemen. In a Muslim society, khat offers a high not specifically banned by the Koran.
The fresh young leaves and shoots of the Catha edulis plant contain cathinone and cathine, both of which have chemical similarities to amphetamines. Cathinone is stronger than cathine and only found in the younger shoots, while older leaves, or those been picked more than a couple of days before, only contain cathine. Thus users prefer to eat the softer leaves from the top of the plant and distributors have a rapid, efficient network to get fresh khat from field to market.
Like most drugs, the effect differs for different people, but most users feel a sense of physical relaxation and mental activity. This is unusual since most drugs make the mind and body go in the same direction. Alcohol relaxes the body and dulls the mind, while coca leaves or cocaine stimulate both.
Most people in the region see khat as harmless. People can sit for a couple of hours eating the leaves and socializing, and then go off to their job and be productive. Common side effects such as lack of appetite and sleep loss are actually seen as good things.
In Harar people go to the market at around noon to buy a bundle of khat. Then they head to a friend's house to sit and chew. Some houses are known as khat houses and a large circle of friends and guests meets there every day. People get into long involved conversations, while others lay down and chill out. Others sit in a corner diligently working. The effect depends on a person's inclination and mood. Some people stay for only an hour or so, and some won't leave until evening. Many people lose a sense of time, or at least stop caring. The culture around khat is very tolerant of how individual people want to interact while using the drug. Sometime in the mid afternoon a poorer resident of the neighborhood will come and take away the discarded older leaves for his own use.
The usual way to eat khat is to simply chew and swallow the leaves, but some people like to grind it up with a mortar and pestle and eat the paste. This has a quicker, stronger effect, and a bit of added sugar gets rid of khat's bitter taste.
Both men and women use khat, but men use more and the sexes tend to chew separately. This doesn't stop the woman of the house from sitting in on a khat chewing session, but she's more likely to smoke a sheesha (water pipe) filled with tobacco, rather than chew khat.
While khat used to be restricted to Hararis and Somalis, other people in the region are now experimenting with it. A university student from Addis Ababa told me some of her classmates use it to stay up all night studying for exams. They keep it secret from their parents, though, as older people in western and northern Ethiopia have a dim view of khat chewing.
There seem to be more users in Somaliland. Besides private homes, people like to gather in one of the ubiquitous little khat cafes. The plant is sold everywhere and consumption appears to be much higher than in Harar. While men and women chew separately, many khat cafes are run by women, some of whom smear their faces with khat paste as a kind of advertisement.
It's hard to tell if khat is as harmful to Somaliland as alcohol is to the West, but it's certainly an economic drain. Khat only grows in relatively moist uplands, so all the khat consumed in the dry, lowland Somali region has to be imported from Ethiopia. Good news for Ethiopian farmers, bad news for Somalis. One NGO worker told me the entire Somali region (Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, Djibouti, and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia) spends $100 million a month on khat. While that sounds like a lot, most men and many women chew it regularly (often daily), and one day's supply costs at least $2, and there are about 15 million Somalis in East Africa, so that staggering figure could be correct.
The Somalis have done the math too, and this is one of the main objections some have to the plant. They say the money could be used for things like infrastructure and education. They also say khat encourages idleness in a region that needs every worker working hard.
"This plant is pulling down my country," one Hargeysa shopkeeper complained to me.
Some people don't react well to khat, getting irritable or zoned out, and heavy users complain of tension, stomach upset, and headaches if they don't get their leaves. Plus there's the question of long-term effects. Many Somalis told me they knew older users who had suffered mental damage. I myself met some long-term users who seemed a bit vague even when they weren't chewing, and the number of older men wandering the streets of Hargeysa babbling incoherently was noticeably greater than in Addis Ababa or even Harar. Plus the addiction makes people focus on getting the plant rather than on more important things. One Somalilander told me that during the worst part of the Somali civil war no airplane was able to land at Mogadishu airport, except one.
That was the khat plane from Ethiopia. All the warring clans agreed to a brief ceasefire when that was flying in.
Don't miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.
Next time: Bumbling in Berbera, a khat comedy of errors!