On a Sunday afternoon in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, men in their fifties and sixties arrive at a traditional Yemeni-style mafraj room clutching bundles of green, leafy stalks: khat.
As the hours pass, they animatedly discuss economics, politics, history, life, and more, while chewing the leaves. The gathering is a picture of civility. But in many countries, khat has a bad reputation; it is either banned or there are calls for a ban.
Understanding khat—also known as jima or mira—is far from straightforward. The leaves of the innocuous-looking plant act as a stimulant when chewed. Some experts claim it is as mild as tea; others say it’s as addictive as cocaine. A few years ago, it was legal in Britain, banned in the US, celebrated in Yemen, and vilified in Saudi Arabia.
In the Horn of Africa, khat is an institution. It has an enormous economic impact and plays a major social and cultural role. In the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa, you won’t find much dissent about khat. An estimated 90% of Somaliland’s adult male population chews khat for the “high” feeling it can give. An estimated 20% of women chew it as well.
Abdul is a journalist in Addis Ababa. He says: “It brings people together; it facilitates discussion of issues and exchanges of information…. In the West, it’s often difficult for people to interact, but here they learn about their neighbour and what problems they have.”
Khat is also an important source of revenue for the Somaliland government. In 2014, khat sales generated tax revenue that amounted to 20% of the country’s budget. Khat provides 8,000 to 10,000 jobs in Hargeisa.
Khat is also a major earner in Ethiopia. Somaliland spends about $524 million a year to import Ethiopian khat.
This means that, while khat is a major source of revenue for the Somaliland government, it is also a financial burden. Rakiya Omaar is a consultant with Horizon Institute. He explains, “Khat is a massive burden on Somaliland’s fragile economy since it means that a large percentage of its foreign currency is used to purchase khat.”
As for the social side, some say you need to chew khat to understand it. Others think that the addictive leaf is a strain on relationships.
Fatima Saeed is a political advisor to Somaliland’s opposition Wadani Party. She says, “The problem comes down to the man not being part of the family and the woman being left to do everything…. Men sit for hours chewing—it’s very addictive.”
Mrs. Saeed supported the 2014 ban on khat in the UK, where it was having a negative impact on the Somali diaspora community. She says: “Khat would arrive at 5 p.m. on the plane and by 6 p.m. men had left homes and wouldn’t return until 6 a.m…. After the ban, it was like people woke up from a deep sleep—they started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”
Nevertheless, many still argue for khat’s communal role. Well before the UK ban, the London Institute for the Society of Drug Dependence issued a factsheet stating: “In cultures where its use is indigenous, khat has traditionally been used socially, much like coffee in Western culture.”
Khat defies preconceived ideas, challenging conceptions of what a drug is, of what addiction is, of what an addicted society looks like.
On a Sunday in Addis Ababa, one Yemeni man sits smoking cigarettes, but not chewing. The successful businessperson says, “I chewed khat for 30 years…. Now I’ve had enough. I don’t miss it.”
This story is based on an article from Interpress Service, titled, “Khat in the Horn of Africa: A Scourge or Blessing?” To read the full article, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/khat-in-the-horn-of-africa-a-scourge-or-blessing/
Photo: Men lounging in Dire Dawa’s Chattara Market chewing khat, Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS