Depending on what you read and who you talk to, chewing Qat (Khat) can be described as a mild, social drug similar to coffee, or a dangerously addictive drug like cocaine. It's legal in the countries with widespread use, and illegal almost everywhere else. This has proved problematic for communities originally from the Horn of Africa, who are now living abroad. Recently, Khat has even been blamed for funding terrorism. Whatever your opinion is of Khat the drug, the fact is this is a multi-million dollar industry and a cash crop that keeps on giving for many peasants who grow it in the Horn of Africa.
The Popularity of Khat (Qat)
I've been fascinated with Qat ever since I heard that Djibouti city practically comes to a daily standstill when a fresh shipment of leaves arrives at the market. Almost the entire local male population (and quite a few females) take a break from work to chew on qat and talk business. "At about 12.30 Khat arrives and you see the streets crowded. Roads are jammed with people and cars, everyone get exited, shouting drivers hoot endlessly. The town goes into two hours of trance; most of accidents take place in Thursdays. Then everyone goes back home with his valuable bunch, to get ready for the long chewing session ahead. " - (source: Djibnet).
In most cases Khat is chewed among groups of friends over several hours. Usually accompanied by many glasses of tea and soft drinks to combat the dry mouth and leafy green taste. Rooms are set aside for the pastime, called mabraze. In Ethiopia places outside the home where people can come to buy and chew khat are called Makamiya Betoch. This is where folks gather in social groups, along with bundles of khat and settle in for an afternoon of chatter, contemplation and watching soccer on TV.
Traditional khat use in Somalia is very widespread, it's estimated that 300 million dollars a year is spent on khat, and most of those profits are flying straight out of the country, on the same planes that fly the khat in (source: SomaliaReport). Extensive khat use by militias has given the plant a very bad reputation in the past decade. Khat exports earn millions of dollars and is believed to help fund terrorist networks like Somali based Al Shabaab. Although this link has been difficult to prove, but where there's lots of money to be made, there's often corruption of some sort going on.
In Kenya khat is known as Miraa, and the plant has both traditional and new users. Miraa is grown in three regions, Kerio Valley in the Rift Valley Province, Embu and Nyambene hills. The best is grown in the Nyambene hills. Maua Town is the epicenter of the trade here, where residents regardless of age and sex seem to chew, drink and sleep Miraa. It's the community's main source of livelihood, and Somali traders abound in town. Miraa has also become popular among students cramming for exams, bus drivers and truckers wanting to stay alert on long drives, and among the well heeled middle classes as a cure for hangovers.
In Ethiopia local use is fairly widespread. Eden Habtamu an Ethiopian journalist explains: "In south eastern Ethiopia, khat is part of the people’s culture and is never considered as some kind of drug. Family and friends use khat for entertainment, weeding (“nikah”), mourning, ritual purpose, religious ceremonies, and generally in everyday life. Two decades ago, khat was considered as a socially prohibited mild drug in most of northern and central Ethiopia. Today it is a popular entertainment and fashionable culture almost in every corner, even in societies that are considered conservative".
The Fresher the Better ... The Business of Khat
Qat is preferred fresh because it is more potent. The main active ingredient Cathinone is only present in the leaves if they are less than 48 hours old. People simply chomp down on a fresh branch of leaves, tender stems and tops, to release the Cathinone. Because fresh Khat leaves are better than dried, entire aviation networks have been created between places like Harar (Ethiopia) and Djibouti city, Nairobi and Mogadishu, to ensure a daily supply. With all the upheaval in Somalia, the residents of Mogadishu and other capitals depend on regular flights from Kenya's Wilson airport. These Khat flights happen side by side with emergency relief flights every day, often to similar areas.
Khat is a thriving business, and an important cash crop for Kenyans and Ethiopians. Khat is now Ethiopia's second largest export behind coffee. Djibouti and the UK are among the biggest markets. From 2004 to 2007, Ethiopia earned 89.1 to 100.2 Million US dollars from the export of khat. Not only is khat a top export earner, it also plays a considerable role in the local economy, as it is the source of income for many wholesales, small scale traders and to those businesses that depend on it indirectly.(source: Ezega.com)
The Khat Shrub
Qat Catha edulis is a flowering shrub, the evergreen leaves and the soft part of the stem are what people chew on. The leaves contain cathinone when fresh as well as cathine. Cathinone is what creates the real buzz that is similar to an amphetamine. Cathine is much milder and acts a little like ephedrine found in common cold medicines. It takes nearly seven to eight years for the Khat plant to reach its full height. Other than access to sun and water, Khat requires little maintenance. Ground water is often pumped from deep wells by diesel engines to irrigate the crops, or brought in by water trucks. The plants are watered heavily starting around a month before they are harvested to make the leaves and stems soft and moist. A good Khat plant can be harvested four times a year, providing a year long source of income for the farmer.
Since both poor and rich partake of Khat, there is naturally quite a range of quality. The fresher the Khat, the more expensive it is, especially if the user is relying on an exported product. Kevin Fedarko of Esquire magazine discovers from his informant in Djibouti "the varieties of khat are as distinct as chardonnay from tequila. At the bottom end of the spectrum you have miyal, a mild, pale-green leaf that has no kick whatsoever (the O'Doul's of khat), and medetcho, which is known to cause dukak, or khat nightmares. There's also a wide range of midprice options: sweet- or nutty-tasting leaves in which the khat cognoscenti can discern gossamer suggestions of apples, raisins, and almonds. The Dom Pérignon of Ethiopian khat, however, is warata, whose virtues Khadar proceeds to extol. Warata is moist and crunchy. Nice and clean, too. Ripe -- just like fruit." (source: High in Hell - Esquire)
Qat (Khat) - Hard Narcotic or Mild Social Drug?
Khat's two active alkaloids, cathine and cathinone produce the desired narcotic effect, and are released when the fresh leaves are chewed. In Africa, qat is legal in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, but not in Eritrea. For regular users the effects are stimulating at first and then calming. It's basically a social drug, it tends to make you talkative and it relaxes you. Qat can stave off hunger, but does make you thirsty, so is generally accompanied with lots of tea and soft drinks. Qat is popular in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, a religion that strictly forbids alcohol. Qat may not cause the same problems as alcohol, but it is a significant drain on meager cash resources for many. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, figures that Djiboutians who chew khat spend nearly a fifth of their household budget on the leaves.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states Khat is a mildly addictive narcotic. United Nations and other relief organizations and development agencies tend to be more concerned with the social cost of khat than with the mild or strong narcotic effects it may or may not have. They see men spending more than half their salary on khat, when it could be better spent on schooling or healthcare for their children.
In the US and many other European countries, Qat (Khat) is treated like a hard drug. The Netherlands just banned it in January 2012. In the UK it is still legal, mainly based on the fact that it is most commonly used by communities where it is traditionally chewed. Over 58 tonnes of qat are flown into Britain each week. Khat's traditional use is so wrapped up in culture, that it has been difficult to legislate across the board (see the Economist article "Let the Qat out of the Ban). The DEA in the US has this to say: - "It is not coffee. It is definitely not like coffee," said Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word 'khat' and put in 'heroin' or 'cocaine'." (Source: LA Times).
There are obviously wildly differentiating opinions about Khat depending on who you talk to. As Howard Swains points out in his article written about Khat use in the UK for The Independent - "Most chewers I met follow the debate about Khat closely and say that discourse has been distorted by campaigners who highlight only the most extreme abuses, as if the subject of alcohol was only regarded with reference to chronic alcoholics and wife-beaters. Moderate Khat chewers, who partake as part of an otherwise normal western life, consider their cause to be all but ignored".
Sources and More
- Everything About Khat
- The Khat Conundrum
- Khat Fight - Harmless recreational drug or a recruitment tool for terror?"
- Khat - LA Times
- East Africa's Natural High
- Miraa production Raises Concern in Kenya
- Qat in Somalia, the million dollar battle
- High in Hell - Esquire
- Ethiopia's Khat - Opportunity or Threat?
- Let the Qat out of the Ban - The Economist