In Karl Marx’s infamous words, religion is the opium of the people. In the self-proclaimed fourth holiest city of Islam, Harar in Eastern Ethiopia, the mild narcotic khat is as central to people’s everyday lives as the Qu’ran. It is the real drug of the people, with policemen, teachers, traders, bus drivers, beggars and the homeless all munching away from morning till night.
For just as a morning without a good dose of caffeine would bring on a bout of anxiety for much of the world’s populace, a day without khat in Harar would set the whole city on edge. As former soldier and now guide Tsegahur Admasu describes the locals: “All Harar people are people of the khat.”
Harar is a city truly in the grip of khat, with the local economy as dependent on the growing, packaging and transportation of theis psychotropic narcotic as people’s social life and psychological wellbeing is. Everywhere in Harar and its environs khat is in evidence, with people clutching bags of khat, women selling khat on the street, and men lolling on the pavements, on porches, under canopies and beneath trees slowly but deliberately picking off khat leaves to shove in their mouths.
Cheeks bulge with leaves as they grind it down, sucking on the juice that brings about the drug’s effect before the khat is swallowed. As people open their mouths, fragments of green leaf are in their teeth, the tongue is green, and green juice dribbles from the edges of the mouth. The smell of khat is everywhere too, from the bushels brought to market and the odour emanating from people, from breath (think a mix of zaatar (i) and mint), and even from calls of nature.
Khat is all consuming, with Hararis daily life scheduled around purchasing and consuming khat, which for your average Harari would be after breakfast, and for the more disciplined, or those that hold down semi-serious day jobs, mid-afternoon.
Clutching a fresh bag of khat, Hararis will head over to a friend’s house, a café, or a khat salon, where you can purchase directly from the patron, and start chewing away amid socialising and quaffing soft drinks. The session will end in the evening once the high wears off and introspection sets in. This happens every day of the year for Hararis and the 10 million others that chew khat in East Africa, Yemen and further afield, except during Ramadan when the narcotic is only consumed after iftar (ii).
Sampling a sprig of fresh khat in Awadday
Within the first hour of chomping through several branches' worth of khat leaves, the khat starts to take hold, relaxing the user but also stimulating the mind. As people pick leaves off the stalks, approximately a centimetre under the stem, to be added to a personal pile and then rolled into a ball to insert in the right cheek, others are enjoying the effect of getting what the Ethiopians call in the Amharic language “merkhana” - high.
The user feels euphoric – not an ecstatic love-everyone feeling, or a damn-it-all-I-feel-great attitude common with other drugs – but a happiness and mental awareness that plunges people into relaying entertaining stories and embarking on animated discussions. Music becomes more engrossing, and worries slip away as the digestive system absorbs the khat.
As a mild psychotropic drug, the effects of khat chewing are similar to taking methamphetamine or cocoa (cocaine) leaves but much less intense, producing a high but also alleviating fatigue as well as appetite. So effective is khat in mental and physical stimulation that athletes use it, and students take up the habit.
“When students use khat they become geniuses, they can study hard,” says Admasu. Indeed, chewing khat one afternoon with a bunch of university students, all of them said they had started chewing at high school to help boost their concentration.
In essence that is what khat is, a stimulant. Khat was used to wake up the brain well before coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by an observant goat herder who noticed that after eating a particular berry his flock were a great deal more active than usual. Curiously, legend has it that Ethiopian goats also discovered khat, a food the wily animal still enjoys, roaming around the area’s main khat market town of Awedday, 10 kilometres from Harar, eating discarded khat leaves.
“You need khat to open your eyes in the morning,” as Ahmeddin Muktar put it, a burly, red-eyed khat exporter in Awedday.
And just as one cup of coffee opens just one eye for many people, requiring an encore or two to be wide awake, a good amount of khat needs to be chewed for the user to get stimulated, and certainly to get suitably “merkhana.”
Chewin' and sortin' at Awedday's khat market
The chemicals that bring on the high are primarily two controlled substances, cathinone and cathine. It is the cathinone that produces stimulatory effects, ten times more potent than cathine, and as a result listed by the USA's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a Category I narcotic, the most restrictive category. Cathine on the other hand is less potent and listed as a Category IV narcotic.
As the cathinone is what provides the buzz, the user wants to get a bushel of khat as fresh as possible, for within 24 hours the leaves start to dry, converting the cathinone into the weaker cathine.
Because of such a short shelf life, khat has to be picked, packed and transported – needing some 15 workers from start to finish – fast. Really fast. The khat is picked in the first hours of sunlight, and once bound by a cord, or else pruned to stems, the khat bushels are bundled into white nylon sacks and then thrown in Isuzu flatbed trucks that tear off at speed to the nearby Dire Dawa airport for export to Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen, China, Israel and Britain. Some seven tonnes of khat are imported into Britain every week.
In the daily khat derby, the narcotic carrying truck can be spotted way before it careens into view, with dust kicked up from the compacted dirt roads and black fumes belching from the exhaust as other vehicles swerve out of the way and camel and goat herders give a wide berth to these wannabe Michael Schumachers. From Harar, if the khat trucks are not heading to the airport of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, they are already racing along the Jijiga road at 1030 in the morning to be on time for people’s afternoon fix in neighbouring Somalia, some 500 kilometres away.
Khat buying and selling in Harar
Cashing in on Khat
Like the drug trade elsewhere, a bundle of money can be made from dealing in khat, at least for the exporters. The major difference between a coke cartel in Colombia and a khat dealer in the Horn of Africa though is that khat is totally legal in Ethiopia and all the countries the narcotic is openly exported to. The Ethiopian government even lists khat among its top exports, at 10% of total exports in 2007, earning the country a much needed $26.6 million a year.
Registering 23.6% in export growth last year, growing khat is far more profitable than Ethiopia’s other stimulating export, coffee, which sells locally for $2.70 a kilo compared to khat at $4.10.
Bagging khat at the Awedday market
Harar fares well in the regional khat exporting stakes, being renowned for its quality due to the area’s high elevation at 2500-plus metres. As Admasu exclaims amid a mouthful of green mush: “The best khat in the world - no, the universe! - is from here!”
In neighbouring Djibouti the khat addled local bigwigs, which includes the president, are willing to shell out up to $100 for a kilo of large, juicy Harar khat leaves while in the US and Saudi Arabia, where khat is illegal, a kilo goes for $300.
Awadday khat exporter Muktar says that from two hectares of khat bushes you can net $20,000 in profit a year – not bad for a country where the average monthly salary is $35.
With 20% growth a year, Muktar says he is interested in new markets. “If you want to start exporting to wherever you are, let me know,” he adds, giving me his business card, a piece of cut cardboard with just his name printed at the bottom.
For the farmer, revenues are not as high, but growing khat comes with the added bonus of having an immediate personal source of narcotics.
Chilling with khat on the outskirts of Harar
Khat plantation outside Harar
At a farm outside of Harar, farmer Younis had toiled away on his land since daybreak and by 10am was lying inside a makeshift tent brewing coffee, listening to the radio and chomping away on fresh pickings brought to him by his wife. From two picking seasons a year, Younis can eke out a living from the Catha Edulis bushes. But as for most Hararis, home-grown produce is not enough for a year long habit, with people spending between thirty to fifty percent of their income on khat.
“I earn a dollar a day, from which I can buy some breakfast, spend 30 to 40 cents on khat, and have some money left for a bite later,” said Lagesse, a 20-year-old security guard in Harar.
This is a major downside of being a khat addict – as it is for most drug addicts, purchasing the daily fix. “If you have a few sprigs of khat today, you’ll want more tomorrow,” says Muktar, declining my offer of a few sprigs at 10am. “I only chew after lunch as I have to work in the morning,” he adds.
Khat addiction also means much of people’s money is not being spent elsewhere in the economy, and getting things done (unless he’s your overnight bus driver, whom you want to be chewing khat to stay alert) can be arduous with so much time given over to getting merkhana. But then with khat taken so openly in Harar, khat doesn’t get in the way of daily life, especially as business meetings and the like will probably take place over a bag of khat anyway.
Quality varies greatly, which is naturally reflected in the cost, ranging from 10 cents for a few sprigs to $6 for a bushel of thirty or forty branches bought at source. Ranging in length from 15 to 30 centimetres, quality can be told in the flexibility of the stems, and how soft and succulent the leaves are. White stemmed khat is particularly sought after, being considered an aphrodisiac.
For the hard up, drier khat can be bought and eaten with peanuts and sugar to mask the bitter taste, or else mashed up with a mortar and pestle to be eaten with a spoon – a technique popular with older men that have lost their inner chompers.
Mashing up khat on the streets of Harar
The additional benefits of taking khat are manifold, at least if you go by what khat users claim.
“When you compare a man that chews khat with a man who doesn’t, men that don’t chew get ill more often,” says Admasu. The fellow next to Admasu, stretched out on the floor and propped up by pillows, concurs. “My father has chewed for 70 years and he is still strong.”
The medical jury is still out on khat, although long term use can cause insomnia, anorexia, gastric disorders, depression and psychosis.
But when it comes to sex drive, khat is considered a potent aphrodisiac, acting not only as a stimulant on the mind but also the body. “You can perform well, but after a while, you’re down,” says Admasu’s friend, giving added emphasis with a hand gesture.
Indeed, a few years ago experiments run by King’s College London found that khat boosts the power of men’s sperm, making them fertile faster and for longer.
The most immediate side effect of khat is not a hard-on though, but insomnia. The narcotic is such a powerful stimulant that sleep is hard to come by, resulting in many khat chewers knocking back beers after the afternoon’s khat session is over. Alcohol serves two functions, picking people’s mood up after the merkhana has worn off, and secondly to bring about drowsiness for at least a few hours sleep.
As most of my fellow chewers were non-practicing Muslims, khat sessions would take up the better part of the day and then be concluded by a trip to a bar for a few bottles of the local brew, Harar Beer, or a St. George’s. Instead of encouragements of “chew, chew,” it would be “drink, drink to get to sleep.”
For the more pious Muslim however, with alcohol a no-go, drowsiness sets in conveniently after the first call to prayer. And herein lies the popularity of khat in the predominantly Muslim Red Sea region. With alcohol and other drugs banned, khat seems to have slipped through the blacklist, not considered by practitioners as in any way “haram” or “mamnou” (iii). In use for a thousand years, khat is viewed like coffee and cigarettes, legal stimulants and a social activity. But in the more hardcore Islamic countries khat is banned, although like a bottle of Scotch can be smuggled into say Saudi Arabia, so is khat.
As if to further snub its nose at more orthodox Islam, at one of Harar's 110 mosques – some as small as to hold only 10 people – men were sprawled out, at 9am, inside the mosque with bags of khat, cigarettes and bottles of soda.
At another institution of discipline and order, the local prison, khat was also being consumed.
“This is the only prison in Ethiopia where khat is sold; the guards use it the most,” points out Admasu. And in Ethiopia, no one is inside for dealing khat or getting “merkhana.”
Taking it easy: The guardian of a mosque on the outskirts of Harar
BOX: “Are you merkhana yet?”
In an area full of khat, it would be as strange to not have a chew as not knock back a few glasses of bubbly when visiting the Champagne region. Getting “merkhana”, high, on khat is certainly an experience, and one that requires preparation. A suitable lunch, preferably big on the liquids, is essential, as is plenty of liquid to wash down the khat, which is very bitter, particularly the first time.
In the khat market town of Awedday, a trader sought me out a good bushel of khat. “This is enough for you to get merkhana,” he said, thrusting a large bag of around 40 freshly cut sprigs of khat into my hands.
Reclining in the open-fronted hallway of a hotel in Harar later in the day, several of us chomped our way like ravenous goats through numerous bags of khat spread out amid cushions and carpets.
A quarter of the way through the bag rapid conversation ensued, ranging from why more tourists don’t visit Ethiopia to the dangers of globalization, to the arrest of Ethiopian pop singer Teddy Afro for homicide, and the state of the world’s media. A third of the way through I started to feel good, very good and at peace with the world. Noticing my increasingly upbeat mood, a fellow khat chewer asked: “Are you merkhana yet?” A nod resulted in smiles and another handful of picked khat leaves thrust in my direction: “chew, chew.”
It became glaringly evident how much of a stimulant khat is later that night when the introspection kicked in. What I took for reading for a short while was in fact three hours, and my brain was still buzzing at 3am. How addictive khat can be was clear the next day when I was feeling a bit grouchy, and by midday I could taste non-existent khat in my right cheek, a clear sign my body wanted to get merkhana again. And it did.
Chewing with Admasu, left, and Ali in a corridor at the Hotel Tewodoros
Clutching a bag of fresh khat at the Awadday market
i) Arabic: Zaatar is thyme.
ii) Iftar is the breaking of the fast at sunset.
iii) Arabic: Haram means "sin/sinful" and mamnou means "forbidden."
All photos by Paul Cochrane