Qat culture in Harar: East Africa’s favorite legal high

qat, Qat, qat chewing, qat market, Ethiopia, khat, Khat
Every afternoon in Harar, you see men walking along carrying plastic bags filled with leaves. Hararis aren’t big fans of salads; they’re chewing these leaves for a completely different reason. It gets them high.

Qat (pronounced “chat” in Harari, Amharic, and Somali) is a narcotic leaf from a fast-growing bush found all over the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It’s legal and hugely popular in this region.
In Harari culture it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha (qat-chewing session) where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work.

I’m not going to be coy like some travel writers and talk about drugs in foreign countries while pretending I haven’t used them. When I’m in Harar I chew qat regularly. I attend a birtcha at the home of a man who works in one of the government bureaus. Birtchas usually attract people who have similar jobs, political views, or who are friends from childhood. My birtcha includes dictionary writers, government workers, and a public prosecutor. A birtcha gives people a chance to while away the afternoon in conversation.

Visitors to Harar will be invited to several birtchas. Going to them allows you to see the inside of Harari homes and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been to birthcas in more than a dozen homes.

%Gallery-120576%When I mentioned I was writing this article, my birtcha got into a debate over whether qat is a drug or not. Some said that because it’s legal it’s not a drug, similar to some Americans I’ve known who insist alcohol and caffeine aren’t drugs. I don’t agree. Qat is a drug like alcohol, caffeine, or marijuana. Qat is a mild drug, though. Chewing a large bundle has less of an effect on my mind than three pints of beer.

In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby describes having wild psychotic trips from some of the qat he chewed. Perhaps he chewed more or was more susceptible, but I’ve had nothing like the results he had. The effects on me, like most people, are slow in coming. You usually don’t feel anything for almost an hour, although by this time you’ve been having a nice conversation with friends in a traditional Harari home and feel relaxed anyway. Then you notice a deeper relaxation, mingled with a feeling of goodwill that can become euphoric if you chew enough. Food tastes better, cigarettes taste sweet (or so I’m told) and at least for me colors appear more vibrant.

The best effect of qat is that you end up in long, enthusiastic conversations that can last for hours. Unlike with booze or pot, you’ll actually remember these conversations later! After a time many people quieten down and start to work. Qat helps concentration and often people in a birtcha drop out of the conversation one by one and start writing or working on their laptops. Others return to their offices. Some students use it to help them study for exams. Manual laborers say it’s good for physical work too.

Like all substances, qat has side effects. Chewing too much can lead to sleeplessness and constipation. Long-term use can also lead to mental instability. In qat-chewing regions you’ll always see a few older guys with ragged clothes and wild eyes wandering the streets collecting discarded qat leaves that people have dropped onto the ground. Another downside is that farmers are growing qat instead of food. Most crops can only be harvested once or twice a year. A field of qat plants can be harvested every day by taking shoots from a few plants one day and different ones the next. Farmers like having the constant source of income but its lowering the region’s food production, a really bad idea in a country that sees periodic droughts.

All in all, I think the social effects of qat in Ethiopia are no worse than alcohol in Western countries. The number of qat addicts in Ethiopia’s streets is no greater than the number of winos on Western streets. Qat is a social lubricant that has bad effects for those who use it too much, but for the casual user it’s harmless.

I’m a bit worried about this article. It’s impossible to talk about Harari culture without talking about qat but I don’t want Harar to become a destination for drug tourism. Right now there’s a relaxed, friendly relationship between foreigners and Hararis. A bunch of wasted tourists would spoil that really quickly. I don’t think drug tourists would like Harar, though. Qat’s effects are mild and slow to start. Most drug tourists want to get blasted, and qat doesn’t do that. They also want other drugs, and all of them are illegal in Ethiopia. Despite being considered the Holy Land by Rastafaris, getting caught with marijuana in Ethiopia can get you two years in jail.

So please, if you come to Ethiopia, feel free to chew chat, but don’t try anything else. You don’t want to mess with the Ethiopian justice system. The public prosecutor at my birtcha opens Coke bottles with her teeth.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Visiting the Argobba, a little-known African tribe!