Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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The Argobba: visiting a little-known African tribe

Argobba, argobba
Ethiopia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and tribes. Some have populations numbering in the millions, while others have only a few thousand. One of the smallest tribes is the Argobba, a Muslim people scattered in villages across eastern Ethiopia. The Argobba number only about 10,000, yet they’re determined to be counted in Ethiopia´s government and are fighting to preserve their heritage.

The closest Argobba village to Harar is Koromi, and is one of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Harar. This village of about 700 people is an hour’s drive through rugged mountains south of Harar. I went with Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com), a local historian and guide who wrote a government report on the Argobba back in 1997. Each ethnic group and tribe is guaranteed a seat in the Ethiopian legislature, but before Mohammed’s report the Argobba were lumped in with the Harari and had no separate representation. His report proved they were a distinct culture and ensured them a seat in the legislature.

It’s easy to understand the government’s mistake, however. The Argobba and the Hararis share a lot of culture and history, as I was to learn when I visited Koromi.

We set out in a Landcruiser early in the morning, taking the road towards Ethiopia’s Somali region before heading onto a dirt track leading uphill. As we trundle along we pass villages of the Oromo, the region´s largest ethnic group, and big fields of qat plants the size of trees. Qat and groundnuts are the main sources of income for Argobba farmers. They’re especially good at growing qat and make lots of money selling it to qat-loving Hararis. We passed several lines of women walking to market. Considering that a trip from Harari to Koromi takes an hour by car, these women must walk most of the day.

%Gallery-120765%We continue up the dirt road, constantly gaining altitude and getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside as we pass herds of donkeys and camels bringing water in bright yellow plastic jugs from the area’s rare springs to distant villages.

A good stop on the way is Aw Sofi, an important shrine to a Muslim saint. Shrines to Muslim saints dot the countryside around Harar and there are dozens within the walled city. Legend says Sofi was one of the 44 original saints who founded Harar. While others developed the city and its unique way of life, Sofi stayed in the countryside teaching Islam and founded the first madrasa of Harar. The shrine is within a walled enclosure and is a tall, whitewashed dome gleaming in the sun.

Koromi is about a half hour further along the road atop a narrow ridge surrounded by terraced farmland. The low, flat-topped houses blend into the pale brown of the rock and only the brightly colored front doors stand out.

As we pull into town our vehicle is immediately surrounded by a crowd of children. The men are all out in the fields working and the village is left to the women, children, and one old man. As we walk down the main street, a dusty trail between clusters of houses, we’re followed by almost fifty kids and a couple of curious women. Most women keep an aloof distance, looking at us with only mild interest or ignoring us completely.

Nobody speaks English so it’s up to Mohammed to translate for me. The Argobba say they arrived in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago, just about the same time Harar was being founded. They originally lived well to the north, where some Argobba villages remain, but when the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes tried to force them to convert to Christianity in the 17th century, most fled to the Muslim enclave of Harar and its surrounding countryside.

This is the Argobba version of events. Scholars differ as to where they came from. Some say they were simply rural Harari whose ways changed over time from the city dwellers. Others say the Argobba are more recent arrivals. In fact, nobody knows, and the Argobba’s own story is probably the most accurate.

We are invited into a home and I immediately feel like I’m back in Harar. Once my eyes adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim interior I see it looks like a traditional Harari home. Only the colorful baskets that adorn Harari walls are missing; stainless steel cookware hang from the walls instead.

This blend of cultures is typical of the Argobba. The women wear traditional Argobba jewelry but otherwise dress like the Oromo, the main ethnic group in this region. Also, while the Argobba have gained political representation, they’re still struggling to preserve their language. Most of those who live near Harar speak Oromo, yet in Koromi they speak Harari mixed with a bit of Amharic, the national language. Only a few villages in the north still speak the Argobba language. Hopefully the Argobba will fight to preserve their heritage and keep their language from going extinct.

As we continue to explore the village I feel a bit frustrated. The children are too excited to have a serious conversation, and most of the women get shy after a few questions. This is not how I like to travel. I prefer what I have back in town–hanging out with Hararis all day getting into deep conversations about their history and culture. Here in the village I feel like both visitor and locals are on display. I’m wandering around taking pictures while being an object of entertainment and fascination for all the local kids. Fun, but not too informative.

What I do learn, though, is that Ethiopia is more than just the main ethnic groups that get represented in the media. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, and Somali that I and other visitors spend most of the time with are only a fraction of the rich diversity of Ethiopia. After four months I’ve only scratched the surface of what this county has to offer.

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

Coming up next: Hyenas in Harar: a strange relationship between beast and man!

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!

Khat: the legal high of East Africa

East Africa is addicted to leaves.

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.

%Gallery-93278%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 midafternoon 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 Hargeisa 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 Hargeisa 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.

For those wanting to learn more, Erowid is a good basic source, and the new Khat Research Program at the University of Minnesota plans to produce some definitive studies.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Bumbling in Berbera, a khat comedy of errors!