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!

Harar home stay: living in a traditional African home

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If you’re staying for any length of time in a place, the best way to experience the local culture is through a home stay. Luckily Harar has a number of traditional homes offering spare rooms.

A local guide showed me a few and I chose one hidden away in a small alley not far from the Catholic mission. This is the neighborhood that got Harar a UNESCO religious tolerance award because there’s an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a Catholic mission, and several mosques all within sight of each other. Walking home I use three minarets and a giant cross as landmarks.

Harari homes look inward. All you see is a gate that leads to a compound of two or more houses, hidden behind their own gates. Enter the second gate and you’re still not inside, you’re in a courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other a large, ornately carved wooden door leading to the main building. Harari homes have a unique architecture. With thick stone walls and small windows, they stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day. Leaving your shoes at the front door, you enter the nedeba, or living room. The walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and often cabinets with multicolored glassware. Hararis love to decorate their rooms with the products of their centuries-old crafts. People sit on a series of platforms, reclining against pillows. The platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at the battle of Tchellenqo in 1887, when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II defeated Harar’s Emir Abdullahi and the city lost its independence.

Where you sit depends on who you are. The amir nedeba is where the head of the family sits. It’s on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound. In olden days there was a spot for keeping some spears right next to the amir nedeba, just in case the person entering the compound wasn’t welcome. After a month in Harar I’ve only seen one guy who regularly carries a spear, though.

%Gallery-119012%I’m a regular at a few Harari homes and nobody throws spears at me. Since I’m an honored guest from far away, I sit at the gidir nedeba, the place of honor. I’ve seen members of the family sitting in that spot immediately move when I come in. No amount of protest will get them to sit back down. The next level down is the tit nedeba (“small place”) for lower-ranking people. This isn’t strictly followed, however. One birtcha (qat-chewing session) I attend has so many people that even some of the most prominent individuals sit on the lower level because there isn’t enough room on the upper. Another, separate platform is called the gebti eher nedeba (“the place behind the door”) and is for the young or people of a lower social class.

Harari homes are full of symbolism. My friend Amir says, “Every color, every shape means something. Most Hararis cannot know it all.”

Even little details are worked out in advance, he says. There’s a special room with a narrow entrance for women to stay during childbirth. It’s wider at the top so that big platters of food can be passed through.

The width of the bedroom door corresponds to the width of a coffin. “That’s to remind you of your fate and to live a good life,” he says.

My house, owned by Faisel and Anisa Abdullah, has a separate upstairs all for me. I get a bedroom, a living room, and a lounge with no furniture but a bunch of pillows ranged around the walls. This is for entertaining. Friends will sit here drinking coffee or chewing qat and talking the hours away. My rooms cost me 3500 birr ($212) a month. Water is included and this is important to confirm when renting a place because water is expensive in Harar, especially in the dry season we’re in now. I wasn’t expecting to have only a squat toilet and bucket showers but it turns out the bathroom has a European-style toilet and a proper shower, luxuries I don’t need but certainly appreciate.

Imme, a German painter staying in a different neighborhood, has three rooms even larger than mine for 3000 birr ($182) a month, but got the more traditional African bathroom. Both of us have far more space than we need, and for a price lower than the city’s hotels!

A home stay allows you to settle in a neighborhood for a while. The closed-off nature of Harari architecture means I haven’t met most of my neighbors, but I’m getting to know the people I pass in the nearby alleys every day. I’m also getting into the rhythm of the place. Just before dawn the muezzin of the Jamia mosque wakes me up with the morning call to prayer. The first couple of mornings I had a hard time falling back asleep, but now the flowery sounds of Arabic barely register in my dreams. I’d make a bad Muslim. The muezzin’s call to prayer is followed by low chanting coming from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, announcing their morning service.

I’m usually up shortly after dawn in any case. Outside my window I can hear the kids from the local school horsing around before the bell rings. If I peek out my window I can just see the front door of the school over the rooftops. The kids in their yellow shirts and sky-blue pants or skirts wait in the shade or run around after each other laughing.

Soon I’m out wandering around Harar. I usually don’t come back until night, when I sit for an hour or two writing in my living room before turning in. The open window lets in all the sounds of the Harari night. Hyenas laugh and howl at the edge of town like the mad lost souls of Purgatory, sometimes getting closer, sometimes drawing away or shifting position. The town dogs bark defiantly but do no good. I often see hyenas pacing through the alleys in the center of town looking for scraps to eat. They keep quiet then, preferring to make noise outside the city walls. The battle ebbs and flows all night, at times lapsing into an eerie silence. Then the hyenas will call to each other again and the dogs will bark self-importantly, completely ignored by the hyenas.

It’s like falling asleep to music.

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

Coming up next: A visit to a traditional healer!

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!