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!

Exploring a Somali camel market

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is built on an oasis used by nomads since ancient times. It’s been a center for camel and livestock trading for centuries. Hargeisa’s camel market, the Senlaola Hoolaha as it’s called in Somali, is a huge and dusty field a mile from the city center. Most of the day it´s used as playground by schoolchildren, but between 7 and 12 a.m. the scene is taken over by camels, goats, sheep, cows, their respective owners and of course prospective owners.

It´s a tumultuous place. The men are inspecting the animals or standing in groups sharing the latest gossip. The women have occupied a big part of the field for their own business of selling food to hungry traders. Some have traveled for days to sell their goods. The camel herders, who generally travel without any motorized transport, have been traveling for as long as two weeks and from as far away as the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.

A camel can cost anything from 300 to 1000 dollars depending on its age, strength, and of course the buyer’s ability to haggle. All camels have been marked with the owner’s special sign to avoid any conflicts about ownership.

%Gallery-93036%Not everyone can learn how to recognize a good camel, says Hassan, who has been buying and selling camels and goats at Senlaola Hoolaha for twenty years. He enthusiastically shows me where to check on the camel’s back to know its age and health. You have to know how what to look for or you’ll get cheated, he says. Many camel herders give their camels extra water to make them look fatter than they really are, and only a well-trained eye can spot the difference.

To make sure that your bargaining doesn’t affect anyone else’s deals, an intricate technique of hand signs has been developed. The two businessmen put a shawl over their interlocked hands, and the bids are communicated by touch. The negotiations usually last from five to ten minutes but can take up to half an hour. The system might seem complicated at first glance, but the logic is simple and easy to learn. Every finger has a number. All the numbers from 1 to 9 represented. One, for example, would be described by grabbing the index finger at the tip. In the case bigger numbers are needed a zero can be added by grabbing a bigger part of the finger. One finger can therefore describe 1, 10, 100, 1000. Since both parties know the general price for a goat or a camel the use of zero is limited.

If you’ve ever been to the camel market at Birqash, near Cairo, you’ll probably notice one significant difference. While in Egypt you’ll constantly be followed around by hustlers, in Hargeisa you won´t be offered anything but long gazes of amazement. Here you are the only tourist around and you´ll soon find yourself, not the camels, becoming the main attraction.

(Note: the photos and much of the text in this post are the work of Leo Stolpe, a Swedish photojournalist who joined me on some of my Somaliland adventures. I merely edited the text and added a few things. Unfortunately, the program I’m using doesn’t allow me to put him in the byline. Check out Leo’s website for more great photos from his epic travels in east Africa.)

Hargeisa: a capital in search of a country

For a people without an official nation, Somalilanders sure love their flag.

It’s everywhere–painted on doors, flying from government buildings and private homes, hanging from rear view mirrors, worn on belt buckles and even knitted into a cap like this barber is wearing in the photo. Somalilanders are proud of their nation and want everyone to know it.

After sleeping off a grueling ten-hour bus ride to get to the capital Hargeisa, I wake up and see at least a dozen flags from my hotel window. I’m eager to start exploring. I don’t know what to expect. Somalilanders say the capital is safe, but can an unrecognized government next to one of the world’s worst war zones really keep the peace?

My contact in Harar, Muhammed Dake, had assured me, “Hargeisa is safe. Just watch out for two things. Foreigners are offered prostitutes and alcohol. Both are illegal.”

I can handle that. I’ve never paid for sex in my life and if I can’t go without booze for a week, I should go without it forever.

I’m staying at the Oriental Hotel, the country’s oldest, having been built in 1953 when this was still the colony of British Somaliland. After two months in the Horn of Africa it is by far the nicest place I’ve stayed in–clean sheets, good service, new facilities, and water and electricity that never go off. Even before making it into the street I can see the government and investors are getting at least some things right.

The Oriental Hotel is in the center of town next to a large mosque, rows of low concrete buildings housing shops and apartments, and the gold market. It’s here, in the first half hour of my first day, that I get a lesson about the kind of country the Somalilanders have built.

%Gallery-92887%First stop is the money changer, who sits on the ground with a pile of bank notes around him. The Somaliland shilling isn’t internationally recognized, so it fluctuates constantly and hard currency is in big demand. “Hard currency” even includes Ethiopian birr, the currency of their biggest trading partner. You can use it as cash just about anywhere, and every shopkeeper knows the day’s exchange rate. One U.S. dollar is worth about 6,800 shillings, but since the government hasn’t printed notes above 500, any trip to the money changer gives you a gangster-style wad of cash. These exchanges happen in the open without any sign of worry. The money changers do keep the hard currency in their pocket, though.

At the gold market, mesh wire boxes the size of small tables sit by the side of the street displaying chains, rings, and earrings. Most of these “shops” are run by women in niqab, a full face veil made of black cloth. The niqab has become increasingly common in Somaliland and the Muslim parts of Ethiopia in recent years. Gold is handled freely and in the open, despite there being no police around. At one point I see a gold seller showing a tray of earrings to a customer. The customer walks away without buying anything and the jeweler goes off to talk to someone else, leaving the tray on top of her box. I stand a few meters away, watching and wondering what would happen. Will someone run up and grab it? Will another merchant chase down the dealer and tell her to put away her gold? Or will they put it away for her?

What actually happens is what I least expect–nothing. Nobody touches it, and after five minutes the jeweler finally comes back and calmly puts away the earrings.

When I ask Muhammed Dake about this later he shrugs and says, “Nobody steals in the market. It would mean a bullet, and that would mean civil war.”

In Somaliland, even the thieves appreciate stability.

Everyone knows what it could be like. Somaliland became independent in 1960 and a few days later joined Somalia. It was a fatal mistake. Soon the brutal dictator Siad Barre was in power and the Somalilanders tried to break away. Barre’s air force leveled Hargeisa, killing thousands. Somalia disintegrated into dozens of warring factions and Barre’s regime eventually fell. Only Somaliland was able to create a nation. The rest of former Somalia is a living hell of constant warfare. A steady stream of refugees flees to Somaliland looking for a better life.

Hargeisa is a new city, having risen literally out of the ashes of the old one. Every now and then you spot evidence of the past in a heap of rubble or pockmark shrapnel scars on a concrete wall. Most buildings are new and the sound of countless hammers counterpoints with the muezzin’s call over the city.

This place is a traveler’s dream. There’s nothing to see–no museums, no art galleries, virtually no monuments, there are only the people. Ancient ruins and fine art are great, but in any country it’s the people who teach you the most.

In Somaliland a foreigner will have no trouble meeting the locals. In a week I see only half a dozen other Westerners, even the Chinese engineers ubiquitous in the rest of Africa are absent, so I’m a curiosity wherever I go. I cannot walk down Hargeisa’s dusty streets for more than two minutes without someone starting a conversation. If I stop for any length of time a crowd gathers. At times I even block traffic. When I tell them I’m writing about Somaliland the inevitable answer is, “Thank you,” followed by,

“See how safe it is here, don’t forget to tell them that,” or,

“It’s not like the rest of Somalia. Why don’t people understand?” or,

“We need recognition. Then we can get more investment.”

Recognition is on everyone’s mind. Recognition would provide foreign investors, international aid, and dignity. Somaliland doesn’t even have a postal system because the Universal Postal Union won’t recognize it as a nation. Everyone uses private couriers like DHL or the reliable broadband Internet available in most cities. And while the Somali diaspora invests millions in the country, international recognition would bring in international organizations and specialists to help with building infrastructure, dealing with refugees, and tackling poverty. Somaliland has only a fraction of the NGOs that Ethiopia has, and few foreign companies. Yet this region of former Somalia has built up a stable nation with virtually no help from abroad. Meanwhile aid money pours into the chaos to the south, to no visible effect.

So as I wander in and out of shops selling the latest electronics, or through street markets filled with shoppers, or watch workers busy putting up yet another building, I ask myself, “What did these people do wrong? How isn’t this a country?” It’s like suddenly every court in the world decided my wife and I weren’t married, and my son is a bastard.

Who decides these things, and why?

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

Next time: Hargeisa’s camel market!

Somaliland adventure: getting to nowhere

One of the tempting things about travel in Ethiopia is the proximity to other nations offering a variety of different experiences. I decided that my two-month trip would include a side trip to Somaliland.

The first reaction most people have when I say I’ve been to Somaliland is, “You went to Somalia? Are you crazy?”

The answer is no on both counts. Somaliland is the other Somalia, the place that doesn’t get into the news because it’s at peace. Somaliland encompasses the northern third of former Somalia and declared independence in 1991. After a bloody war of independence it quietly settled down to create a nation in a region better known for its pirates, terrorists, and warlords. It’s east of Djibouti, northeast of Ethiopia, and west of Puntland, another breakaway region.

Somaliland isn’t recognized by the rest of the world. Other nations insist the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is the legitimate government of all Somalia, despite it only controlling the airport and half the capital. Somaliland is officially nowhere.

Luckily for me, Nowhere has an efficient office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that issues visas. Actually getting into Somaliland is less straightforward. There are daily flights to the capital Hargeisa from Addis and other regional cities, but I prefer overland travel because it’s cheaper and allows you to see the countryside. I’d spoken with various Somaliland officials as to the advisability of this choice. Some said the overland route wasn’t safe for foreigners, while others insisted it was. I decided to visit Harar in eastern Ethiopia and check for myself.

Harar is a small city and within the first day I’d heard from three different people that the man to talk to was Muhammed Dake, a Somali-Ethiopian author and guide who has many connections on both sides of the border. I found him to be a font of information. His English is good and he can be contacted at guleidhr(at)yahoo(dot)com. Please note he’s very busy and can only answer serious inquiries about travel to Somaliland. As luck would have it, his cousin and a friend were headed back home to Hargeisa on the bus and agreed to take me along. Both were jalabis, women who wore the traditional Muslim garb of the region that covers everything but the face and hands. Traveling with them was bound to get me even more attention than usual.

“Don’t worry,” Dake said. “They’ll say you’re a convert to Islam and that they’re your wives.”

%Gallery-92636%My “wives” don’t speak much English, but as we head to the bus station one manages to tell me she used to live in Mogadishu before fleeing to Hargeisa and how grateful she is to live in a place where there’s no gunfire in the streets.

The first leg of the journey is a bus from Harar east to Jijiga, capital of the Somali province of Ethiopia. People are jammed in the rickety seats–old men and workers, women in jilabas, hordes of children and infants. A leper shoulders his way through the crowd begging for alms. We’re packed in with our luggage because the roof is covered with kegs of beer. The bus descends through a winding mountain pass dotted with villages. My attention is divided between the landscape and a poster taped to the partition behind our driver. It shows a Western model posed like a Hellenic statue, a perfect ruby of a nipple leading us on to Jijiga.

After a couple of hours we pull into Jijiga’s bus station–a clamorous, dusty, crowded place thick with flies. My traveling companions decide it’s a good place to have lunch. They take me to a stall made of a latticework of eucalyptus poles covered in plastic sheeting and cardboard. The only thing on the menu is spaghetti that we eat with our hands.

I quickly make a fool of myself. Since in this region you can only eat with one hand (the other being reserved for the final stage of the digestive process) there is no way to get all those unruly strands of pasta together long enough to make the trip to your mouth. Of course the four-year-old boy next to me is doing it just fine. He gives me a wide-eyed stare.

After amusing everyone with my bad table manners we squish ourselves into a minibus and head to the border. Soon the low concrete buildings of Jijiga disappear behind us and the road descends through rockier and drier terrain. We pass through a valley filled with boulders and eerie spires that loom over the road. Soon it flattens out and we’re speeding along a dry, featureless plain of stone and scrub. The beehive-shaped huts of wood and thatch so common throughout Ethiopia are replaced by low domes of wickerwork covered in tarpaulins, rags, and plastic. Lines of camels walk sedately along the road.

Tog Wuchale, straddling the Ethiopia-Somaliland border, has the distinction of being the second ugliest town I have ever seen. It’s a huddle of concrete buildings, shacks, and tents in the middle of a dusty plain strewn with garbage. Flies swarm over masses of rotting food. Every thorn bush is draped in plastic bags. There doesn’t seem to be a trash can in the entire province. This is what happens when a nomadic people are suddenly thrust into consumer culture. Before, a family might have occasionally thrown something away, a worn-out basket perhaps, but it would soon disintegrate. Nothing ever accumulated because the people themselves were always moving. Now they’ve settled and joined The Age of Plastic.

As soon as we’re off the bus, a “customs agent” tries to shake me down for money. My travel companions fling a few choice Somali words at him and he slinks away. Anyone who thinks Muslim women can’t stand up for themselves has never been to a Muslim country. They hire a porter with a bright yellow wheelbarrow to take their suitcases across the border and we pick our way through heaps of garbage past a sad trickle of a river choked with trash that oozes through the center of town. My poor boots. I pity the ladies in their sandals.

As we approach the border another guy comes up saying he’s a customs agent and asks to see my passport. Of course I blow him off. I mean, he has no ID, not even a uniform! But he speaks good English and is persistent.

“Where’s your uniform?” I ask. He looks confused.

We arrive at the Ethiopian side of the border, marked only by a tent in front of which two soldiers sit chewing chat, a narcotic leaf, their AK-47s resting on their laps. I try to hand them my passport but they point to the fellow who’s been following me.

“I told you I was a customs agent,” he grumbles as he stamps my passport.

A quick inspection on the other side of the border and I get my Somaliland stamp. I am now officially nowhere.

Now it’s time to get somewhere. My companions, who like all the other Somalis didn’t get checked on either side of the border, find a shared taxi. It’s a beat up old station wagon with a slow leak in two tires. The driver is a bleary-eyed maniac with chat leaves sticking out of his mouth. He’s also a sadist. He stuffs ten adult passengers, one infant, and an immense pile of luggage inside. One guy straddles the gear shift. I’m squashed between the door and my friend from Mogadishu.

Mr. Chat slams on the gas and we peel out into the desert. The only road is a groove of tire tracks over sand and pebbles. We weave between bushes and dodge the occasional camel. The view out the front window looks like some low-budget video game. I’m not afraid. Even if we hit something, the door and my “wife” have me jammed into place better than any seat belt. We head into the dusk as the broken window funnels a spray of fine sand into my face.

After a while we mercifully come to a newly paved road and speed on, halted only by regular checkpoints. My passport is scrutinized at every one. While I’m sorely tempted to use these breaks to get out and stretch my legs–they haven’t moved for hours and my knees get slammed by the driver’s seat every time we hit a bump–everyone warns me not to get out of the car. At this point my left leg is getting excruciating cramps, and for the last half hour into Hargeisa I stand up with my back pressed against the roof.

Entering Hargeisa at night the first thing I notice is that all the lights are on. In Harar I endured daily blackouts. Neon signs flash ads for expensive imports. People sit at cafes. Shoppers stroll along the street. We pull up in front of the Oriental Hotel and I thank my companions. I limp inside to discover I’m in a posh hotel.

Nowhere has a First World capital.

Coming up next: Hargeisa, a capital in search of a country.