Photos by Meg Ryan. Courtesy Electric Forest
Artillery Row

The perils of mind-altering substances in the Horn of Africa

Stifled by bureaucratic governments, many chew through tonnes of khat

The room looked like a sumptuous scene straight out of The Arabian Nights. Majlis-style mattresses with arm rests and back-cushions lined the floor abutting each of the four walls. Hookah smoking pipes stood dotted around. Ornately carved wooden shutters were thrown back to let in the bright Addis Ababa sunlight. But there was no sign of Scheherazade or any dancing girls. My only companions were ageing expatriate Yemeni gentlemen who had found success in the Ethiopian capital’s business scene.

A few weeks before, I had been staying at the Oriental Hotel in Hargeisa, the capital of neighbouring Somaliland. I bumped into Mohammed in the room next to mine. A gregarious and corpulent individual who spoke excellent English and did business between Ethiopia and Somaliland, Mohammed invited me to join him once I returned to Addis for an afternoon of khat chewing. “You must do it Yemeni style!” Mohammed exclaimed. “It’s the best way.”

Yes and no. After I discovered khat while working as a freelance journalist in Ethiopia, it became increasingly hard to avoid its mildly narcotic leaves that reign supreme over the Horn of Africa. I can’t say I blame those who use it. Despite undoubted development in the likes of Ethiopia, life for the vast majority of the Horn’s residents remains exceptionally hard (as it does for most Ethiopians). Stratospheric levels of unemployment persist, while even the gainfully employed have little to do beyond dull jobs and household chores, and can’t afford to do much else. On top of all this, people must endure total inertia in government and administrative departments, corruption and nepotism everywhere favouring the undeserving few, and Orwellian bureaucracy at every turn to block endeavours. The vast majority of people have no exit strategy. Instead, they take what distraction is available—for many that’s a pleasant afternoon chewing khat with friends, especially in Muslim countries such as Somaliland and Djibouti where popping to the local boozer isn’t an option.

Khat on the train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti

The more I learned about this enigmatic plant–once thought imbued with divine properties in ancient Egypt and the Middle East–the more khat drew me into its mercurial sphere. Hence, I know how whole Saturday afternoons are lost to it, which invariably means Sunday disappearing too, with the post-khat blues kicking in as your addled brain readjusts back to sober reality.  

“I don’t chew as I know the effects,” 24-year-old university lecturer Abdukarim told me in a busy Hargeisa coffee shop. “Initially you feel happy, confident, strong and high. The problem is the result. At the end you are weak. It should be banned.”

After I departed Ethiopia, I continued to return for journalism trips. Conscious of the need to do as much reporting as possible in the limited time available to keep my freelancing head above water, I returned with my guard up when it came to khat, fully aware of how the availability and cheapness of this mind-altering substance can easily scupper getting any work done. But each time I came back, my sober intentions to work hard and keep a clear head invariably got thwarted. So it proved when I reported on the grand opening of the new 728-km train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City on the Horn of Africa coast. After an early start before the sun was up, I boarded the train with ahead of me a 12½-hour passage through the Ethiopian highlands down toward the desert flats, only to find there was not even a coffee or pastry available by way of sustenance. The dining car wasn’t in service yet.

By midday I was cross-eyed with hunger. After picking up passengers at Dire Dawa, close to the Ethiopian-Djibouti border, when the man now seated opposite me offered to share his bundle of khat, I just couldn’t say no (khat also helps suppress your appetite). The rest of the train journey proved blissful, as the whole carriage—almost everyone was chewing—came to life. Even the melancholic traditional Ethiopian music piped through earlier had been replaced by jaunty 1980s melodies. I chewed away and tapped my foot contentedly as George Michael sang “You gotta have faith”.

After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep. They started looking for jobs, being part of the family

Following that trip, I flew to Ethiopia’s most northern Tigray region to report on Eritrean refugees crossing the border. Despite an industrious morning in the city of Mekele near the border, there were still some gaps in my reporting. My fixer suggested we could get the answers we needed by speaking to people at a nearby khat house. I sighed, but agreed to go. I just couldn’t escape those green leaves.

Understanding khat—or as it is also known and spelled, jima, mira, qat, chat and cat—is far from straightforward. Its masticated leaves act as a psychotropic stimulant. But if you take an experimental munch on a couple of bitter leaves for the first time, you will likely be left wondering what all the fuss is about. Because there is a lot of fuss. This innocuous-looking plant has experts variously claiming it is as mild as tea or as addictive as cocaine. In Horn of Africa countries, khat wields an enormous economic impact, as well as playing a major social and cultural role. In Western countries, on the other hand, khat has increasingly fallen foul of legislators’ suspicions. It was banned in the UK in 2014—despite the recommendation of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs not to ban it—leaving some in diaspora communities complaining, others relieved, and African khat exporters in despair at losing lucrative foreign markets.

“Khat would arrive at 5 p.m. on the plane at Heathrow and by 6 p.m. men had left homes and wouldn’t return until 6 a.m.,” I was told about khat’s impact on the UK’s Somali diaspora community. “After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep. They started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”

On a hot afternoon in the Somaliland capital Hargeisa, however, you don’t find much khat-related criticism.

“It brings people together, it facilitates discussion of issues and exchanging information,” I was told by Abdul, a journalist who previously lived in the US and chews khat when on deadline. “In the West it’s often difficult for people to interact, but here they learn about their neighbours and what problems they have.”

Khat has a long history in the Horn of Africa and surrounding Middle East region. Its leaves were viewed as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, while Sufi religious men chewed khat to remain awake to study the Quran. Now khat is so enmeshed with Somaliland culture and daily life it’s a vital tax earner for the government. For Ethiopia, khat is a major earner too: Somaliland spends $524 million a year, about 30 per cent of gross domestic product, on Ethiopian khat. It’s just as popular in Djibouti, from whose shores, some contend, dhows loaded with Ethiopian khat once set out for Yemen, where it now grows in abundance with an equally significant economic, social and cultural impact. Across the border in Saudi Arabia, however, khat is vilified, which, given the oppressive nature of that regime, perhaps says something about the rights and wrongs of khat. I sense the local Saudi population might well benefit if their leaders chewed khat to open up their myopic brains (though they probably already are chewing black-market khat).

“It’s better than alcohol as you can still function normally afterwards,” says Abdul, the corners of his mouth speckled with green mush. “It affects people differently. It depends on your personality. After khat some like to read, others to work.”

Now marooned by COVID-19 in self-isolation, with the thought of yet another book chapter or article being read beginning to assume a threatening tone, if only a bundle of khat leaves were to hand! Fourteen days of the walls closing in would evaporate pleasurably. And if not khat, how about dropping some acid. Don’t get me wrong. I’m conscious of the devastation wrought by drugs, both on a personal level, with mild drug use potentially leading to far harder substances, and in terms of whole countries ruined by the illegal drug trade. I came to khat a narcotic virgin, and for the first 30 years of my life I never touched drugs (bar the ubiquitous spliff tried at university that did absolutely nothing for me and only made me feel ill). Heading to university after 10 years of an all-boys boarding school surrounded by the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth, I didn’t need any extra stimulants beyond a cheap drink to have a good time. This was followed by spending my twenties in the British Army, where drugs remained incommunicado due to the army’s random drug tests (plus I was an upstanding officer, anyhow).

Men chewing khat in the city of Berbera on the Somaliland coast

But after dabbling in the pleasures of khat, I started to wonder about the drug-related prohibitions to which I had always adhered. Especially when I found myself amid the fields and woodlands of the American Electric Forest dance music festival in 2018. Surrounded by the rapturous beaming faces of revellers amid a heady mix of escapism and hedonism saturating the air, I decided it was finally time to see how a Western narcotic offering performed when compared to the one I knew from the Horn of Africa.

“Be careful, you’re about to discover everything they told you is a lie,” one festival reveller told me about the tiny piece of paper I’d just placed under my tongue. Suffice to say it proved one of the greatest nights of my life. That reveller had a point. The experience also opened my eyes to the advice of a fellow army veteran who during our discussions about the fallout of our military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan recommended taking MDMA—ecstasy—once every six months “just to take the edge off”. But, at the same time, as I danced with the Electric Forest masses, all of us facing the same way, equally enthralled by the messianic DJ, it was hard to differentiate between whether one was participating in a moment of wonderful solidarity and humanity or succumbing to a brainwashed cult.

Photos by Meg Ryan. Courtesy Electric Forest

“Waves of solitary joy carry you away to desert islands,” wrote Hungarian novelist Stephen Vinzincsey. The COVID-19 coronavirus is compounding the desert island effect for all of us. How to mitigate that is a challenge. It’s all too easy to overindulge in the potential distractions. Without any khat or acid to hand or easily accessible, I’m having to settle for chewing on and dropping some uplifting memories.

Photos by James Jeffrey unless otherwise stated

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