Banned in the UK as a harmful drug, here khat is a welcome distraction from a life of hardship ― as life for many of the Horn’s residents remains exceptionally hard
After a year in Ethiopia I couldn’t help noticing how many residents in the capital, Addis Ababa, liked to spend a weekend afternoon incongruously chewing green leaves.
Khat – also spelt or known as qat, chat, cat, jima, mira – is to some a harmless stimulant, to others a harmful drug: it was banned in the UK in 2014.
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 sphere. Eventually, for the sake of journalistic duty, I thought I had better chew some.
Once chewed never forgotten: now during travels around the Horn of Africa, khat often intrudes on my mind and is regularly within sight, like a constant tempting companion.
Much of Ethiopia’s prime khat grows in the hills around the prominent eastern Ethiopian cities of Dire Dawa and Harar, about 400km east of Addis Ababa toward the border with Somaliland.
The morning after market trading late into the night, trucks loaded with khat hurtle eastward along rough roads through the Ethiopian lowlands to make deliveries in neighboring Djibouti and Somaliland.
Meanwhile, aircraft with identical cargo are threading through azure skies to locations all around the world.
Khat is an institution in the Horn of Africa, and I can’t say I blame those who use it. For despite undoubted development in the likes of Ethiopia, life for many of the Horn’s residents remains exceptionally hard.
Multitudes have nothing to do beyond dull jobs and household chores, and can’t afford to do much else. There are stratospheric levels of unemployment.