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The Great Khat Scam of Ethiopia


A pair of young khat scammers in Ethiopia tell Houstonia’s international travel correspondent how—and why—they do it.

I know all the scams. I see them coming a mile away and am often amused that people fall for them in their travels. There’s a million of them, but they’re all centered around separating a tourist from his money. I’d been taken years ago in Thailand in a gemstone con and have made a point since then to distrust most any stranger I meet. There’ve been a dozen attempts to trick me over the years, with most going south for the scammers.

I’d had an amazing first day in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. I was sitting with some locals in a corrugated metal shack in the back of a ramshackle shop where women were making injera, a flatbread that’s a local staple. We were drinking coffee and talking about how it is to live in Ethiopia, deep in our ninth bag of khat, a mild stimulant leaf that is slowly chewed on the side of your mouth with a handful of peanuts. As we sipped down the last drop of coffee and tossed away the empty stalks, a bill was placed in front of me. It was for nearly $100. A hundred American dollars for some Ethiopian coffee and a few bags of leaves? It couldn’t have cost more than $10 to buy something like this in a poverty-stricken country. I had to laugh; I’d never seen the scam coming.

I had just arrived in Addis Ababa and did what I normally do when I don’t want to embark on a lot of research: look on Trip Advisor and see what all the tourists like the most. It was the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum. Catchy name; sounded fun. I decided I would go to the Red Martyrs Museum and then walk from there to some of the other sights.