The Khat Conundrum
Somalia's Drug Scourge
By SHIINE OMAR 01/17/2012
Khat Trader
Khat Trader
Khat, a popular amphetamine-like herb, is shrub grown wild or on farms in countries bordering the Red Sea and along the east coast of Africa. The people of these countries have been chewing khat for centuries, and there are several names for the plant, depending on its origin and country: khat, qat, qaad, jaad, or miraa. Khat reaches Somalia from two countries, Kenya (a variety known as miraa) and Ethopia (a variety known as hawadey).

Dozen of airplanes transporting khat arrive in Somalia daily, returning with hundreds of thousands of rare foreign exchange earnings. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the administrations of the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland estimate that $300 million per year is spent on khat within Somalia. It was for this reason that former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre tried to stamp out khat use in the 1970s, blaming the drug trade for sending millions of Somali cash into the economies of hostile countries.

Though khat has been traditionally chewed by Somalis, particularly Islamic scholars, khat consumption today has gone out of control. After Somalia was taken over by warlords in 1991, clan leaders have been using khat as fuel for their militia forces, to give them added confidence in battle. Many argue that khat plays a role in the ongoing civil violence in the country. Militias now expect to be provided with khat, and leaders risk losing the loyalty of their men if they fail to keep them amply supplied.

In addition to participating in militia violence, khat addicts often throw up illegal checkpoints and rob passing motorists, as well as khat transports. Sometimes they kill the guards, which can lead to clashes between clans.

It is believed among Somalis that khat chewers carry out violence against women, including rape, because no one in their community respects them and it is difficult for them to find a wife. Somali women who marry khat chewers, in turn, face many marital problems, including high divorce rates, because khat addicts routinely neglect their families.

The Effects of Khat

Somalia Report interviewed neurological specialist Dr. Yassin Ahmed Nur, who currently lives in Nairobi, about the negative effects of khat consumption.

Doctor Yassin told our interviewer that khat causes mild joy and excitement, similar to that conferred by strong coffee. Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the plant. The effects of khat's active ingredient, cathinone, are felt more quickly than the effects of amphetamines, approximately 15 minutes as compared to 30 minutes. Khat, he related, can cause hyperactive behavior similar to the effects of amphetamines.

The use of khat results in an increased heart rate and blood pressure, that may be followed by mild depression and irritability, fatigue, nightmares, tremors, liver damage, and permanent tooth darkening. It can also reduce one's sex drive and may be linked to an increased risk of throat cancer.

Dr. Yassin added that some researchers call khat is “an amphetamine-like substance”, and that those who use it are more likely to develop mental illnesses. Others say that these mental illnesses are the result of the financial problems and the sleeplessness that the drug causes.

Purveyors of Khat

The Garowe khat market

Ahmed Hassan, a khat dealer, told Somalia Report that he believed khat to be a bad habit.

"My friend started having mental problem four years ago after he chewed a huge amount of khat. But I still sell khat to pay the bills," he said. "I have three children and and a wife, and the income I earn from khat goes to pay school fees for my children, rent, and other family expenses. If I could get another good job, I would. This is a very risky job, sometimes there's violent fighting when someone takes your khat on credit and does not pay you." Anab Ali is a female khat trader in Hargiesa, Somaliland's capital city.

"It is a very bad thing and a risky job, but in a country faced with civil war and joblessness I decided to start selling khat on the streets of Hargeisa," she told Somalia Report. It's not good for women to sell khat, but the profits help create a better life for my children and the rest of my family."

Khat Addicts

Khat addict
Khat addict

Madar Abdi is a 30 year-old man who had been chewing khat since the age of 14.

"I stopped chewing several months ago after the craziest night I can remember," he told Somalia Report. "I went to the toilet when I came back to the chewing circle I was naked, because I had left my trousers and underwear in the bathroom. I only realized that I did not have any clothes after I saw my friends laughing at me. After that I decided to stop chewing khat." Mohamed Saeed is a khat consumer in Buro, located in the breakaway region of Somaliland, and he told Somalia Report that everyone knows that khat chewing is very dreadful habit, but once you begin it works its way into your blood.

"I've chewed khat for a long time, and it's caused me massive problems," he said. "The worst effects are an increased heart beat, decreased sex drive, and headaches that come after you can't sleep for a while. Second, most people do not trust you because they believe that you are an irresponsible person who lives in a fantasy world. The one thing people can do to escape this drug is to get job that keeps them busy, so they do not think about it."