The Khat Wars

by Maniza Naqvi

Give me a break I mutter. I text—and I text. Incessantly I text. Send money. Now. Send money. More money. You don’t reply. You will. It is Spring and I am young. Everyone around me on the beach is around my age or younger. We are young.

I offer: Let’s chat. Then I wait. Stretching out leisurely I see stretching before me powdery pristine white sand, waves gently furling and unfurling, nibbling at the beach as far as my eyes can see—a cloudless blue sky mirroring a gentle ocean to my right. A gentle ocean—its blue so blue against the sky and the white that I cannot even give it a name—this blue—this blue of abundance. This blue of calm and peace. This blue of happiness. This combination of blue and white—this perfect sweet air, a fresh ocean breeze. And I am high, feeling the buzz—of this intoxicating time. The beach vibrates—undulates and shivers—trembles with life, the shells, clams and crabs– alive. On the distance horizon over the ocean I can make out cargo ships, probably Chinese and Dutch and trawlers, probably Japanese, netting the big fish. Our fish.

I keep strolling. My bare feet cushioned and caressed by billions of tiny grains of the ocean’s past. I keep on walking, looking ahead of me, in the Spring sunshine, texting my message—Can you chat? Please chat. I know it might take a few hours it might be instant but you will respond. You always do. Then there it is. Your reply.

Yes. I am here. You reply. You always do.

Send more money I’ve run out. I will write. I always do.

Again? So soon? The words will appear.

Yes. I will reply.

Why? You will ask.

You know what our expenses are I shoot back instantly. That is just the way it is. I will add.

I sent mother the money. I sent it to her only yesterday. Take it from her. You will protest.

But I have expenses too. I retort. Send me money.

What expenses? You ask. I send money for everything for the rent, for the clothes, for Aisha’s wedding, for the TV, for the groceries, the phone bill, the electricity bill, your school, shoes, the goats. What are your expense? What is new?

Nothing new I will write.

Suddenly you will stop chatting and will face time me.

And I will point the phone away from my face and towards the beach. Look. Look at your beautiful Somal.

What is new? You will insist.

Nothing. I will say. I will laugh.

Are you chewing Khat? You will be annoyed.

Of course, I am. I will laugh. Of course, I am. You will too when you get home tonight in Bristol.

But you are only 14. You will say.

It is not just me it is everyone. I will say. If there are ten boys on the beach, nine of us for sure, will chew it. Nine of us will wait anxiously for the ten flights per day that will land in Mogadishu with fresh supplies from Dire Dawa in Ethiopia and from Nairobi. We wait at the airport for the arrival of Khat more impatiently then we wait for the arrival of loved ones from abroad.

But it is not good. You will say.

But it is. You are chewing it. I will reply.

It should be banned. You will say. But it is not. I will reply.

It is only now banned in Britain. It was not banned for you and you were chewing it there. So why should it be banned for us? I will sound resentful

Cut the crap. You will say.

Do you want to chat or not? I will ask? Do you want me to go? It’s a threat, that far from home makes anyone sick. Now send more money— I need it here.

For khat? You will ask.

We do not grow it here. That is a pity. But we chew it. And we buy it with the cash we have. If only we grew it—then we could buy it for less money. But we import it. It drinks a lot of water when it grows. So better that it grows in Ethiopia and in Kenya and in Yemen. It is their best crop. Maybe they have water. Maybe they are not thirsty—they can grow Khat. Maybe they are not hungry—maybe it fills their stomach? Maybe someone else brings them food so they can chew and grow Khat and have no other worries. I say this. I repeat it again quickly. At the airport we await the arrival of Khat more than we await your arrival home. I am flying, flying, flying.

You never ask when I am going to come back? You will say. I can hear sadness in your voice—though you pretend that it is just a joke you are cracking.

We are only chatting. I wish you would get angry with me. You never do. It’s an illness of those who leave. You feel guilty. For leaving us.

When will you return? I ask.

Soon. When I have saved enough money. You say.

I will come to the airport to pick you up. I say. I laugh. You will be the king coming home to the land of the Pharaohs. Someday soon we will have oil and we will be kings. I will pay you back then.

You laugh.

I pretend not to see the moisture in your eyes. It has not rained in months. I say.

For us the airport means the arrival of Khat. And it is from the airport where our brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts arrive when they come to visit us. With money, the little Pharaohs who rule us from afar. And it is here that the bags of food aid also arrive. Ah the airport—the source of so much. Our mixed bag of arrivals and departures.

Note: Somalia at the edge of the Horn of Africa, is a resource rich country and with 2300 kilometers of a coastline making its fisheries a potential US44 billion annual trade, its pristine white sand beaches and Indian Ocean waters potentially a tourism haven. Somalia potentially has an oil and gas reserves half the size of Saudi Arabia. It is also the leader in the usage of digital technology for commerce and cash transfers and remittance transfers.

Khat, Qat, Qaad, Jaad, or chat has affected the livelihoods of people as well as the economy at large. Addiction to Khat is like any other drug addiction that has physiological as well as psychological effects. Some sources estimated that 90 percent of adult males in Somalia and the regions of Somaliland and Puntland are addicted to Khat while official estimates are much lower. From a macroeconomic perspective, it has led to siphoning of money to neighboring countries as it is not cultivated in Somalia and is imported into the country primarily from neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Once Khat shipments arrive in Somalia, the profits from the trade are divided among the owners of airstrips and warlords. According to one estimate from 2016, 15 cargo flights, full of Khat, arrive in Mogadishu every day from Kenya and have a total retail value of around USD 400,000. The effect of Khat on cognitive abilities as well as on employment and livelihoods is yet to be measured but once an individual gets addicted to Khat, they are likely to abandon work, including livestock husbandry and spend their cash on the purchase of Khat. Those households that consume it, on average spend USD 9.8 on Khat per week. There are claims made that Khat suppresses hunger pangs and makes heat in a hot climate bearable. But the cultivation of this lucrative cash crop by farmers in Ethiopia, choosing to grow Khat instead of food crops contributes to the vicious cycle of food insecurity and the risk of famine. The supply of international food aid enables local farmers to continue to grow Khat.

One of the wealthiest and most powerful Khat dealers is Suhara Ismail an Ethiopian-Somali woman in Jijiga, Ethiopia, who’s trucks and private plane carry Khat to Dijbouti, Yeman, Somali and the Middle East as well as up country into the rest of Ethiopia. This Khat trade from Ethiopia is estimated at US$4 billion annually.

Khat was legal in Europe and the United States till recently where it was mainly consumed by Somali diaspora. Khat remains legal in Kenya and Ethiopia, the two the main exporters of this drug. Until it was banned in 2014 an estimated 56 tons of it arrived weekly at London’s Heathrow airport with an estimate of GBP 12.7 million were remitted to Kenya in 2010 alone for this trade. Somalia is the main international market left for Kenyan Khat. Ethiopia also exports Khat to Somalia, Yemen and Gulf countries. Khat was previously banned in Somalia in 1980s.