By Eden Habtamu, Ezega News
Addis Ababa, December 8, 2009 (Ezega.com) -- A dear friend of mine was trying to counsel his colleague by explaining chewing “Khat/Chat” may affect his health, personality, finance and generally his social life. The colleague replied quickly “what else shall I chew?” as if chewing is a must thing to do in life and he cannot live with out chewing.
Khat is becoming an important economic activity in Addis Ababa for traders and consumers. Khat affects mainly those who are between the ages of 17 to 40, people who are supposed to be the engines of the Ethiopian economy. You may find it amazing that most of these youngsters spend their golden time chewing “khat” – for an entire afternoon at times.
What is Khat?
Khat is a natural stimulant leaf from the Catha Edulis plant, and it is found in the flowering evergreen tree or large shrub which grows in East Africa and Southern Arabia. We often call it Chat, but also goes by different names such as Chat, Qat, Kat, Kus-es-Salahin, Mirra, Tohai, Tschat, Catha, Quat, Abyssinian Tea, African Tea, and African Salad.
Ethiopian khat has other names as well, such as Aweday, Beleche, Abo Mismar, Wondo, Ye’Bahidar, etc., names taken after the place of cultivation. Fresh Khat leaves contain psychoactive ingredients known as cathinone, which is similar to d-amphetamine, and cathine, a milder form of cathinone. When kept un-refrigerated beyond 48 hours, the ingredient changes to cathine, which gives unpleasant stimulation for users, and the reason why khat chewers fight for only the freshest ones available.
Where does Khat grow?
Khat mostly grows in south-eastern Ethiopia. Khat is a major foreign currency earner. Export quality khat is packed and sent everyday to countries that do not ban the plant of which Djibouti and the United Kingdom are the major ones. The local market for khat is also very huge. Every day fresh khat is transported to the capital and distributed to various areas using Isuzu tracks rapidly. There are also some deliveries that use air transport, such as the Addis Ababa - Bahr Dar route.
Two popular distribution centers in Addis and nearby cities are Merkato (Cinema Ras) and Saris. As I paid a visit to these places on early hours (7AM), these places were overwhelmingly packed by wholesalers and distributors. One can see how significant the economic activity attached with khat is. If you come after 9:00am, you will find no one standing. In this trade, the wholesalers should meet the timing of the small-scale distributors; and the small-scale distributors must meet the timing of their customers. One can easily notice that it is very difficult not to chew khat for those people who are in the business.
Two kinds of khat users: “Gentle” and “Jezba” chewers
Khat users call the chewing ceremony “Bercha”, “kima” and the like. The working-class gentlemen, those I found in one of the chewing places (“mekamiya betoch”) are people who come from different walks of like. But most of them were not happy to be visited by someone who was going to write a story about them. Most of these people (both ladies and gentlemen) come to these “Mekamiya betoch” discretely. They usually come accompanied by “shisha”, nut, coffee, tea, soda or water. They talk about lots of issues, from the ridiculous ones, to the most serious issues. Their discussions cover and affect all aspects of society, and luckily all of their discussions are left behind in the chewing places.
I call these groups of chewers “Gentle Chewers”. They don’t want to be called “kami” (one who chews); they just want to satisfy their addiction, or according to most of them, they just want to get focused, energized, inspired, devoted, moody, or something else. Most of them come during their lunch breaks. Some of them may take 2-3 hours to get back to their office; others may not get back to the office at all. The gentle chewers are those who are respectful for the society’s culture and values. However, they cannot meet its expectations completely. They are not interested in discussing about chewing with other people who do not chew like them. They are not honest with friends and family and certainly with their colleagues. Gentle chewers may include diverse people, ranging from high profile people to students preparing for exams. These people start chewing by peer pressure or of their own will.
The second ones don’t care about others, they may get into chewing houses proudly and chew khat in public places. They enjoy their khat and usually go to the next part - “chebsi” (a drinking and climax breaking session). Most of these chewers are the careless varieties, people who may not even have the time to brush their teeth and accept themselves as proud users of khat. They are usually called “Jezba” by outsiders or even by “gentle” chewers.
“Gentle” chewers are proud of the fact that they are not like “Jezba” chewers, who don’t care or respect values of the society, or who don’t look after themselves. The “Jezba” ones are those who have many years of experience chewing. They accept chewing as their day-to-day habit as cultural or entertainment routine. It is difficult to classify these users by profession (as there are many who can fall into this category, including professionals), but may include drivers, street people, and khat wholesalers. In both classes of kamis, age may not be a factor, as some may start at the age of 10 and go on to use it for life.
Chewers may chew at their own places. However, if people are living with others and don’t have a place of their own, they usually go to places that sell khat and provide a place to sit down and chew. These places are called “Makamiya Betoch” and they are abundant in the city (even if there is a recent law that banned this practice).
“Mekamya Betoch” may be the expensive variety or the fairly priced ones. The expensive ones provide separate rooms for their clients. These rooms are well-furnished with mattresses (“Mejlis”) and provide shisha, coffee, tea, soda or water. These high class versions also provide additional entertainments such as DSTV Satellite TV service, traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, etc. Most of these places are exclusive and are usually inside nice villas and may command, say, 90,000 ETB/month, including expenses.
The fairly priced ones (like the ones I personally visited) are places that you pay five to twenty birr per session, sitting on a small chair or an old sofa. These houses may command 2,300-4,500 ETB per month or more for rent. Their income varies according to the area they are located in, the size of the house, the number of seats available, etc.
“Mekamya betoch” may also go by other names like pilots’, flight attendants’, politicians’, officials’, physicians’, Artists’, journalists’, drivers’, woyaloch’s, etc. These places assume the names of dominant customer or profession they serve in.
The diverse effects of khat
Khat and the Central Nervous System: Studies show that the psycho stimulant effects induced by chewing khat include a moderate degree of euphoria and mild excitement resulting in promotion of social interaction and loquacity. Chewers feel an increase in alertness and energy together with enhanced depth of perception. These effects were found to be maximum 1.5 – 3.5 hours after starting chewing, and they were progressively replaced by mild dysphasia, anxiety, reactive depression, insomnia and loss of appetite.
In recent years, khat induced psychosis (serious mental illness) has become more common. This may follow consumption of exceptionally potent material, and/or when taken in excess or in a predisposed individual. Khat chewing seems to complicate the management of pre-existing serious mental illness.
Drug dependence: study concluded that khat consumption may induce a persistent psychic dependence rather than physical dependence, although a certain degree of psychological dependence can occur. Khat makes users vulnerable to other addictions. A report made in Ethiopia showed the simultaneous use of cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline inhalation and glue sniffing with khat by university students.
Khat’s effect on cardiovascular system: Khat chewing increases arterial blood pressure and pulse rate, hypertension and ischemic heart disease.
Khat and the digestive system: It contributes to an increased rate of gastro-oesophageal reflux manifested as heartburn and acid regurgitation, and to increased risk of Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition, loss of appetite (anorexia), Liver function test abnormalities which resolves when khat chewing is suspended.
Khat effect on Genital-urinary system: Lowers overall urine flow. The consumption of khat is also said to induce an increase in libido, spermatorrhoea, and erectile dysfunction, but these effects have not been adequately studied.
Others: Khat chewing also can cause mouth cancer, enlargement of salivary glands, inflammation and folding of the parotid papilla at the site of chewing. Khat chewing furthermore causes facial asymmetry.
Social concerns of khat: Though studies have not been conducted on the social drawbacks of khat, I have observed the isolation of chewers especially from people who do not use khat - colleagues/friends and religious people, for example.
In south eastern Ethiopia, khat is part of the people’s culture and is never considered as some kind of drug. Family and friends use khat for entertainment, weeding (“nikah”), mourning, ritual purpose, religious ceremonies, and generally in everyday life.
Two decades ago, khat was considered as a socially prohibited mild drug in most of northern and central Ethiopia. Today it is a popular entertainment and fashionable culture almost in every corner, even in societies that are considered conservative.
One of the khat users that I interviewed (who wanted to remain anonymous) told me that his biggest fear is loneliness. He thinks that he has friends, but most of them do not share his habit, and he spends most of his time alone. When he goes out to spend some time with friends, he finds no one around him.
Economic benefits of khat: Khat is Ethiopia’s third largest export, next to coffee and oil seed. From 2004 to 2007, Ethiopia earned 89.1 to 100.2 Million US dollars from the export of khat. Not only is khat top export earner, it also plays a considerable role in the local economy, as it is the source of income for many wholesales, small scale traders and to those businesses that depend on it indirectly.
What do chewers say?
Anonymous chewer one: He is 42 years old, government employee, and holds a second degree. He has been chewing every single day for the last twenty two years (for more than half his age). He smokes on average one packet a day. He doesn’t drink at all. He has no plan to quit chewing. Khat for him is a means for entertainment, but also for achieving what he wants to do in school and work place. He has some health concerns regarding khat. He usually chews at home and spends nearly 1500 birr per month, which is a bit more than 50 % of his monthly salary.
He has some difficulties during a few times he goes out of the country (because he cannot find and chew khat), but he says he overcomes the dizziness and sleepiness in about three days with the help of a strong coffee.
He admits he may chew from 6:00pm until midnight or, if he is free, he may spend his entire afternoon chewing. When I ask him his biggest fear that khat may cause our generation, he replied “khat brought peace, tolerance, friendship and kindness in our society. I see no threat from khat when used on purpose and is not associated with other drugs or alcohol.”
Anonymous chewer two: He is thirty years old, holds a second degree, and is working for government organization. He has been chewing khat for the last 8 years.
He believes khat helped him gain concentration, devotion and dedication on what he does - reading and working. For him it is not a must to chew everyday, but if he has something to do or read, he needs to chew in order to accomplish what he wants to do effectively. He does not smoke or drink after chewing. He chews twice a week on average and may spend a maximum of 200 birr/month. He believes he is in control of khat, and he can stop it at any time. For him chewers need to know what to do with the energy they gain from khat. He says you can use it either way - constructively or to knock yourself down.
He is not comfortable sharing his habit with his family, but he believes that he is using it responsibly. However, he believes that chewing khat may generally affect one’s health, social life and finance.
Anonymous chewer three: He is seventeen years old, working at the “Saris” khat dispatch center. He is a dropout from high school. He chews everyday and has the leaf in his mouth almost the whole day. He earns 600 birr/month. He does smoke and drink whenever he gets some money. He regrets that he quit school because he became a khat addict. He thinks he has no future unless he quits, but he is unable to stop chewing so far. He considers working at his workplace as a privilege because he gets fresh and good quality khat almost for free.
Taking the country as a whole, khat is a major foreign currency earner. It is also a special crop that plays a major role in the economy. For individuals who use it responsibly, it may be a source of energy. For others, it can be a road to devastation. For a country which is aiming for a healthy, bright, strong, and drug-independent generation, this practice may be stealing considerable time and resources from its population.
I would like to wind up my story with a joke that I heard about khat.
Two mothers were walking on the road and saw young people coming out from khat chewing place. One of them said “I see the youth of our village destroyed by this khat. It’s pity that their parents do not control them.” The other mother replied sarcastically, “you think your children are spending their time at the butcher’s shop?”
Sometimes, we see problems but never consider them as affecting us and our country directly. I believe our government may be treating khat like the mother who was talking about other children while her children are also being affected like anybody else.
This article was written by Eden Habtamu reporting for Ezega.com from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can be reached by filling out this form. The article can be reprinted in full or in part elsewhere but only by giving full credit to Ezega. If reprinted on a website, we ask that you place this active link: Ezega Ethiopian News, pointing to http://www.Ezega.com.