News / Africa

Somali 'Paradise Flower' Chewers Savor Low-price Bliss

Ali Abdi, 14, and his friend Abdulahi Yaroow, 13, chew khat in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed
Ali Abdi, 14, and his friend Abdulahi Yaroow, 13, chew khat in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed "the flower of paradise" by its users, are flown daily into Mogadishu airport, to be distributed from there in convoys of lorries to markets across Somalia.
Reuters

“The president has arrived, the president has arrived,” chant youths in Mogadishu's Beerta Khaatka market, as armed men in trucks mounted with machine guns escort lorries with horns blaring through the throng.

The joking salutation is not for Somalia's president, but hails a national institution nonetheless: white sacks brimming with leafy sprouts of khat, the narcotic shrub chewed across the Horn of Africa and Yemen in a tradition dating back centuries.

The ubiquitous sight of young men with rifles slung over their shoulders and green stalks of khat dangling from their mouths is emblematic of the Somalia of recent decades, where marauding Islamist rebels and warlords bent on carving out personal fiefdoms have fomented a culture of guns and violence.

Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tons of khat, or qat, dubbed “the flower of paradise” by its users, are flown daily into Mogadishu airport, to be distributed from there in convoys of lorries to markets across Somalia.

Britain, whose large ethnic Somali community sustained a  lucrative demand for the leaves, banned khat from July as an illegal drug. This prohibition jolted the khat market, creating a supply glut in Somalia and pushing down prices, to the delight of the many connoisseurs of its amphetamine-like high.

“Those who exported to London have now made Mogadishu their khat hub,” said Dahir Kassim, an accountant for a wholesale khat trader in Somalia's rubble-strewn capital where women under umbrella stands sell khat bundles wrapped in banana leaves.

The price of the cheap Laari khat popular in the impoverished country has halved to about $10 per kilogram since Britain outlawed the stimulant. A kilogram of “Special” or “London” khat has also gone down to about $18 from $30.

Before the UK ban, 27-year-old mason's assistant Mohamed Khalif could only afford to chew once a week. “Now I chew daily and my problems are over,” said Khalif, blissfully.

Somali Khat businesswomen waiting for khat stand near a mini bus in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed Somali Khat businesswomen waiting for khat stand near a mini bus in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed "the flower of paradise" by its users, are flown daily into Mogadishu airport, August 26, 2014.
x
Somali Khat businesswomen waiting for khat stand near a mini bus in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed
Somali Khat businesswomen waiting for khat stand near a mini bus in Mogadishu. Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tonnes of khat, or qat, dubbed "the flower of paradise" by its users, are flown daily into Mogadishu airport, August 26, 2014.

The daily arrival of the khat trucks galvanizes markets, sending female traders scrambling for the sacks of stems and leaves, whose potency wanes within a few days of plucking.

Other street vendors take advantage of the hubub to try to sell soft drinks and cigarettes.

Time-old tradition or harmful vice?

“I bought my own houses from khat sales,” said 55-year-old wholesale seller Seinab Ali in Mogadishu, distributing bundles of wrapped leaves to local traders.

But khat exporters in Kenya, a former British colony where the cash crop bolsters the local economy, say the UK ban has slashed their profits from sales to Somalia. 

“Britain has made our khat business useless,” said Nur Elmi, a khat trader in Kenyan capital Nairobi from where shipments to Somalia have almost doubled after Britain's ban.

“They cannot afford to buy it all [in Somalia], so we sell it at throwaway prices,” he said.

The British decision to classify khat an illegal class-C drug was surrounded by heated debate, with critics saying it would create a lucrative clandestine market and even alienate immigrant youths, driving them into crime or Islamist extremism.

Home Secretary Theresa May had argued in backing the ban that it would help prevent Britain from becoming a hub for the trade, which was already banned in the United States and several European countries. She also cited evidence that khat had been linked to “low attainment and family breakdowns”.

While defenders of khat-chewing hail it as a time-honored social tradition comparable to drinking coffee, detractors say it shares part of the blame for the violent and destructive chaos suffered by Somalia for the last 20 years. 

Somalia's cash-strapped government seldom collects health statistics. The spike in use is a concern but officials are too busy battling Islamist al-Shababrebels and rebuilding Somalia's state institutions to dedicate much attention to it, said the Mogadishu mayor's spokesman Ali Mohamud.

“Somali people are wasting money, time and energy on khat,” he said. “Khat has only advantaged those who grow it.”

A 2006 World Health Organization report on khat said it can increase blood pressure, insomnia, anorexia, constipation, irritability, migraines and also impair sexual potency in men.

Even many of those who make a living from the khat trade recognize that its consumption can be harmful.

“Khat is good for mothers who sell it but for those who consume it is a disaster. Day and night I pray to God so that my children do not chew khat,” said wholesaler Ali.

Many Somali women point to wrecked marriages and abandoned children as testimony to the dangers of excessive use of khat.

“Men who chew are not good,” said Maryan Mohamed, who said she had been married 13 times. “They chew alongside their hungry children.” 

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs