Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

For the Love of Khat

What you need to know about khat—East Africa's favorite drug.

This June a Somali-American woman named Zemzem Seraj was charged by Nashville Police with felony possession of nearly 200 pounds of khat. Her mugshot—a middle aged Tennessean in an elegant seafoam headscarf—was broadcast all over local news.

Sometimes called "tea of the Arabs," khat acts as a stimulant when chewed. The flowering plant is banned in most western countries including United States and some European countries but is popular and legally consumed in the the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Many contend that khat use goes back thousands of years, arguing that it's a perfectly safe drug when used in moderation. Others, including many from communities that use it the most, believe that it can cause major harm.

The Nashville khat bust brought the drug momentarily into the spotlight but the reality is that it's a tradition that flies mostly under the radar in the United States. Before 1993, it could even be sold legally.

The Reformed Khat Dealer

Omer Hassan settled in America in the early 1990s after fleeing a civil war that had torn his home country of Somalia apart. He, like many Somali refugees, settled in Minnesota which today has the largest Somali population in the United States.

"I used to be Khat dealer in United States and Canada when it was legal, that was my job that could generate my income, Hassan tells Okayafrica. "I would import it from Kenya and the United Kingdom and I used to be Khat consumer as well."

But Hassan would change his thinking on the drug around the same time that increased regulations came in. In 1996 Hassan traveled back to Somalia and was shocked by the extent of the khat use in his native country. "I was shocked," says Hassan, "lots of women are raising kids as single mothers because the men spend more than eight hours out chewing Khat without doing any other work. When they get back home, they no longer have the conscience to look after their kids—they are no longer able to fulfill their responsibilities as parents."

That's when Hassan changed his mind about khat and stopped handling it altogether. He now believes khat abuse to be a threat to his community and something that should be banned.

"It is true that it plays a huge role in our culture and social life," he says, "but it is a bad culture that I would not recommend to anybody."

Others disagree.

A man in Harar, Ethiopia enjoying his khat. Photo via Wikimedia

The Khat Enthusiasts

"I began taking Khat in 2014 when I was in my late 20s" Dato Ali Guelleh tells OkayAfrica from Djibouti. This, he says, is considered late in a country where male children might begin using the drug at fifteen. "Consuming Khat here is not against the law," says Guelleh. "Every day after work we get together and chew khat publicly in groups."

In Djibouti—like in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia—the annual income from Khat plays a big role in the economy of these countries where more than 50 percent of men and 15 percent of women are consumers of khat. The khat trade in Djibouti represents more than 15 percent of the country tax income every year.

An independent board of experts that advises the UK government, the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs, estimates that 2,560 tonnes of khat are imported to the UK every year. In 2014, the New York Attorney General Office and the NYPD Commissioner Office announced the indictment of seventeen members of a criminal drug ring who allegedly flooded New York City as well as other parts of New York State, Massachusetts and Ohio with several tons of khat shipped from Yemen, Kenya and Ethiopia.

According to the World Health Organization, khat chewing releases stimulating chemicals structurally related to caffeine and amphetamine, which give the chewer a mild high that some say it is comparable to drinking strong coffee. But the pleasant stimulation obtained when chewing Khat induces many to abuse that drug.

But what is it like to chew khat for those who really like it?

"The delight of khat comes in different phases as we chew it," says Guelleh from Djibouti. "In the first hour when I have khat in my jaws, I feel excitement, and everything looks good, sitting together with people and smiling. The following stage I feel the strength, I feel more energetic than ever. The third episode is different from others, anybody chewing Khat has to be smart enough to remember that the day of entertainment is almost over, and get ready to go home.

A this stage, says Guelleh, the chewer's libido increases but—and this might be the worst part of chewing for men—despite the frisky feelings, male khat users often suffer from erectile dysfunction.

Khat chewing often plays a dominant role in celebrations, meetings, marriages, and other gatherings. Khat use even has been prevalent in the Somali military. It has been issued to soldiers in their daily rations with the intention of inhibiting their need for food and sleep, as well as increasing their aggression.

Khat seized by US customs as part of a shipment identified as tea leaves. Photo via U.S. Customs & Border Protection

But is Khat Haram?

Pro-khat users have referred to it as "Flower of Paradise," according to the author of Leaf of Allah, Ezekiel Gebissa, "khat is a tree that God loves. It is a blessed tree...it is a leaf of Allah." In some Muslim communities even if their religion does not accept drugs, many will still take khat.

"Consuming Khat is different from drinking alcohol, first of all alcohol is haram, our religion forbid alcohol but as alternative we can take khat" says Guelleh. "Khat's effects are almost similar to weed's effects. Khat is better than cigarettes because while smokers may suffer from lots of diseases including cancer, khat does not have such consequences".

But these arguments don't sway Hassan.

"The youth addicted to Khat are often mentally affected, some get involved in crimes and conflicts that are devastating our country," says Hassan. Leadership on this issue isn't going to come from Somali politicians either, who he claims often trade khat for votes. He insists, "We have to take action and defeat khat in our communities."

There is a growing consensus, says Hassan, among the Somali immigrant community in North America, who believe that the change should come through the greater education about the side-effects of khat. Chewing khat, this reasoning goes, should be stigmatized in the same way smoking cigarettes has been stigmatized elsewhere, even if there many challenges to making that happen.

"I know that whenever I raise that topic in my community, many look at me as their enemy," says Hassan. "But banning it in US was a good decision to save our community."

Placide Magambo is a multimedia journalist and researcher with experience working for international organizations and various New York and African media outlets. His special passion is covering topics related to sustainable development, human rights and socio-economic issues.

Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

get okayafrica in your inbox


Interview: Omah Lay Is Nigeria's New Young Act to W​atch

We sit down with the rising Port Harcourt-born musician to talk about his latest EP, Get Layd.