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.


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The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

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