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Neil Carrier

Khat: A lingering controversy

Like alcohol and other psychoactive substances, khat is regarded with great ambivalence.

Khat, grown intensively in Ethiopia and Kenya and consumed globally by Somalis and Yemenis, is prized by many for its economic worth, ability to increase wakefulness and sociability, and even its ability to induce peace; for others, however, khat is the cause of a great many health and social harms, a drain on economic well-being, and the cause of conflict.

This ambivalence translates into a very polarised debate about what should be done about its trade and consumption, a debate that follows the simplistic logic of the war on drugs more broadly and usually takes the form of should we ban it or not? The debate also leads to facile comparisons with other substances: on the one hand khat is like coffee, and on the other it is like cocaine. In what follows I introduce the substance and the controversy that surrounds it, describing its importance for rural livelihoods in Ethiopia and Kenya, and discussing concerns over the substance and policy alternatives.

The situation in the UK is especially pressing as there the substance remains legal while there is a strong campaign to ban it. Much is at stake: not just the welfare of consumers in the UK, but also that of farmers and traders supplying the 2000 tonnes of khat imported into the country each year.

What is Khat?

Khat is the most commonly used name for the stimulant stems and leaves of the shrub Catha edulis which is found growing wild from the Middle East down to the Eastern Cape, and is now cultivated intensively in Yemen, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Northern Madagascar.

It seems that cultivation of the substance began in Ethiopia from where the earliest written records of it emerge (from the 14th Century), though it appears to have quickly spread to Yemen. In Kenya (where it is popularly known as miraa) it was already being cultivated and consumed by the Meru in the Nyambene Hills northeast of Mount Kenya when European explorers first reached there in the late 19th Century, and most likely cultivation began there well before that date.

Meru khat-trader in Nairobi with bundles of kangeta.

The substance is sold in many different forms, distinguished by where on the tree it is harvested, which region the tree grows in, the age of the tree, and how it is presented. Some varieties (especially those in Uganda and a type called mugoka that is becoming increasingly popular in Kenya) consist of just the tips of the stems and their attached leaves, while others come in the form of bundles of its purple and green coloured stems tied together. These stems vary in length from around five centimetres to around thirty. Among the Somali diaspora two particular varieties from Kenya are often sold: the shorter stemmed variety known as giza, and a longer stemmed variety known as kangeta. The latter name derives from a town in the Nyambene Hills famous for its khat.

Khats effects are utilised to boost stamina and preclude sleep, and also prized at social occasions, where the effects help generate conviviality. Its pharmacology has allowed it become incorporated into a wide range of social and cultural contexts, ceremonial, recreational and work-related. It is widely used in functional ways, its stimulating properties appreciated by nightwatchmen, lorry drivers and even revising students; indeed, it is likely that its stimulating properties have been utilised by different groups for centuries.

Khat consumption

Khat consumption in Ethiopia was until the latter half of the 20th Century mainly associated with Islamic ceremonies where it helped attendees remain wakeful for prayers, and it also features prominently at spirit possession ceremonies in Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. Amongst the Meru of Kenya, khat has great symbolic importance, and special bundles of khat known as ncoolo are still presented between parties and chewed at brideprice negotiations and other occasions.

Man consuming khat in Isiolo, Kenya, in the late 1950s.

Of course, much consumption is recreational: chewing khat in company over a number of hours leads to increased conviviality. The khat party, where groups of chewers spend their leisure time chewing together, is an institutionalised feature of life not just in the Yemen (where much of the literature is focused), but also in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda and Madagascar. Such parties often last for the whole evening or afternoon (so leading to the concern with reduced productivity of the workforce), and can take place in homes (women chewers often prefer to chew in private at home as their consumption is often frowned upon), or in public places.

For example, in Lamu in Kenya much consumption can be seen of an evening along the harbour road, as men gather to chew and converse, perhaps sating their thirst at the same time with sweet coffee or soda. Such parties range from rather formal occasions where people are seated in a circle, sometimes in hierarchical order, while supplies of khat are laid out in front of them. Many sessions are much more informal, however, with chewers sitting in cafés, perhaps watching football or the news on television.

Khat consumption is often seen as principally a Muslim habit, it taking the place of the forbidden alcohol as a social stimulant. However, while used extensively by Muslim Somalis, Oromo and East Africans of Arab descent, its use crosses religious, ethnic and social divides. For example, in Kenya its use has spread throughout the country, being popular in the area where it is most intensively cultivated (Meru District), the north inhabited by Muslim pastoralists, the coast with its large Muslim population, and in urban centres where it is very popular as part of a youth culture. In fact, in much of the region, khat is now seen as cool (poa in Kiswahili), and khat takes its place alongside other accessories of a globalised youth culture.

Some argue that khat's traditional consumption in ceremonial or religious contexts was thoroughly regulated by cultural norms, while youthful consumption was limited as it was restricted to elders. Indeed, the discourse of a former socially-integrated consumption contrasting with unrestrained and dangerous youthful consumption today is widespread, and relies on a good deal of nostalgic idealising of the past. Also, there has been a long-standing debate in Islam as to whether khat is halal or haram, and there is much Muslim opposition to the substance.

Khat has an interesting link with class in East Africa. Many wealthier Kenyans look down upon the substance as a low class substance associated with the Muslim north and Somalis, as well as the urban underclass. Interestingly, while khat has spread amongst workers performing such roles as bus drivers or conductors, and even sex workers, in areas where it is produced or consumed, knowledge of the many different varieties (which range in Kenya from the matako or buttocks of khat sold cheaply, to very expensive varieties that can retail for the equivalent of £ 8-10 and are compared by consumers to fine wine) means that wealthier consumers can indulge in some conspicuous consumption safe in the knowledge that those around them will see the high class of their khat.

Thus, khat consumption is not just an activity of the poor, but one of the wealthy too. However, it is still tinged in the eyes of many in East Africa as being not quite respectable, and abhorred by some as a drug. Also, churches especially evangelical or Pentecostal denominations and conservative Islamic clerics play a large role in campaigning against its consumption. Such a lack of respectability in the genteel sense goes some way to explaining the respect in the cool sense shown to it in East African youth culture.

In the Somali diaspora, khat consumption often occurs at venues known as mafrish, where khat can be bought and consumed while tea is served for free, and the news and football can be watched on satellite TV. There is concern that many consumers in the diaspora are young, and the age of consumers varies at particular mafrish. However, many mafrish are dominated by middle-aged men and older, while younger Somalis who chew often do so at their homes, playing video games while they do so. However, many Somali youth in the diaspora – especially those born and raised there – are said to regard the habit negatively, as an immoral and uncool habit of older generations, in contrast with its ‘cool’ reputation in East Africa.

Mafrish in the UK resemble strongly chewing venues in East Africa, and their familiarity for those in the diaspora is one reason why many find them welcoming, especially when Somali music and other aspects of home are played in such venues. Patterns of consumption in the diaspora vary depending on employment, with those in work likely to chew only on days off, and those unemployed to chew more frequently.

Concern about harms associated with khat, and its conflation with other substances, has led to a number of attempts to prohibit the substance in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Many of these attempts failed for example in colonial Kenya and Somaliland although khat remains illegal in a number of African countries including Tanzania and Eritrea, and a number of countries in North America and Europe have also banned it.

The growth of diaspora communities in such countries especially in the wake of the collapse of Somalia in the early 1990s has led to demand in them for the substance, and this continues despite its illegality. It still remains legal in the UK where there is a very large Somali diaspora community. Khats varied legal status has led to its being termed a quasilegal substance: one whose legal status varies greatly between jurisdictions and over time. As we see in the next section, the economic worth of khat in Kenya and Ethiopia insulates it from calls for its prohibition, so integrated into livelihoods has it become.

Livelihoods: Khat production and trade

Khat has for centuries been cultivated in Hararge province in Ethiopia, while cultivation in Kenyas Nyambene Hills also dates back at least 150 years and most likely more. Alongside much of Northern Yemen, these three growing zones are those most associated with the crop, and those where it is grown most intensively.

In Kenya, the most important cultivation region is the Nyambene Hills, a mountain range lying to the northeast of Mount Kenya. The Nyambenes are home to two sub-groups of the Bantu-speaking Meru: the Tigania and Igembe. Members of both sub-groups cultivate khat, although Igembe cultivate it most intensively, their region being more conducive to its cultivation and being particularly geared up for its trade.

The khat trade evolved over the last century, an indigenous crop commercialised at a time when other Kenyan farmers were planting more respectable seeming crops like coffee. It is cultivated on smallholder plots, often intercropped with other cash or subsistence crops, and is harvested frequently (every few weeks or so, depending on the season).

For much of the colonial era, Meru was the only district where khat was produced in great quantities, and the Meru had honed their expertise with the crop over centuries, creating a sophisticated inter-cropping system that prevented soil erosion and protected other crops. Furthermore, alongside Arabs and Somalis who have been involved in the trade in Kenyan khat for many decades the Meru innovated much in regard to marketing. The varying qualities and types of khat allowed it to be marketed for both wealthy and poor consumers, thus expanding its consumer base.

Khat trader and customer, Antsiranana, Madagascar, 2006.

Some colonial interference aside, Kenyan khat has received little in the way of government assistance, farmers and traders being left to their own devices. While not daring to antagonize farmers and traders, since Independence the Kenyan authorities have applied a policy of not encouraging a crop regarded with suspicion in much of the world, but not discouraging its production that brings in substantial council revenue through tax, and foreign exchange earnings with growing trade to Somalia (much of the Kenyan crop departs for Kismayu, Mogadishu and other Somali towns and cities).

Lack of official involvement in the trade means that accurate quantitative data are lacking, but by the early 2000s the most quoted figure was that the khat trade was bringing in $250 million a year to the Nyambenes. Indeed, rather than negatively affecting food security, such relatively high income levels have helped make the region more food secure in recent times than nearby districts where the dominant cash crops are tea, coffee and cotton.

Certainly the thousands of tonnes of Nyambene khat imported to the UK alone each year are indicative of the scale of production and importance of this crop for Kenya, as are the thirty or so pick-up trucks that leave the district every day often loaded far beyond capacity with sacks of khat. Nyambene farmers have constantly emphasized to researchers how much more valuable this crop is for them than more respectable crops such as coffee, while income comes not only from its farming, but also from its trade: Meru are highly involved in its national retail trade and transport, and are also involved in the international export business alongside Somalis.

Khat has great cultural resonance for the Meru, resonance that has been enhanced and reinforced greatly by its economic worth to the district: it is so integrated into culture and economy, that schools and churches in the region often have a few khat trees to help support themselves financially. Earnings from the trade are not restricted to the Meru, but also spread to the thousands of Somali and other wholesalers and retailers many female scattered throughout northern Kenya and Somalia.

An efficient network distributes khat from the Nyambenes to feed a large national and international market. Somalis have much control over the international trade, exporting the commodity to Somalia and their diaspora in Europe and beyond. Their dominance has created tension, as some Meru consider themselves exploited by the Somali network: this tension was most evident in 1999, when a Tigania man who traded khat died in London. Suspicion that he had been killed by Somalis jealous of their monopoly led to clashes between Meru and Somali back in the Nyambenes and in Nairobi.

While many commentators lament the waste of household income in consuming what many see as a frivolous and dangerous luxury, as a crop and trade commodity khat plays an important role in generating wealth in Kenya. So much so, that new areas of production are opening up in Kenya: several other areas of highland Kenya now produce a popular cheap variety called mugoka. A decade ago, this variety was scarcely known outside of a few select locations, but now is one of the most consumed type of khat in Nairobi, giving competition to the Nyambene product. Also, the fertile slopes of Mount Marsabit in northern Kenya are now being planted with khat.

The Kenyan governments policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging khat production is one that is also followed in Ethiopia, where the lament that khat is taking the place of coffee is most commonly heard, and much anguished hand-wringing over khats developmental impact has taken place. Gebissa has written the fullest account of the growth of khat production in Ethiopia, especially in the Harerge highlands also known for its fine coffee. When coffee prices became increasingly volatile in the 1950s, planting khat as a cash crop became increasingly common, encouraged by the growth of both national and international demand, and the building of infrastructure such as the Djibouti railway. Khats perishability was no longer a barrier to its trade.

Positive impact on rural livelihoods

From the 1970s onwards, khat began to give coffee more and more competition as the primary cash-crop in Harerge, and the scale of khat production continues to increase, and has spread far beyond the Harerge region. This continuing rise in production in Ethiopia has raised much concern, and critics lament that much agricultural land and labour is wasted on such a crop, while Ethiopian consumers expend much of their household budgets on the crop.

Khat farmer with some of her product, near Antsiranana, Madagascar, 2006.

However, as researchers like Gebissa point out, the increasing cultivation of a high value cash-crop such as khat makes perfect economic sense, especially in the Harerge context where population pressure has led to a rapid diminution in the average farm size, and a consequent inability of households to support themselves through subsistence crops or cash crops that fetch lower prices.

Research continues to show lucidly the economic logic that encourages farmers to switch to khat, as per hectare cash income for khat growers is three times that of cereal growers, and scholars attest to the positive effects cultivating khat has had on the quality of life of farmers and traders. Khat farmers, according to Gebissa, are quick to point out the benefits they derive from the crop, although some are wary of just how sustainable the khat boom will be. Still, as in the Nyambenes, khat has allowed producers to ride out economic shocks, and remain relatively food secure while improving their standard of living. Khat growers earn around five times more cash-crop income than non-khat growers, while owning more livestock, farm implements, and other such indicators.

In fact, contrary to the anxiety over food security, the ability to feed children appears to increase proportionally with the amount of land dedicated to khat, and decrease with that dedicated to growing cereal crops. Indeed, a far more positive gloss can be placed on khats role in the economies of Ethiopia and Kenyas Nyambene district than given by development experts. As Gebissa reports for Ethiopia, khat farmers have been increasingly able to divert income from khat into off-farm occupation, including transport, trade and retail sectors, allowing for migration to businesses in urban centres.

The story of khats role in development does not end in the main producer countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, however: it also now extends to growing production regions in Uganda, as well as northern Madagascar. Indeed, in describing the expanding importance of khat production in several regions of Uganda, Beckerleg makes similar points concerning the positive role khat can play in improving rural livelihoods.

So important is this indigenously developed crop, that she even goes as far as to state that khat is subversive to international development practices, many predicated on the role of the outside developmental agency. Furthermore, while khat is more often perceived negatively in countries such as Somaliland and Djibouti where khat is consumed but not produced, as opposed to those where it is a significant source of foreign exchange and rural livelihoods, even in such countries khat is an important feature of the economy. Importers, transporters and retailers all benefit from the crop, as do the governments who impose tax on imports and trade.

Of course, one should not paint too rosy a picture of the crop. While khat trees play an important role in preventing soil erosion and land degradation, such aspects of its production as child labour in Kenya are sources of concern. Also, as Clapham observes, in contemplating the recent khat boom one should learn the lessons of other cash crops whose boom proved shortlived.

But as part of a diversified economy and as part of an intercropping system that still allows the growth of subsistence crops as in the Nyambenes khat production has had a generally positive impact on rural livelihoods.

A harmful chew?

However, those campaigning against the crop might argue that its economic value for East African livelihoods is irrelevant to the khat debate if the substance itself is noxious to health and society. As mentioned above, opinions in this respect are polarised: some see it as a bane destroying health and the social fabric, while others extol its virtues as a mild stimulant whose consumption binds people together. What does the literature tell us about these harms?

Regarding health, problems range from dental pathologies (khat is often chewed with sugar, bubblegum or sweet drinks to mask its astringent taste), to insomnia and even psychosis. Research into more serious problems such as the link with psychotic episodes is cautious in ascribing a causal link, although it may be a contributory factor alongside underlying mental health problems, and exposure to traumatic situations.

There is evidence from Yemen that khat consumption is a risk factor for cardiovascular problems, perhaps unsurprising given that its stimulating properties can raise blood pressure during chewing sessions. In Kenya there has been concern that the khat trade itself was leading to increased rates of HIV in the Nyambene Hills production areas, as young men from the region travel widely in the country selling the product. However, there is little evidence that the khat trade is any more connected to the spread of HIV than other migration-spurring economic activities in Kenya.

There is occasional mention of links of khat chewing with oral cancer, but it appears that such connections are slight compared with those of betel nut consumption and chewing tobacco. The co-consumption of khat with tobacco is common practice, and chewing khat while smoking shisha pipes is popular in many places, including Nairobi. Clearly this increases the risk of various medical harms.

An aspect of khat consumption that is often alluded to is its effect on libido and sexual performance. Many suggest that khat is an aphrodisiac for both men and women; on the contrary, it is also said that khat causes impotence among men.

Chewers in Kenya solve this paradox by arguing that different varieties possess different sexual properties, some acting to boost libido, and others to deflate. In general, like most substances, the side effects of khat consumption appear related to the quantity consumed moderate consumption with adequate sleep and food would appear to pose little danger; chewing excessively at the expense of lifes necessities clearly has potential for harm. Such appears to be the rather anodyne conclusion suggested by the wealth of studies of khats effects conducted in the last 50 years or so.

Regarding social harms, it is linked with family breakups, as chewers the majority of whom are male, although there are many women chewers are said to spend long times away from the home, and unemployment, as khat is associated with idleness. Income diversion is also seen as a major problem in countries such as Djibouti where a large proportion of household income (around a third in some estimates) is spent on khat.

Indeed, the linking of khat with sexual impotence seems not just literal, but also figurative, alluding to male social and economic impotence, especially in the diaspora context where women have often taken on the breadwinner role. While there certainly are problem users who chew at the expense of sleep, making it hard for them to hold down work, assessing the extent of associated social harms is difficult as evidence in Africa and amongst diaspora populations of khat consumers is often mixed and contradictory.

Khat is therefore associated with many health and social harms, but at the moment evidence beyond the anecdotal is lacking. What research has been done suggests khat may be a contributory factor to various harms, but ascribing it as their cause is deeply problematic. Indeed, drug consumption always needs to be contextualised within the social settings where it occurs, and in the case of khat, it is often consumed by marginalised communities facing far wider problems.

In the current context of the war on drugs, it is easy to ascribe too much power to the drugs themselves, rather than seeing how harms around them are generated not just through their chemical constituents , but also through social processes that combine to leave those who use them on the margins of society. With khat far weaker in effect than the likes of isolated chemicals such as heroin even more consideration of such social processes is needed to understand why people consume and how consumption can become problematic.

Beyond prohibition

At some point late in 2012 the UKs Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is due to make recommendations to the UK government concerning khat following the third major UK review of the substance (similar exercises were held in 1998 and 2005/6 which advised against a ban despite alarm at the increasing quantities that were being imported). Recently the Dutch also decided to implement a ban so now the UK remains one of the last Western countries where the substance is not prohibited.

For many, the UK being so anomalous regarding its policy towards khat is a sign that its policy must be wrong, as surely so many other countries must have good reasons to ban the stimulant? Sadly, examining the history of khat legislation reveals that much policy has been enacted with little in the way of evidence for its harm. Attempts were made at prohibition in colonial Kenya in the middle of last century on the basis of lobbying from colonial officers in the north of the country who were worried that khat was corrupting the indigenous population there, and on the basis of an issue of the East African Medical Journal that condemned the substance on the basis of only a few case studies.

Prohibition in Kenya could not be maintained as its popularity ensured that its production and smuggling only grew in intensity, and later officials began to see the revenue it was raising in places like Meru as a great boon. Prohibition was tried in Somalia too in the early 1980s, a policy that was quite divisive between northerners who have a longer history of consumption and southerners in Mogadishu and seems to have been highly ineffective in stopping consumption.

Its prohibition in much of Europe and North America was based on even less research, coming about in response to the international restriction of compounds within khat in the late 1980s by the United Nations. This was not intended to restrict khat, but several countries without conducting reviews of the dangers or otherwise of khat took this restriction to mean they should restrict the plant itself. In fact the UK position whereby the compounds are restricted but not the plant is more in line with international law than those countries where khat is banned. Also, in those countries where khat is banned, the commodity is still smuggled to support continuing demand that consumers are willing to pay more for this now illegal substance only encourages its smuggling as profits can be high.

This potted history of policy towards khat suggests that a ban on its import to the UK will not end the controversy there, while it would certainly have great implications for Kenya and Ethiopia as a product openly exported in large quantities to the UK (and subject to UK customs duty and VAT) shifts to a black market.

Those campaigning for a ban argue cogently that there is inequality in the drugs law of the UK, when substances that affect the wider community (e.g. mephedrone) are quickly banned, while one affecting minority Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni populations is ignored. But to really take the issue of khat and associated harms seriously, in my opinion, would not be to use the blunt and often counter-productive policy of prohibition and criminalisation, but to attempt to regulate its trade and consumption, and work together to develop initiatives that address the needs of consumers and the communities in which they live.

No policy is perfect, but surely years of failed war on drugs responses should teach us that there are better debates to have over drug policy than merely to ban, or not to ban.

Neil Carrier

Neil Carrier is Departmental Lecturer in African Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has published widely on the substance khat, which he first studied in Kenya and in the UK for his PhD in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews (2004). In recent years, Carrier's focus has broadened to drugs in Africa more generally, and he has also carried out research in East Africa on a range of other issues, from film and photography to indigeneity. His current project focuses on the Somali diaspora and its impact upon Eastleigh, a Nairobi estate recently transformed into a booming commercial zone.

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Photos: Kimo Quaintance, Neil Carrier (Meru Khat trader), Man consuming khat in Isiolo  was taken by Edward Margetts and is part of a collection of his photographs held by Dr Sloan Mahone of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford.


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