Where is Khat Taking Ethiopia?

14 mins read

By Seble Teweldebirhan / Ezega.com

khat, the fresh young leaves consume primarily in East Africa and the Arabian

Lij Iyasu was addicted to khat, which at the time was considered a serious fault in the royal circles. Fitawrari TekleHawariat Teklemariam (1884-1977), one of the first generation of Ethiopians who received western education and a fervent reformer wrote in his recently published autobiography titled ‘YeheweteTarik’ or ‘The Story of My Life’ why Iyasu lost the golden chance of ruling Ethiopia as a king. According to the book, Iyasu was disillusioned by khat. Fitawrari Takele Hawariat was a onetime close friend and advisor of Lij Iyasu and according to his observation because of khat, Iyasu couldn’t focus on the things he should have learned as a future king and prepare himself to the throne. Fitawrari wrote his speech to the friends of Lij Iyasu why the young prince would never make it as a king. ‘He is drunken by khat. That is the only poison in his system. When he is chewing he loses focus and when he is not chewing it is hard for him to do anything and he becomes fragile.’’
After that, FitawrariTekleHawariat, who said he gave up hoping Lij Iyasu could be a competent leader for Ethiopia, went on conspiring with Lij Teferi (later named Emperor Haile Selassie). Lij Iyasu, lost all the support from the elite and the royals and his power was given to Queen Zweditu, the daughter of Menelik II.
Fitawrari also wrote his prediction of what khat could become in his country a hundred years after all these happenings.When he was appointed as a ruler of Charchar he ordered the farmers in the area to destroy all khat plantation for good. He also suggested that for each khat plant destroyed, a coffee be planted. However, his radical measure did not get him popularity in the capital. According to his autobiography, he was challenged by Emperor Haile Selassie and other royals. He tried to convince everyone saying that khat never does any good for the people. ‘I said khat makes the farmers hyper-active when they chew it and distracts their focus. They are like a drunken person and they don’t know what they say or do’ he wrote. ‘When they don’t chew, they are lazy, sleepy and tired. Either ways they are not productive and that will affect them and all of us. They do not farm properly since they spend most of their time chewing and they don’t reproduce. As a result we do not have enough children to grow and take over the area. If we want them to prosper, work, raise children and farm properly, let’s feed them suitable food like meat and butter. Otherwise, I am afraid they will not be of much use for the country and for your majesty. That plant (khat) is also a serious danger for the coming generations,’ he argued his case.
Fitawrari did not win the argument of the day with the emperor and his advisors, since they were very much concerned that the order to destroy the plant will create rebellion in the area and Haile Selassie also predicted that khat could become gold if it is exported. ‘Why do you care if they chew khat and thank their god’ they argued with him. Fitawrari Takele Hawariat answered saying ‘God doesn’t mind if they eat Injera and thank him.’
Fitawrari also mentions, in his autobiography, his effort to discourage khat by levying high tax rate. Still that did not seem to work, since he was transferred to another place. Gradually, khat made its way through the last century and become the most popular plant in the entire nation. 
Today, chewing khat is an accepted way of life.The social code that made khat chewing a condemned practice by the society is almost broken and khat chewers are not considered addicts, as they were previously considered. Though it is difficult to find an exact figure or studies on how many people depend on khat (meaning those who chew it on a regular basis), if observation is to be believed the number of addicts is rising and involving people of different status and age groups. When a certain act is performed by a considerable number of people in a society, it just becomes another normal act. Khat has received that status in our everyday life.
Unfortunately, the government is so far passive in challenging khat’s popularity. The claim by some is that most government officials from top down are consumers of khat themselves. How can they police others like themselves? Further, the plant is now a top export commodity and there is no way its use will be illegal or at least controlled any time soon. Khat is the second largest commodity export in Ethiopia, next to coffee, bringing millions of dollars (billions of birr) to the country.
Just like someone used to invite friends for coffee or tea in the good old days, today, friends invite each other to ‘sit’ for khat to socialize. Business deals, decisions that affect family and social life and even political stands are taken on the floor with the influence of Khat. In khat ceremonies film scripts are written, music is composed, painting are painted, new (over ambitious) ideas that sometimes affects the nation are created. It is rational to assume that many of the things seen on the ground, one way or another, has something to do with people making decisions while ‘high’ inside their houses (or Khat houses – Mekamia Bet) with khat.
What would be a controlled substance (drug) in developed countries, in Ethiopia, students use it to study for exams and teachers prepare their class notes under the influence of khat. Writers and journalists use the stimulant to do their work. Khat is also recommended for those who read for whatever reason. Drivers use it to stay awake in long and overnight drives, and nowadays women and housewives are taking a major part doing the ceremony for spending spare time. In every corner of the country, it is common to see small shops that sell khat and houses that rent a space and give service for the chewers. In some areas, small grocery shops, cafés and restaurants are replaced with shops that sell khat and houses that give full service for the chewers.
Khat chewing is not as simple as taking a sip of drug or smoking. For many it needs a lot of decorated space, inviting friends, traditional coffee ceremony, and takes at least a couple of hours. For the dependants, most of their afternoon every single day is consumed by the ceremony. There are also many who believe that, after khat, it is crucial to take alcohol, to break the hallucinated state of mind (known as Merkana). Therefore, khat makes the chewers busy not only in the afternoon but also in most of the evening. Moreover, the reality is that, come next day, all of this starts all over again.
‘It is making the generation dysfunctional’ said Amanuel, who did a research on the socioeconomic effect of khat. ‘Look at the university students. Just a decade back, the most active citizens in the country, who are the source of inspiration for the nation, were university students. Now, you don’t even see them around the campus all afternoon, and that is a lot of time wasted sitting and chewing khat’ he says.
Government is being criticized for its negligence on the issue, and there are even some who argue that the silence is deliberate. ‘It’s not only the foreign currency from the export that makes this government quiet about this phenomenon,’’ said Amanuel. ‘Khat makes people very passive. It just makes them fanaticize, imagine and talk about what changes they would want to see in their lives and in every sector and there is never enough time for them to turn any of this talk into action. Most chewers will just sit to talk about the same thing day after day. There is a lot of politics talk and argument that sometimes sounds logical and creative in chat chewing ceremony. You hear people not only complaining but also coming up with ideas to turn things around. However, they will just talk in the khat ceremony every afternoon for the rest of their lives and there will never be time to do anything about it. That is just perfect for any government that is afraid of what its citizen could do,’ he says.
Individuals visibly become very talkative and show hyperactivity while chewing khat. Unfortunately, this excitement disappears the minute the stimulant is gone out of one’s system and there will be no time to consider what was said before. The next worry will be how to afford khat for tomorrow, with whom and where to chew it. That worry alone, for the majority of khat dependants, takes the rest of the time outside the actual chewing.
Though these concerns are now heard from every direction, it is important to remember that khat also has a considerable support in Ethiopia. There are chewers who are willing to spend the whole night arguing to convince the advantages of chewing khat. The arguments are that khat makes people focus, work long hours, and think outside the box. In addition khat is praised by the chewers for strengthening social bond, creating an opportunity for people to discuss and work together and serving as a fun way of spending spare time.
An article titled ‘adverse effects of khat’ by psychiatrists Glenic Cox and Hagen Rampes initially supports the claims of the chewers on the advantages of Khat. According to their study, chewing ceremony usually begins with the atmosphere of cheerfulness, optimism and the sense of well being. However, in a couple of hours, tension, emotional instability and irritability begin to spoil the session. Later the chewers are left with low mood and it’s usually the case that chewers leave the ceremony feeling depleted.
Just like Fitawrari Takele Hawariat wrote in his autobiography almost a century back about Lij Iyasu and the potential of khat for future generations, a significant portion of the current generation is now drowned in the hallucinated passive state of mind. Whether that state of mind helps our people do things better, as the chewers like to argue, or it slowly drowns them – and the country – to another low remains to be seen.
Seble Teweldebirhan
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Columinst for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.