HARGEISA, Somaliland — Somalia’s economy is dominated by trade in khat, a narcotic banned in the U.S. and much of Europe.
Eye-popping, head-buzzing khat is loved by Somali men who chew the leaves for their stimulant effect. While most of war-torn Somalia's economy is moribund, khat does a bustling trade estimated at well over $50 million annually. Doctors warn, however, that the drug is not only a drain on limited Somali resources but is also destroying lives.
Hargeisa is the capital of Somaliland, the northern territory nominally independent from Somalia which maintains peace and economic activity, especially the khat trade.
Lounging on a rug on the second floor of an ostentatious glass and stone mansion overlooking Hargeisa, Mohamed Yusuf Moge, aptly known as "The Fat Mohamed," lit up another cigarette. In front of him was a pile of leafless khat twigs. His eyes were wide and red-rimmed, a symptom of the leaves that have been chewed.
“We bring in 80-tons of khat every day,” he said. “We have many vehicles and two airplanes for transporting our produce. We control the market: We are the De Beers of the khat industry!”
"We" is "571 Allah Amin," a family business started 15 years ago that has grown to become Somaliland’s biggest khat importer. Moge is 571’s country rep. Although he would not reveal how much the company makes, it is estimated that its revenue is $320,000 a day.
Downtown at the company depot, the second of the day’s trucks arrives from the highland farms of neighboring Ethiopia mid-morning. Thursday is the busiest day of the week because, as one man explained, Friday is the Muslim day of rest so everyone can sleep off their khat hangover.
As the khat truck pulled in, barrow boys and vendors crowded round the tailgate to unload the 70 kg sacks of khat wrapped in hay to keep it fresh. Inside are small bundles of shoots that are bought wholesale for $1 and sold retail for $1.50.
“Business is good!” shouted Omar Hersi Warfa, 571’s depot manager, over the clamor. “We are working hard and people are chewing!”
Khat vendor Shamis Abdullahi Nur, 50, squatting on the ground nearby, agreed.
“Business is very good because of our security and peace,” she said as she directed a sack of khat to be loaded into the back of a beat-up station wagon for the drive across town to her stall. Others pushed smaller consignments away in wheelbarrows.
“I’ve been selling khat for over 30 years and now is the best time. There was a time of war, a time when I was a refugee, but now you can see I am sitting here eating my mango,” she said with a sticky, happy smile
Street prices are highest in the early afternoon because this is gayiil time when most men chew the khat and shoot the breeze. They can be found sitting on carpets in shady spots close to khat kiosks, with an ashtray, a flask of sweet tea and a jug of water at their feet. Women often sell khat but are not invited to chew.
But increasingly men are also chewing in the morning, the evening and throughout the night. The stoned man in a cotton wrap tottering in a daze along a crumbling potholed road with a fistful of green stems is a common sight.
Some warn the national habit does psychological damage. In the mental wing of Hargeisa’s main hospital, a staff member walked past the patients, many of whom were chained to a bed or a post or sat staring vacantly on the floor. “The majority of the men here are affected by
chewing khat, most are schizophrenic,” said Faisal Ibrahim.
Dr. Yassin Arab Abdi, the hospital’s chief doctor, said: “Chewing is part of it although there are many reasons for mental illness. Before they used to chew at a certain time for a few hours now there are four sessions 24-hours a day. These people are addicts.”
Back at the khat mansion, "Fat Mohamed" Moge and his colleagues, however, extolled the virtues of the drug.
“Khat plays a great role in our society. If there’s conflict people have to sit down, chew, talk about it," Moge said. “It is not like a drug which destroys the mind. It is a stimulant. If you chew khat in the right manner it doesn’t affect you.” But, he admitted, “There are some guys who are addicted, this is because they are jobless and have nothing to do.”
Unfortunately this description applies to many Somali men. The last national government — a military dictatorship — collapsed in 1991. Since then the unrecognized state of Somaliland has declared itself independent while Somalia has descended deeper into war and chaos. Isolation on the one hand and war on the other have left the formal economy shattered with many surviving on remittances sent from relatives abroad.
Yet it is not unusual for men to spend $5 or $10 a day on khat, making the habit a huge drain on very limited resources. The government’s entire annual budget is less than $50 million, around $14 a head for each of Somaliland’s 3.5 million citizens.
Such is the love of khat that to outlaw it would be political suicide. Nevertheless a senior Somaliland politician, Musa Behe of the opposition Kulmiye party, said, “The Somali man works less because he chews khat. We won’t ban it but we need to raise awareness of the harm
Tristan McConnell and Narayan Mahon traveled to Somaliland on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting
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