How the Pandemic Is Saving Lives in the Horn of Africa
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In the Horn of Africa, a recreational drug is facing mixed fortunes thanks to the pandemic.
By Eromo Egbejule
- Khat, a regional staple, has been consumed for centuries, mostly by men. Women are the ones who sell it.
- The pandemic has disrupted a regional economy worth millions of dollars.
- The supply shortage is also giving rise to hopes that it might make men turn over a new leaf.
For centuries, the khat, a leafy shrub native to the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East, has been a part of daily life for millions of people: It’s used to induce excitement and euphoria and, some speculate, to boost sexual performance. Bus drivers waiting in traffic, friends socializing on weekends and workers on lunch breaks are among the regular users of this affordable drug across Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland and parts of Kenya. Now, the pandemic is disrupting the consumption of khat, a regional economy worth millions of dollars, and also reshaping family dynamics.
Djibouti’s ports have traditionally provided a channel for the fertilizers that help thousands of farmers in Ethiopia cultivate acres of the drug, popularly called “the flower of paradise.” An estimated 90 percent of adults in Somaliland chew khat, and the autonomous region’s government figures show that 30 percent of its gross domestic product — or $36.4 million — comes from the drug. The Kenya Medical Research Institute estimates that more than 10 million people consume it globally. Most consumers are male, while sellers are women, often the family breadwinners.
For many women, the trade in khat has been passed through generations, from mother to daughter and so on. It is the main source of income, and that is the only skill or trade they know.
Sahra Ahmed Koshin, University of Copenhagen
But lockdowns and travel restrictions due to the pandemic have dramatically hit cross-border trade of khat. In turn, that has served as a major blow to the women selling khat, says Sahra Ahmed Koshin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Copenhagen studying the Somali diaspora who has tracked the lives of several female khat dealers. Unsubstantiated rumors that khat leaves can carry the coronavirus haven’t helped either.
Women make good khat sellers because of a unique set of entrepreneurial skills, including marketing, patience and scouting target markets such as places hosting festivities, says Koshin. The trade doesn’t require complex technical know-how. “For many women, the trade in khat has been passed through generations, from mother to daughter and so on,” Koshin says. “It is the main source of income, and that is the only skill or trade they know.”
With cargo planes grounded, militiamen in the region — some of whom use khat themselves — are smuggling the leaves through land borders, subjecting women who want to buy khat to sell it locally to high informal taxes that in turn make khat unaffordable for most people.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining. With most recreational pleasures put on pause for men in these communities, women who aren’t sellers are hopeful that their husbands will turn over a new leaf, say activists. Experts say addiction has led men to spend money on khat that could have been used for their children’s education or to upgrade the quality of their family’s life. Several governments, including those of Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, have banned the use of khat.
Khat addiction has also been linked to domestic violence. In 2018, a woman in the northern Somali town of Lasanod told a district court while asking for a divorce that her construction worker husband was spending most of his wages on khat and regularly beating her with electrical wires.
The plant’s economic and social significance, however, has meant that bans have often failed. In 1977, Hassan Gouled Aptidon was close to being toppled as president of Djibouti for considering a khat ban. This May, Somaliland lifted a ban on bulk khat imports that had been imposed just three weeks earlier because of the pandemic.
In that sense, the reduced supply of khat — even without a formal ban — has been a blessing in disguise, says Somali anti-khat campaigner Abukar Awale, who is backing a petition to Somalia’s government that seeks to make the drug illegal. Just three weeks after the petition was launched, it had 3,750 signatures.
Khat “contributes to the family breakdown in our society, and it increases morbidity and mortality resulting from khat consumption,” says Awale. Indeed, scientists have linked khat consumption to increased risk of strokes and heart diseases. Perhaps, for once, the pandemic could end up saving lives.
- Eromo Egbejule