Khat overwhelmingly rules life in eastern Ethiopia, where all roads (in fact one only) lead to Somaliland and its port of Berbera. No, not Somalia itself, but a breakaway autonomous region that has existed, unrecognised internationally, since 1991. Thundering along the road past rolling savannah and escarpment are dozens of Isuzu trucks, their open backs piled high with sacks of khat, the favoured drug of the region.
Yemen is a huge consumer, also Somaliland and Djibouti, while exports go as far as Holland, China and, until recent changes in drug classification, the UK and Australia. And sometimes road transport is not a truck but a camel… as above.
Ruling the trade are a cohort of drug queens, ebullient, generously built women (as above) who are adept at bossing their male workers around. Canny ladies. At the most they sit beside the driver urging him on -”faster! faster!” – because sales of the narcotic leaves depend on their absolute freshness.The tender tiny young leaves are the most sought after.
They are usually harvested before dawn in order to be on the road by 5 – 6 a.m and at their destination before midday. By late morning the khat is being sold or exchanged in Somaliland for textiles and clothes which find their way back to the so-called ‘smugglers’ market’ in Harar, the main, very ancient trading town of the region. It’s a highly lucrative business. One woman, Suhura Ismail, said to control about half the Ethiopian khat market, even owns her own private planes.
One day, when we drove up a bumpy dirt road to see the hilltop villages of the Argobba people around Koromi (above) about an hour southeast of Harar, we learned that coffee-growing, once the lifeblood of these hills, is rapidly being supplanted by khat. The reason? Khat can be harvested three or four times a year, whereas coffee only once. The switch started in the 1990s when world coffee prices plummeted, and is proving highly destructive for Ethiopia’s hard-stretched eco-system.
Khat needs water, which is why arid Somalia can’t grow its own, and why Yemen is said to be fast becoming the first country to actually run out of water. Seeing a shrunken lake north of Harar, from which serpentine tubes were attached to pumps by local farmers to irrigate their khat fields – totally illegally – made it all very clear. But this year Ethiopia is experiencing a severe drought – and farmers are worried, whatever their crop. The pic below shows a khat farm, some plants stripped of their leaves, those behind still growing.
So why is khat such big business? For starters, this natural amphetamine is addictive – it’s said that nearly all Somalian men are daily consumers. The habit can cost about £10 (US$15) per day, rising to about £33 (US$50) for the top quality. That’s a lot of money for inhabitants of this impoverished region but of course the wealthier Ethiopian / Somalian diaspora in Europe also makes an enthusiastic market.
Khat juice has even become a hip drink among Tel Aviv’s clubbers – thanks to the Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish community who introduced the leaf. Typically, after a few hours of red-eyed euphoria and high come hours of lethargy – this is when you see groups of men sprawled in the shade to while away the afternoon, their cheeks bulging with wads of leaves like hamsters. It doesn’t make for huge industriousness.
Yet our greatest and most dazzling insight came at Awaday market, about 20 minutes north of Harar on the road to Dire Dawa. This small boom town is entirely devoted to the khat trade – daily, and all night long – clearly helped by the leafy amphetamine. A break comes from 11am – 4pm, then the whole market kicks off again, right through the next long, euphoric night.
Awaday’s status comes from its location in the middle of a highly productive khat-growing area (including the lake mentioned above), which was initially developed about 35 years ago. Since then the town has flourished to the extent of everyone owning a solid house and car – and creating an enclave of middle-class Ethiopia in a far-flung rural outpost.
The atmosphere is frenetic, with Oromo women in brilliantly coloured robes (despite their vivid colours it seems they’re all being won over by extremist Saudi Wahhabism) pushing past, others sitting behind bulky bunches of shiny fresh leaves, while men stagger by laden with large bundles to their cars. Few like to be photographed, so it was an uphill struggle, but given their long working hours, they certainly need their weed.