Tracking khat from
Lucas Oleniuk and Michelle Shephard explore Kenya's Nyambene Hills, where the world's best khat is grown. They discover a lucrative, well-run export business that starts early and moves fast.
By Michelle Shephard
August 25, 2012
MAUA, KENYA—James Mithika is a farmer in chocolate brown wingtips.
His plot of land lies not far from Mount Kenya, off a red dirt road and a short walk past the goat that bleats like an old man clearing his throat.
Mithika moves cautiously to avoid tromping on the beans his mother insisted on planting and then shows us his prized two-acre field of moss-covered and gnarly trees, some more than 100 years old.
“The best miraa in the world,” Mithika proclaims.
Miraa trees and bushes, more commonly known as khat, produce the tender leaves and branches that are widely consumed throughout Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, parts of Kenya and Yemen, where afternoon chewing sessions are ingrained in the culture, as ubiquitous as coffee and as common a social ritual as a beer after work, the seeking of a mild buzz.
Mithika’s plantation is in central Kenya, amid the Nyambene Hills, not far from the town of Maua, where khat trees thrive in the high altitude and volcanic soil that farmers say cannot be reproduced.
This area grows, just as Mithika boasts, the world’s most-coveted khat. The economy and people of the towns and villages here in Meru County depend on the khat trade — a 24/7 business in which everyone plays a role. “If someone tells you they’re not involved with miraa, they’re lying,” Mithika says.
Everyone seems to be talking khat these days. American counterterrorism officials claim the trade finances Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab. Environmentalists warn that khat fields are sucking up the last of Yemen’s water reserves. And Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni blogger, helped lead a social media campaign that called for a khat-free day throughout the country to ignite a debate about its rampant use and the impact on agriculture and the economy.
In Canada, the U.S. and most of Europe, khat is illegal. But, despite the ban, demand remains high among the East African diaspora — there are an estimated 150,000 Somalis living in Canada, mostly in Toronto, Ottawa and cities in Alberta. Canada Border Services Agency officials confiscate khat shipments almost every day at Toronto’s Pearson airport. In June and July alone, 1,610 kilograms were seized, with an estimated street value of up to $800,000.
Canada’s courts seem confused by khat’s status.
In April, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a judge’s dismissal of charges against a young woman who imported khat from Britain.
“It’s very difficult to understand why this stuff’s against the law,” Ontario Court Justice Elliott Allen said in the original ruling. “I read everything I can get my hands on about it and find it difficult to be persuaded of anything other than what I was told by a federal Crown attorney when I had my first case, which was: ‘We think this is almost as dangerous as coffee.’”
Khat is legal in the United Kingdom, where its use has been extensively studied, and it is a thriving business. But that may change as the controversy there grows — a push to ban it is being championed by Conservative MP Mark Lancaster.
News reports often describe khat users as crazed addicts, like scenes from the cult film Reefer Madness that warned hyperbolically of the dangers of marijuana.
Others counter that khat is harmless and making it illegal draws precious resources from policing more potent drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, with clear ties to organized crime and its violence.
So what is khat? What does it do? Where does it come from and how does it get to Canada? Is its trade funding the Shabab? Why the debate?
We’ll start where the khat trade starts each day, just before dawn at farms like Mithika’s, where boys and men perch like flocks of birds in crooked branches and quickly pluck the day’s harvest.
A little more than 48 hours later, those tender branches, now wilting, will be stuffed into the cheeks of Toronto chewers, who wonder what all the fuss is about.
Patrick Mugambiis up before the sun, climbing out of the bed he shares with his wife Agnes and their two small children.
His home is a two-room wood hut with a tin roof. One room is the size of the mattress his family shares; the other, just space enough for a ratty couch and coffee table. The family eats outside under a canopy of banana, mango and avocado trees and beside a cabin that serves as the kitchen.
On this July morning, it is about 10 degrees and, as the fog lifts, dew blankets his home.
Mugambi, 30, is a khat picker. On a good day, he makes enough to feed his family, have a drink and put 150 shillings ($1.80) away for his children’s high-school education.
When the church bells ring, the birds jolt awake and Mugambi sets off along a well-worn trail behind his home. He stops at the local canteen, where water is boiling for the morning tea. Other pickers sit at a picnic bench in the courtyard trying to wake up and get warm. Inside, a fading poster of the Lord’s Prayer hangs on the wall.
The canteen opens at 6 and closes at midnight so owner William Gitonga doesn’t sleep much. By the time Mugambi arrives, Gitonga is tossing squares of dough into a vat of boiling oil to make batch after batch of mandazi, a doughnut-like fried pastry.
There are two boys who are just 12 years old. Shandrack Nkunja says his father died and his mother’s illness has forced him to support his two sisters, so he moved in with a cousin and began picking about a year ago. His friend, Kevin Mutugi, no longer lives at home either, saying his father kicked him out.
Kevin is sipping tea, huddled over the steaming cup, wearing ripped jeans and a tattered pink-and-purple windbreaker while children his age pass wearing their blue-and-white uniforms and Disney knapsacks. “I’d like to be in school, yes,” Kevin says quietly, but he admits he likes money and chews khat himself.
Once at the field, the pickers quickly climb the trees, their hands a blur as they snap off the tender reddish branches. The more they pick, the more they can make since they’re paid for the weight of their haul. Within an hour, the 25 pickers have harvested almost two acres of trees.
The Catha edulis plant, contains 40 organic compounds or alkaloids. Cathinone and, to a lesser degree, cathine are what affect the nervous system, increasing blood pressure and heart rate, eliciting feelings of euphoria. Chemically and behaviourally, cathinone is similar to an amphetamine but less powerful. And the moment the plant is picked, cathinone starts to break down. Rapidly.
The shipment, which will fetch as much as $110 a bundle in Toronto, has to move fast or it will become worthless.
The town of Maua, population 40,000, is consumed by the khat trade. It has only a few streets and none are officially named. One, known as “bank street,” is lined with half a dozen bank branches and ATMs that are patrolled by armed guards. Although Maua is not a rich town, money moves through here. Another street is lined with small shops — Good Hope Grocery, Trinity Salon, Third World Wines and Spirits, Small But Fit Butchery, the Blessings Store. Men sell newspapers on the corner. Some businesses never close.
Janet Kagendo sits in a shop used to process khat, her legs outstretched, the floor a carpet of discarded khat leaves. She is a sorter, a job she has had for five years, since she was 19. The pickers’ harvest starts to arrive here by 8 a.m.
There are about a dozen women in the shop, two of them breastfeeding as they work.
For the next hour, Kagendo and the others will discard the larger, bitter-tasting leaves and bundle the remaining stems together. Out on the street and in other shops around town, about 100 more sorters do the same task. All these bundles are wrapped in massive banana leaves to keep the khat fresh.
Sorting is good money, Kagendo says. When added to what she makes each afternoon selling bananas and oranges roadside, it’s enough for shelter and food for herself and 5-year-old son.
Their gleaming white teeth provide the clue that most Maua women stay away from khat, unlike the town’s men, whose teeth bear the telltale brown stains of regular consumers.
The next team of workers takes the sorted bundles — known as “kilos” although that’s more a guess than a weight — into large, white burlap sacks, marking each with the name of the export company that will pick it up once it reaches Nairobi that afternoon.
Walking along the main road watching all of this is Abdi Kadir Mohammed. He is a khat distributor.
Mohammed, 54, was born in northeast Kenya, in the town of Mandera. Unlike most in Maua, who are of Meru descent, Mohammed’s heritage is Somali, although he balks at the suggestion he is anything but Kenyan and quickly tells me he has never stepped across the border.
He has four wives, 15 children and moved here two decades ago. As an outsider, it took him years to establish himself but eventually he gained respect as an honest distributor. He lives in a small concrete house off the main road with one of his wives and his younger children, including his 9-year-old daughter Kali, who is confined to a bed, only able to rock and hum after a brain injury left her unable to walk or talk.
Like many here, Mohammed is also a khat consumer, although he only chews after the trucks leave for Nairobi.
To get those Toyota pickups ready, another crew of specialists, known as the ropers, suddenly emerge once the sacks are packed. Everyone constantly looks at their watches. It is now close to 10 a.m. With clerks carefully recording the number of bags loaded on to each truck, the ropers expertly secure the two-metre teetering loads.
Zachary Mrefu, a last name that translates from Swahili to “tall man,” stands calmly nearby smoking a cigarette. Wearing khaki cargos and a grim expression, the muscular 32-year-old could pass as a Special Forces commando and his job is likely just as dangerous.
Mrefu turns what should be a five-hour drive to Nairobi into a three-hour race on 276 kilometres of winding road, forcing any cars in his way to swerve on to the highway’s shoulders. He also navigates dozens of massive speed bumps that scrape the mufflers of smaller cars. “The shock absorbers are out,” Mrefu explains, saying he often reaches a speed of 170 kilometres an hour.
He insists he has never had an accident or caused one during his seven years driving.
By 11 a.m., Mrefu and the other drivers are off.
“Khat chewing induces a state of euphoria and elation with feelings of increased alertness and arousal,” according to the World Health Organization.
“This is followed by a stage of vivid discussions, loquacity and an excited mood. Thinking is characterized by a flight of ideas but without the ability to concentrate. However, at the end of a khat session the user may experience depressive mood, irritability, anorexia and difficulty to sleep.”
Use in Canada and elsewhere outside the Horn of Africa and Yemen is almost exclusively within diaspora populations.
As one Somali Canadian recently told me, “Leave a big box of khat at the side of the road and most Canadians wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it.”
I was introduced to khat in 2006, on a Djibouti airstrip where I had arrived with photographer Peter Power for a story about the sprawling U.S. base.
Airport officials told us we needed a letter of introduction from the information minister to work as journalists in the country. It was the weekend, so we would have to leave our passports at the airport until all was sorted. There are few possessions journalists hold sacred when on the road, but a passport is one of them.
A Canadian diplomat we reached couldn’t help but cautioned we had better settle this quickly.
During the early afternoon as we waited for someone’s boss to talk with someone’s boss or some such excuse, the entire airport arrivals area suddenly cleared out. A small plane from either Kenya or Ethiopia landed and was quickly surrounded by dozens of cars that raced onto the tarmac out of nowhere.
Bulging burlap khat sacks were thrown into the cars, which left as quickly as they arrived. We would later see these cars delivering their cargo to shacks along the road.
Some of that delivery didn’t go far. The airport officials emerged, eyes reddened, green flakes lodged in chapped lips and now amused by our concern and our rusty French.
Djibouti’s afternoon khat paralysis had begun. We had no choice but to leave and retrieve our passports the next day.
This daily lull, whether it is in Djibouti, Somalia or Yemen, is what some anti-khat activists cite as a harmful consequence of its use. The Yemeni blogger Hind Aleryani, who lives in Lebanon, is at the forefront of a campaign to ban khat’s use in Yemen’s government and public buildings.
I first chewed khat in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in 2009 at the home of Abdulrahman al Hila, the brother of a high-profile Guantanamo detainee. We drank sugary tea and water, lounging on cushions and chewing the high-priced khat, which they had bought especially for me. I had been told it would be an insult to refuse.
For a rookie, chewing is not a pleasant experience. The leaves taste bitter and are hard to press into your cheek. Users say khat is an acquired taste and the impact increases with use. The few times I have chewed since has produced minimal effect — mental alertness, lack of appetite and a general good mood.
In February 2011, at the start of Yemen’s street protests, I interviewed a government official during a chew. Later, still wide awake and transcribing the interview, I was impressed with our conversation — I seemed more engaged than normal for such a lengthy discussion.
But it was a lot of effort to get there — hours of chewing and enduring that dry, bitter taste.
In Maua this summer, I politely declined Mohammed’s invitation to chew, despite the region’s reputation for the world’s finest khat.
“You will be excited. You will feel confidence. You will talk a lot,” he told me.
Perhaps, but wouldn’t a few shots of espresso be easier?
My attitude represents the cultural divide. It is hard to understand its appeal when not raised in a country where khat holds social, cultural and practical importance.
Khat use dates back centuries and is still used by nomads or pastoralists who need to stay awake and suppress their appetites during long journeys. Somali poets chewed. Ethiopian religious scholars used it to stay awake and study the Bible while Muslims used khat to help memorize the Qur’an.
Author Kevin Rushby waxed poetically of his khat chewing in his book Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man’s Journey through Ethiopia and Yemen.
“I passed the hours listening to the gentle lubalub of the hookah and whispered conversations about dead poets and fine deeds . . . No rush, just a silky transition, scarcely noticed, and then the room casts loose its moorings. ‘Capturing moments of eternity,’ someone once called the subtle tinkering with time that (khat) effects.”
If the khat trucks from Maua are arriving in Eastleigh, a Somali neighbourhood near Nairobi’s downtown, then it is 2 p.m.
Once again, everything must move fast.
Trucks are quickly unloaded and the khat that will remain in Kenya is distributed.
Separate loads are taken down the street to a massive courtyard where the graders work, inspecting the khat. Another team comes in to package the goods into wooden crates for the night flights from Nairobi’s international airport to London and Amsterdam (although the Netherlands banned khat in January, shipments are still reportedly exported to there).
Kenya’s roads again become the enemy for khat runners. Daredevil driving skills can’t help in Nairobi, where the drive from Eastleigh to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport can take anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours depending on traffic and accidents.
The khat should arrive at Heathrow Airport by dawn, move through customs, and be ready for consumption in London’s kebab shops or corner stores about 12 hours after it left Nairobi.
More than 3,000 tonnes of khat are imported into the United Kingdom each year, according to a 2011 report by the Home Office. The price for a bag on the street in London fluctuates but is rarely more than $10.
Following the money is not easy given so many workers and how much money passes through informal banking systems or via money transfers that are commonly used within the Somali diasporas.
But tracking the revenue has become the focus of counterterrorism agencies since the Shabab emerged in Somalia in late 2006 and reports followed that the group was benefiting from the khat trade.
In 2010, the UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea noted the Shabab “taxed” khat imports from Kenya into areas under their control. One of Nairobi’s richest khat distributors, Ahmed Duale Gelle, known as Heef, owned a private Mogadishu airstrip commonly known as “Kilometre 50” or “K50,” where much khat was imported. Although he told UN investigators that all the revenue from his trade went to Somalia’s central bank, the UN group estimated that as much as $500,000 went to the Shabab in “taxes.”
By the end of 2010, the Shabab had taken over the airport and expelled Heef and his militia and lost the khat revenue.
Matt Bryden, head of the monitoring group and author of the UN report, said in an interview that he could find “no significant correlation between Al Shabab and khat.”
Ideologically, it doesn’t make sense, Bryden notes, since the militant Islamic group deems khat use haram, forbidden, like sporting events, music or drinking alcohol.
“You’re not going to have a committed ideologue importing khat.
“Al Shabab generally disapproves of khat use and has banned it in some cases,” he said. “The revenues accruing from khat have been marginal compared to other sources.”
Taxing goods moving through its territory is a common means of extortion for the Shabab and there are more lucrative imports they control, such as charcoal. This year’s UN report states that as many as 10 million charcoal sacks were exported from southern Somalia in 2011, generating revenues for the Shabab of more than $25 million.
Outside of the Horn of Africa, in the Somali diasporas where the Shabab has managed to generate support and lure Western recruits, there is also little proof of a connection.
“At the end of the day, we’ve found no evidence to link it to terrorism,” says RCMP Inspector Dean Dickson, who is in charge of the Border Integrity Unit at the Toronto airport. .
“We’ve yet to determine that from a Canadian perspective.”
The most recent headline-grabbing case was in Britain, following May 1 raids. Reports stated that 500 officers spread across London, Coventry and Cardiff, raided homes and arrested seven on suspicion of financing the Shabab through the khat trade.
But details of a terrorism connection in the joint U.K.-U.S. case remain sketchy and the group was eventually charged with conspiracy over alleged “misdescription of parcels for export.”
The case remains before the courts.
After 10:30 p.m. in Rexdale, in north Toronto, the Benadir Mall parking lot fills and men lean on their cars and lounge on plastic lawn chairs or curbside. It looks like a Somali tailgate party, but instead of football, hibachis and beer, there is khat.
The khat is good quality on this summer night, so it was likely picked 48 hours earlier in the Nyambene Hills.
A bag that cost a couple of dollars in Maua goes for $110 in Toronto.
No one says how this shipment got here, but the smugglers’ route is well known. The khat is legally bought in London and then concealed in duffle bags, suitcases or, as one recent case revealed, in a bulky body pack that a smuggler wore during the seven-hour flight from Heathrow to Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
Some fresh khat arrives in cargo, often concealed in false bottoms of flower shipments or other perishable goods that need to move quickly. Some comes from Ethiopia, but it is usually dried, which only produces minimal effect.
Before reaching the Benadir Mall parking lot, the Kenyan khat had to get past Canada Border Service Agency chief Jerry Jesso’s team.
“We’re actually looking at goods and people as soon as the wheels go up on the plane or the boat leaves the shore,” says Jesso.
But aside from obvious tips such as flagging passengers who paid cash for their flight from London, profiling a khat smuggler is nearly impossible. They vary in age and ethnicity, from frequent flyers to first-timers, young female British students to senior members of Somalia’s community.
Consider Tina Maria DeSousa, who was arrested Dec. 28, 2009, and whose case was the one that reached the Ontario Court of Appeal. She is Canadian, was 28 at the time of her arrest, in college and financially supported by her mother. She had no criminal record.
Abdi Nasir Ahmed said he didn’t have a criminal record either when he was stopped in July 2011 with four duffle bags of khat.
“I was bringing it for my cousin’s wedding,” the 30-year-old said as he stands with friends in the parking lot. His case is still before the courts.
The Benadir Mall gatherings are a little later these days due to Ramadan. People don’t come until the sun has set and the daily fast is broken.
As many as a 100 chew some nights and the crowd includes students, accountants, cab drivers, the rich and the unemployed, ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. All are male.
Police cruisers sometimes roll through but rarely stop. Policing khat falls to the CBSA, who seizes shipments at the airport and the RCMP, who investigate and lay charges. Arrests by local police for consumers are unusual.
Dealers aren’t often caught since it’s the smugglers who get nabbed first.
Toronto used to have a rich khat kingpin, known on the street as Omar “Buur” (Omar Fat), but he died of natural causes in Dubai earlier this year and the trade is reportedly now spread out among various small-time dealers.
It is a competitive business and it is not uncommon for a dealer to call police anonymously to alert authorities about a rival’s shipment to drive up his own price or for bragging rights.
These stories are shared along with the khat in the mall parking lot. There is no better place to debate khat and the diversity of the views is surprising.
“Talk to me,” says 30-year-old Ali. “I think (khat is) a terrible thing and I chew.”
While his friends laugh and jostle him, he lays out his case: “It wastes a lot of time. Because I don’t drink, I do this after work but I wish I didn’t.
“I don’t think it’s physically addictive but socially it is. I want to be part of the buzz.”
Ali says he is glad it is illegal because it cuts down on widespread use, making it too expensive for many to afford. He doesn’t want a younger generation to share his habit.
Others vehemently disagree and call him a hypocrite, saying the price is only high because it is illegal.
“I just don’t understand why it’s legal in the U.K. and not here,” says a 34-year-old accountant, who doesn’t want his name used.
He has been lobbying the Canadian government, arguing the leaves are less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. “Everything can be abused,” he argues.
He attaches a World Health Organization report recommending against khat’s international control to his correspondence with Ottawa.
He later emails me the government’s response to one of his letters: “While the (WHO) report does not recommend scheduling khat under one of the United Nations drug conventions, Canada is not bound by these recommendations,” Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq wrote him in 2010.
“It was a way to criminalize the East African community,” he says. “We’re the only ones who use it.”
But, considering it was members of the Somali community who pushed to make khat illegal 15 years ago, others disagree.
An opinion piece in the Toronto Star that ran in January 1996 began: “A substance called ‘khat,’ which does not differ much from cocaine or heroin in its social consequences, recently has been introduced into Canada and distributed freely in the marketplace.”
The author, Hassan Hirave, who worked as a translator for the Children’s Aid Society and Toronto’s police, wrote about a visit to a home where child abuse was suspected and where he found horrendous living conditions and malnourished children. In the fridge, police found two garbage bags of khat.
It was an extreme example of khat-dealing parents. But some Somali community activists say khat’s social impact cannot be overlooked, such as the time fathers spend away from home, or the next-day fatigue at work.
As the clock gets closer to midnight, the Toronto chewers continue this debate, grinding the high-priced khat.
Halfway around the world, in the Nyambene Hills, Patrick Mugambi and the birds are waking to start all over again.
Source: Toronto Star