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Spending lazy Friday afternoons in Djibouti

    April 01 2005
By Riaan Manser

I've missed my second Easter egg hiding session. I guess my routine of hiding Easter eggs in the garden for my dogs to uncover will have to wait until next year.

Because Djibouti is a predominantly Muslim country Easter is not even mentioned. Not that these guys need any more holidays - they have probably the laziest existence I've yet encountered.

For 80 percent of the male population, this is what an average day would look like.

'Don't worry, just add a zero to that. That's how much you can cycle with qat'
Slowly start work at about 8.30 or 9.00am, until 12.30. Then scramble to find your supply of the narcotic leaf "qat". Qat (pronounced "cat") is chewed for hours while reclining in a chair or sprawled on the ground.

One cheek will be crammed with these chewed leaves, making the user look like a hamster with sunflower seeds stored in its mouth.
The fine pulp of the chewed leaves makes its way on to the front teeth and is sprayed out in greeting. It's an undignified sight.

The qat chewing takes up to four hours and people return to work at 4.30pm for three more hours. That adds up to a gruelling day of six and a half hours.

Many people return to the "qat dens" after work to continue chewing this addictive drug.

Adding insult to the productive, capitalist mindset that many of you may have is that Thursday afternoons and Fridays are write-offs for getting anything done.

Hardly a soul moves on Friday morning, although more people seem to rise the closer it gets to the afternoon prayer time.

Qat consumption is a serious problem that has received national and international attention. Studies have found that people living below the bread line in countries where qat is available spend about 10 percent of their income on this leaf.

A supply of good quality qat for an afternoon session will cost around R30.

Qat is flown in daily from Ethiopia and receives priority clearance before many other important consignments.

I have seen people chase after the trucks that bring qat into town for distribution.

A story doing the rounds here is that when then-United States secretary of state Colin Powell visited Djibouti before the Iraqi war in 2003, he was mobbed by angry locals.

Many believed that they were demonstrating against the US and its policies, but this is untrue.

Powell's flight had taken precedence over all air traffic coming into Djibouti International.

And, you guessed it, the Ethiopian flight carrying the qat was circling above while the Djiboutians were going into withdrawal and Powell was handing out "God bless America" T-shirts.

But what sort of person would I be if I merely criticised?

I carried out some first-hand research and found women were the main distributors of qat. It didn't take me long to find a "dealer" who could supply me with a bag of the Ethiopian leaves.

I found some locals I knew and ordered the customary cup of tea and a sheet of cardboard to sit on.

The leaves taste very unpleasant and I had to laugh thinking about the goats that were walking around us - they were eating plastic and here was I eating their food - leaves.

There were no fireworks for me, although I did have some cold shivers, even as the mercury was hitting the high 30s. I also found it very difficult to sleep. And, to top it all, I had a souvenir headache to start the following day. Some locals told me to use qat while cycling home to South Africa.

One old (wise?) man asked me how many kilometres I cycled a day. Before I could answer, he said. "Don't worry, just add a zero to that. That's how much you can cycle with qat."

Tempting! But quite honestly I don't understand it. Why would people, in such large numbers, be so fascinated by this drug? The greatest ally a dictatorial regime needs is a big distraction like war, religion or qat!

But other people's lives, so different from our own, are guaranteed to be interesting.

I wish I could write more, because Djibouti was an eye-opener. For more information about qat and how it has affected peoples' lives, look up: http:/

Source: IOL


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