Tag: khat

How Britain’s khat ban devastated an entire Kenyan town

 Khat's psychoactive ingredients -- cathinone and cathine -- are similar to amphetamines but weaker, and can help chewers stay awake and talkative. (Pic: AFP)
Khat’s psychoactive ingredients – cathinone and cathine – are similar to amphetamines but weaker, and can help chewers stay awake and talkative. (Pic: AFP)

In a quiet and unassuming town tucked away in a hilly part of eastern Kenya, the British home secretary Theresa May’s name is spoken with barely concealed anger. Since her role in the ban of the town’s most valuable export, she’s become a universally vilified figure.

For more than two decades, Maua enjoyed booming business propelled by the growth and sale of khat, known locally as miraa, a popular herb whose leaves and stems are chewed for the mild high they offer.

But last year the UK, home to one of khat’s biggest markets, declared the stimulant a class C drug and banned all imports, prompting Maua’s rapid descent into economic purgatory.

Since the early 1990s, Britain has imported between 2,500 to 2,800 tonnes a year, according to the Home Affairs committee. Although in its initial findings the committee could not find a compelling health or social reason to ban khat, May’s argument – that continuing to allow trade in the UK would spawn off an illegal export corridor to other European countries where it is banned – won out in what became a controversial cultural debate.

Now, a year after the legislation was signed, residents in Maua have been hit hard by a shrinking local economy that has left many facing poverty.


Edward Muruu is one of the earliest pioneers of the khat export trade. A retired headmaster at a local primary school, he says he has experienced unprecedented losses since the ban came into effect.

“I used to ferry miraa (khat) from Maua to Nairobi four times a week using 27 Toyota Hilux trucks, where it was repackaged for export. I used to make around £2 100 a month. Now I am lucky if I bring in £250 per month,” he says.

With the European market gone, the only place left for Muruu to sell his stimulant is Somalia, where consumers now dictate how much they pay – and it’s not much.

“The other issue with the Somali market is that the only people who can transport miraa to Mogadishu are Kenyan Somalis, meaning that the rest of us drivers have been put out of work,” says a former worker of Muruu’s, who only identified himself as Kanda.

According to Kanda, if non-Somali drivers attempt the trip they are attacked along the journey. For a town of its size and location, Maua has a disproportionately large number of residents of Somali heritage, most of whom are involved in the khat trade as middlemen. They are also big consumers themselves.

‘Miraa was the heartbeat of this town’

The effects of the London ban have reached everybody in the khat micro-economy, from the big name traders like Muraa to the small fish who depend on the trade for their survival.

Although Muraa has made investments that have cushioned him against the blows of a deeply depleted income, those at the lower end of the food chain have not been so lucky.

Miriti Ngozi, chairman of the Miraa Traders Association, says that many farmers and traders are no longer able to pay school fees or even buy enough food for their families.

“You have to understand that in this region, subsistence farming has long been overshadowed by the more prestigious miraa farming. Now that people are no longer making money from miraa, they do not have money to buy food and many families are sleeping hungry,” he says.

Yet many remain reluctant to uproot their khat crops and plant maize instead, holding on to the hope that their fortunes might one day return.

Pius Mbiti, a trader in his early 30s, is a qualified vet but says that he makes most of his income from picking and selling the stimulant.

“On a good day I used to make up to £12 which, when supplemented with earnings from my vet practice, was enough to take care of my family. But since the ban I am lucky if I make even £2 pounds,” he says.

He cannot rely on animal medicine any more either because farmers no longer have the money to pay for his services.

This narrative is familiar across the town, with the common refrain being that shutting down miraa imports to London is killing businesses indirectly linked to the herb.

“The miraa trade was the heartbeat of this town; it drove everything else. With revenue from miraa so drastically low, people no longer have the money to buy things,” says Lawrence Kobia, who owns a bookshop. He says that his sales have plummeted by more than 40% since last year.


In its submissions to parliament, the Home Office committee warned that banning khat would result in the formation of a black market – as seen in the United States and other European countries including Norway and Holland.

Although initially khat sold for between £3 and £4 a kilogram in Britain, the committee reported that if it was banned the price could increase to £318, similar to its price in the US.

Their predictions turned out to be true: there has been a proliferation of the stimulant in London since the ban. While the border police have no statistics on seizures, the London Metropolitan police says it has handled a number of khat-related offences.

A spokesperson said that in the first six months after the ban came into effect, a total of 68 warnings and 14 penalty notices were issued. In addition, 36 people were arrested for possession of the herb, four of whom were later charged.

In the meantime, the Kenyan government is trying hard to get the ban lifted, with President Uhuru Kenyatta even promising the farmers in Maua as recently as February that he will petition to have the market reopened for them.

The farmers, however, see this as a cheap political move to whip up support, complaining that no tangible rewards have come from promises made by politicians regarding the matter in the past.

But the squabbling over high-level politics in Kenya and the workings of the parliament in Britain are meaningless to the miraa farmer in Maua, whose only worry is where the next meal will come from.

My close encounter with Somalia’s whip-wielding al-Shabab

It started as a request from my close friend, Awil Abukar, to accompany him as he took his frail mother to their ancestral hometown.

Awil, as he always does, assured me the trip would be smooth.

I should point out that in his world smooth means not getting killed – everything else is caadhi (fine).

Just after 1pm on August 22, our vehicle rattled into Goob Weyn, a sleepy town with more palm trees than people. This picturesque place is about a thirty-minute drive from Kismayo, Somalia’s third biggest city.

Unlike many towns in Somalia, locals here aren’t armed to the teeth. The few hundred of them tend to their farms or fish for half the day, then sleep the rest of the time. The town is peaceful, and is neither in the hands of the government nor al-Shabab.

But sleepy Goob Weyn and its residents were to get a rude awakening that evening when members of al-Shabab, the hardline al-Qaeda-linked rebel group fighting the Somali government, paid them a visit.

Al-Shabab enforces a strict version of Sharia law that prohibits things like music, cigarettes and alcohol in the areas it controls.

That evening, the town was lively. Men in sarongs sat in front of their red mud houses chewing khat – the green narcotic leaves commonly consumed by east Africans – to pass the hours. Garami (soft, melodic music) blasted from their small battery-powered radios.

Women wearing baati, the traditional Somali dress, with the odd baby strapped to their backs cooked dinner of rice and beans on open fires.

Awil, his son and I sat in front of his mum’s house drinking tea made with water from the muddy Jubba River. Local youths gathered around my iPhone to watch and listen to the western music loaded on it.

In short, the evening was a picture of tranquility and I was loving it.

Just before 8pm, a lorry with its headlights turned off rolled into town. It was strange – vehicles don’t come to Goob Weyn that often and definitely not at this time of the night. In fact, Awil’s car was the only vehicle in town until now.

The atmosphere quickly changed. The music stopped. People fell silent.

Then the creaky lorry door opened and a masked man jumped out.

Al-Shabab was here and many of us were in the middle of doing things al-Shabab does not approve of.

Fifteen other masked men jumped out of the lorry and started moving from house to house, asking all the men inside to come out.

I quickly dashed into Awil’s mum’s house and threw on a sarong over my knee-high shorts. A tall man in shorts is a sight al-Shabab sheikhs don’t approve of.

Then I wrapped my iPhone in a waterproof plastic bag and dropped it in the cockroach- and faeces-filled hole in the ground that the family used as a toilet. Given the prized photos, videos, music and texts on my phone I had to hide it by all means. Retrieving and cleaning it would be a minor inconvenience compared to getting lashes from an al-Shabab fighter’s whip.

The women who were busy cooking got busy changing into al-Shabab-compliant clothes. Off went the baati and on came the jilbab – a long, loose garment that covers the whole body.

The men who were religiously chewing khat leaves frantically started brushing their teeth and washing their mouths. They threw the remaining leaves into the open cooking fires, resulting in thick smoke that made those standing nearby cough nonstop.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

By then the al-Shabab fighters were busy herding the men of Goob Weyn towards a football field in the centre of the town. The women were instructed to remain in their homes.

As we walked to the field a young man made a dash for it, running down the small moonlit alleyways between the mud houses. He didn’t get far as fighters hiding behind houses, not far away, caught him. He was taken to the lorry and we could hear screams in the distance as he was lashed. I later found out the young man is the local khat dealer and was wanted by al-Shabab for bringing the stimulant drug into the town.

We sat in the centre of the football field under the full moon as more and more of the town’s male residents joined us. There were about 150 of us in total.

Then the shortest of the al-Shabab fighters stepped forward. He was slightly taller than his AK-47 rifle, his skin-and-bones frame was covered in an oversized camouflage uniform. He wore oversized sandals that looked too heavy for his tiny feet. With a stainless steel torch in his left hand, he started collecting everyone’s cellphones. Surprisingly he had a deep chesty voice for someone of such a small frame, which made the orders he was barking sound more serious and threatening.

He passed the phones to his colleagues who went through them one by one to check for music and adult content. Those who had music on their phones received stern warnings and their memory cards were destroyed. One young man had adult material on his phone. He was taken aside and lashed in front of everyone. The al-Shabab guys were very unimpressed when they found out he was married with two wives. You could feel the disappointment behind the masks as they shook their heads and talked between them. They didn’t only destroy the young man’s memory card but his phone too.

One of the fighters realised I had not handed hand my phone over. Shining his torch at me he asked Awil who was seated next to me: “Is this one Somali and where is his phone?”

Awil, ever diplomatic, replied: “He’s Somali, speak to him.”

He looked at me without saying a word, unconvinced, turned his masked face back to Awil and again asked: “Where is this one’s phone?”

“He’s not mute. He can speak. He’s fluent in Somali. He’s not an alien. I swear,” said Awil, sounding slightly impatient.

I sensed my chance and joined the conversation. “Sheikh, I’m a British tourist and your seniors know we are here. You can call your emir [leader] to check. There is no need to keep me and Awil here.”

After three years working in Somalia I’ve managed to interview al-Shabab commanders. Before we made the trip they had assured us we were free to pass through or stay in areas they controlled.

Satisfied, the young al-Shabab fighter moved on.

Like a dentist, the short al-Shabab fighter then started closely inspecting everyone’s teeth for telltale signs of khat. Al-Shabab forbids the chewing of the narcotic leaves. The man pulled me aside, then asked me to open my mouth. Realising that my 6-foot-3 frame was much taller than his, he ordered me to bend down so he could take a closer look. I obliged. He placed his torch so close to my mouth that it touched my bottom lip and I could feel the warmth of the light coming from it. He asked me to move my tongue up, down and side to side.

After staring into my mouth for what seemed like an eternity, he said: “You are missing a tooth.”

Feeling annoyed but staying calm, I replied: “Sheikh, that’s not haram [forbidden].”

Ten men were taken aside by the short al-Shabab fighter. They were the unlucky ones who couldn’t conceal the fact they were chewing khat earlier. The green leaf pigment was either found on their tongue or stuck to their teeth. They were given an Islamic lecture before they each received five lashes.

The short al-Shabab guy wasn’t finished. He frog-marched one of the guys to the local kiosk. Before they reached it, he told the guy to order cigarettes from the female shopkeeper. Thinking that the al-Shabab men had left, she produced one from her secret hiding place. A big mistake. Cigarettes worth more than $200 were confiscated and set alight in front of everyone.

To my surprise she wasn’t flogged like the men who were caught with the khat. She was just given a religious lecture and a final warning.

Before they let us all go back to our homes, the al-Shabab fighters gave us a long lecture about jihad and asked us if anyone wanted to join them and defend the country against the “infidels”.

All I wanted to do was run back and save my phone, which wasn’t insured.

Just past midnight, they finally let us go but they took about a dozen of people with them.

Back at Awil’s mum’s house, a few locals blamed our presence in the town and our car for attracting al-Shabab. We told them we would be happy to leave the next morning.

After a short sleep, we were ready to head back to Mogadishu. A couple of locals asked us for a lift but they first searched the car extensively for explosives before jumping in.

Back in Mogadishu and still feeling disrespected by the short al-Shabab soldier with the torch, I called one of the al-Shabab commanders to relay the events of the previous evening.

He laughed throughout the conversation. Then he quipped: “If you had called me right then, I would’ve told them to fire a few shots inches above your head to welcome you to the Muslim land.”

I should’ve listened to Awil and not called to complain to the commander. What happen was caadhi after all!

As for my iPhone, I managed to retrieve it but it has never fully recovered from that trip down the hole-in-the-ground.

Hamza Mohamed is a British-Somali journalist working for Al Jazeera English. Connect with him on Twitter.

Delivering herbal highs: Khat in Kenya

Speed kills, but when it doesn’t, it thrills. I experienced this truth firsthand on a trip from Nyambene hills in Eastern Kenya to the capital Nairobi on board a khat-filled van. This was a ride like no other.

Khat, commonly known as miraa in Kenya, is a leafy shrub known for its stimulating effect. It delivers a mild amphetamine-like high for as long as you chew it – and the fresher the twigs, the more potent the high. Forty eight hours after being harvested, the twigs are of little use.

The shrub mainly grows in the Kenyan highlands, so it has to travel across the world to reach consumers in the Arab world, Europe, Australia and other parts of Africa. This is not an easy fete. Speed is a must; efficiency non-negotiable. Six hours after being picked, it has to be on its way to the United Kingdom or Dubai.

This is where the Toyota Hilux vans and skilled drivers come in. They travel at life-threatening speeds along the highway that leads to Nairobi from Nyambene, Maua and Meru – the main miraa-growing areas. The drivers seem to know all the potholes on the entire 400km stretch of road. They evade them with precision, negotiate dangerous bends in the hilly countryside at 160km/h, all while chatting, chewing miraa, puffing on cigarettes and drinking Coca Cola. It is man and machine against one of the most dangerous roads in Kenya.

Khat leaves from the Mount Kenya region. (Pic: Flickr/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture)
Khat leaves from the Mount Kenya region. (Pic: Flickr/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture)

My friend Mutuota, a miraa trader in Maua, agreed to let me go along for a ride in one of his vans last month. I was introduced to the driver Mbaabu and his assistant Mutuma. A team of young men packed the khat into the van and made sure the load was stable. Then we were off.

We stopped at a petrol station first. Mbaabu asked the attendant to fill up the tank, check the tyre pressure and all the wheels, including the spare. The drivers make sure their vehicles are in tip-top shape – they have modified shock absorbers and good suspension to make the vans less prone to overturning at high speeds, and the brakes are serviced at least twice a week.

Then we hit the road to Nairobi. Meru roads are notorious for traffic accidents and road blocks. Luckily for Mbaabu who was doing about 180 km/hr the entire trip, the traffic cops just waved us along and let us pass freely through road blocks – they are familiar with the Hiluxes.

I asked Mutuma about the importance of speed throughout the operation. “Today we’re only doing local orders, but usually we have clients waiting for this product in London and Dubai. It has to get to Nairobi first, then be cleared through customs and reach them before the stim (potency) goes down. So we have just a few hours.”

Besides overseas destinations, the product is heavily traded in Ethiopia and Somalia. In Kenya, cities like Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Busia have a huge demand for miraa.  It is a multi-million-dollar industry in Kenya, with hundreds of thousands of farmers and dealers relying on it for income.

A khat stall in Somalia. (Flickr/G.A. Hussein)
A khat stall in Somalia. (Flickr/G.A. Hussein)

The miraa farmers are a happy lot, despite losing some profits to a chain of middlemen and brokers. A kilo in Nairobi fetches around R22, sometimes higher. Every miraa farmer’s livelihood depends on the timely delivery of his crop to Nairobi. Educating his children, building a new house or even tending new crops all depend on how quickly miraa is delivered to the market, Mbaabu tells me.

Two and a half hours later, the sight of the Nairobi skyline was a huge relief to me. I was a little dizzy and nauseous from the ride, but Mbaabu and Matuma were all business. We stopped in Eastleigh, a neighbourhood that’s mainly habited by Somalis, who are considered to be the highest consumers of miraa in the world. They offloaded the order and then it was time to say our goodbyes. I was heading home, they were going back to Maua. Tomorrow they will make the same trip to the capital to deliver miraa for a client in London with their usual speed, efficiency – and fearlessness.

Kimani Chege is a freelance journalist and communications consultant based in Nairobi. He has a special interest in agriculture, health and technology and how they contribute to development or the lack of it. Connect with him on Twitter.