By Mark Hay
HARGEISA (Somalilandsun) – At around 9 PM in Hargeisa, Somaliland, a man shuffles in through the side door of the Gargaar company headquarters carrying a lumpy burlap sack half his size. He upends his load in the center of the 300-square-foot room serving as a hybrid office-warehouse-salesroom—the totality of Gargaar HQ—and giant wads of twigs and waxy, pointed leaves falls onto the floor.
The leafy greens are khat, the ubiquitous but culturally and physiologically ambiguous weak narcotic (like an amphetamine, but reputed to act like a downer for some and a psychotic for a select few) common in the Horn of Africa and South Arabia. This tiny bushel is the sole commodity in the warehouse and the sole focus of the half dozen employees in the room.
They descend on the khat with an urgency and efficiency unusual in Hargeisa. Speed is everything in the Somaliland khat scene, since the leaves lose their potency within 48 hours (although Somalis leave the leaves on the stem, unlike in Yemen, in the hopes of prolonging the potency). That short shelf-life has become especially relevant since former Somali dictator Siad Barre’s destruction of local khat farms, which pushed sellers to depend on growers 160 miles away in Harar, Ethiopia. Hassan, the owner of six-month-old Gargaar who sits beside me on a flattened cardboard box, the only furniture in the room, sighs with relief—the latest shipment has come just as HQ’s vendor was running low on product during the after-dinner rush hour.
I walk over to the front of the warehouse, where half of the plaster wall has been knocked out and a waist-high, one-man stall of wooden planks much like the stand-alone stalls all over Hargeisa, pokes out onto the street. The vendor, too busy passing wads of cash between customers and the money changer perched beside him, doesn’t even notice me as I peek over his shoulder at about 20 bunches of khat half covered by a sheet. Gargaar sells jebis, a midrange khat that goes for $5 per one-fourth kilo bunch (low grade retails for $1.2 and high grade for $10-plus per one-fourth kilo). It used to go for $7-plus when his former employer of 18 years, the Gafane company, held a monopoly. I lean beside the money changer and try to help keep track of the bunches going in and out of the stall and how many people take theirs on credit—mainly because no one has the time of day to stop and talk to me, unlike most other businesspeople in Somaliland—but I can’t keep up and eventually retreat to the back to grill Hassan about his burgeoning enterprise.
Hassan’s young empire includes eight storefronts in four cities, five import vehicles making constant shipments, and 65 full-time employees. Hassan alone imports 300 kilos of khat daily. But Gargaar, Gafane, and all the other mass importers are just drops in a bucket—Hassan estimates that 10,000 kilos of mid-grade khat are imported daily, and perhaps 50,000-plus of all grades combined. The number of small, individual-run stalls in Hargeisa alone is beyond count.
Khat is a longstanding part of Somali culture, and people familiar with the plant in Yemen and Ethiopia jump to defend it as a recreational social lubricant. But it’s not so benign in Somaliland anymore. Hassan’s business is so good because khat has filled the temporal and psychological void of mass unemployment. But there is a predatory angle to this as well: historically khat has been pushed on the Somalis, like in the 1960s Ethiopian War, to get them addicted, make them lazy, and break their wallets. Now Ethiopian growers flood the market, realizing they can make more money on khat than coffee, piggybacking (consciously or unconsciously) on Somaliland’s unemployment.
This chronic unemployment and ready supply has broken down traditional limitations on khat use, which now pushes 60 to 80 percent usage among men (many are probably still limited and conscientious users, but there is a serious abuse epidemic in that soft number). The explosion in usage leads to public health crises, some as minor as tooth staining, but most major like liver damage, fiber blockages, involuntary ejaculations, and impotence. Major employers now deny jobs to khat users, leading to cycles of chronic abuse and unemployment.
And then there’s the gender question. Khat’s good businesses, even for a stand-alone stall, so it attracts women with unemployed husbands or recent widows, like Ameena. A much more relaxed character than the Gargaar crew, Ameena sells just 15 kilos of khat a day, down from 25 in the past, and has just 12 regular customers, whose loyalty has been her only job security for 13 years. Over the night that I sit with her, I count just four customers, and she’s completely at peace just chatting with me about her kids rather than trying to flag down potential sales. But she still makes enough to support her family (she, like all other sellers, is cagey about the exact sums, but based on the taxes levied at the border and what the few local growers charge at their farms, she most likely earns $30 per day at least) and put all of her kids through college. Men, though, unsettled by self-assured women in positions of commerce and power, spread rumors that female vendors use sex to secure loyal customers and get khat at wholesale prices.
Whether for serious concerns about public health or more misogynistic fears, everyone is a bit worried about khat in Somaliland, and ashamed to be associated with it, refusing to be photographed while chewing but posing happily once the khat is gone. Even Hassan, proud to have his face associated with his product and empire, admits that his success stems from serious social and economic ills. He believes that if the country were economically functional, people would only chew on the weekend. And he’d be fine with that; it’d be better for the nation.
But khat’s entrenched here, by national economics as much as personal addiction. If Ameena supports her family on 15 kilos a day, imagine the profits Hassan reaps. And the profits the government reaps as well—Hassan guesses that the government gets up to 40 percent of its tax revenues from khat tariffs, although scholarly estimates say it’s 30 percent max. The government takes a small tax out of every stall daily, too. So anyone who takes on the epidemic abuse of khat or its social and public health effects is essentially attacking Somaliland’s economy. Not even the decidedly antikhat sheikhs will touch it.
As for the socially conscious and concerned Hassan, he’s just putting his money back into khat for now, hoping to double his business within the coming months. It seems contrary to his beliefs and concerns, but it is, in the end, one of the only good ways to generate wealth for the nation and the individual. It’s a job creator and an economic stimulator. Now it’d just be nice if there were jobs to create or an economy to stimulate that wasn’t anchored in khat.
The writer Mark Hay is an American researcher currently in Somaliland
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