Pubdate: Thu, 28 Aug 2014
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2014 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Abdi Sheik
Page: 14A


MOGADISHU, Somalia - "The president has arrived, the president has 
arrived," chant youths in Mogadishu's Beerta Khaatka market, as armed 
men in trucks mounted with machine guns escort lorries with horns 
blaring through the throng.

The joking salutation is not for Somalia's president, but hails a 
national institution nonetheless: white sacks brimming with leafy 
sprouts of khat, the narcotic shrub chewed across the Horn of Africa 
and Yemen in a tradition dating back centuries.

The ubiquitous sight of young men with rifles slung over their 
shoulders and green stalks of khat dangling from their mouths is 
emblematic of the Somalia of recent decades, where marauding Islamist 
rebels and warlords bent on carving out personal fiefdoms have 
fomented a culture of guns and violence.

Grown on plantations in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, tons of 
khat, or qat, dubbed "the flower of paradise" by its users, are flown 
daily into Mogadishu airport, to be distributed from there in convoys 
of lorries to markets across Somalia.

Britain, whose large ethnic Somali community sustained a lucrative 
demand for the leaves, banned khat from July as an illegal drug. This 
prohibition jolted the khat market, creating a supply glut in Somalia 
and pushing down prices, to the delight of the many connoisseurs of 
its amphetamine-like high.

"Those who exported to London have now made Mogadishu their khat 
hub," said Dahir Kassim, an accountant for a wholesale khat trader in 
Somalia's rubble-strewn capital where women under umbrella stands 
sell khat bundles wrapped in banana leaves.

The price of the cheap Laari khat popular in the impoverished country 
has halved to about $10 per kilogram since Britain outlawed the 
stimulant. A kilogram of "Special" or "London" khat has also gone 
down to about $18 from$30.

Before the UK ban, 27-year-old mason's assistant Mohamed Khalif could 
only afford to chew once a week. "Now I chew daily and my problems 
are over," said Khalif, blissfully.

The daily arrival of the khat trucks galvanizes markets, sending 
female traders scrambling for the sacks of stems and leaves, whose 
potency wanes within a few days of plucking.

Other street vendors take advantage of the hubbub to try to sell soft 
drinks and cigarettes.

"I bought my own houses from khat sales," said 55-year-old wholesale 
seller Seinab Ali in Mogadishu, distributing bundles of wrapped 
leaves to local traders.

But khat exporters in Kenya, a former British colony where the cash 
crop bolsters the local economy, say the UK ban has slashed their 
profits from sales to Somalia.

"Britain has made our khat business useless," said Nur Elmi, a khat 
trader in Kenyan capital Nairobi from where shipments to Somalia have 
almost doubled after Britain's ban.

"They cannot afford to buy it all (in Somalia), so we sell it at 
throwaway prices," he said.

The British decision to classify khat an illegal class-C drug was 
surrounded by heated debate, with critics saying it would create a 
lucrative clandestine market and even alienate immigrant youths, 
driving them into crime or Islamist extremism.

Home Secretary Theresa May had argued in backing the ban that it 
would help prevent Britain from becoming a hub for the trade, which 
was already banned in the United States and several European 
countries. She also cited evidence that khat had been linked to "low 
attainment and family breakdowns".

While defenders of khat-chewing hail it as a time-honored social 
tradition comparable to drinking coffee, detractors say it shares 
part of the blame for the violent and destructive chaos suffered by 
Somalia for the last 20 years.

Somalia's cash-strapped government seldom collects health statistics. 
The spike in use is a concern but officials are too busy battling 
Islamist al Shabaab rebels and rebuilding Somalia's state 
institutions to dedicate much attention to it, said the Mogadishu 
mayor's spokesman Ali Mohamud.

"Somali people are wasting money, time and energy on khat," he said. 
"Khat has only advantaged those who grow it."

A 2006 World Health Organization report on khat said it can increase 
blood pressure, insomnia, anorexia, constipation, irritability, 
migraines and also impair sexual potency in men.

Even many of those who make a living from the khat trade recognize 
that its consumption can be harmful.

"Khat is good for mothers who sell it but for those who consume it is 
a disaster. Day and night I pray to God so that my children do not 
chew khat," said wholesaler Ali.

Many Somali women point to wrecked marriages and abandoned children 
as testimony to the dangers of excessive use of khat.

"Men who chew are not good," said Maryan Mohamed, who said she had 
been married 13 times. "They chew alongside their hungry children."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom