I went through a Somali right of passage yesterday by chewing khat (also spelled qat) for the first time. To the uninitiated, I’m not sure how to even begin to describe something that is at once a plant, a recreational drug, a habit, and a national pass time.
Khat is basically a shrub that grows in places like Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya (although not in Somalia or Somaliland itself). It looks like any non-descript bush you might find in an overgrown backyard.
Well, one day a long time ago some ancient Egyptian realized that if you cut the stems off the shrub, rip the leaves off the stems, chew the leaves, shove the chewed leaves into your cheek with your tongue, hold the wad of green paste in there while you masticate more leaves, let the whole thing enter your blood stream, and repeat this process over a period of a couple hours until you have worked through an entire bushel of chat, you will… get high! Yippee.
You can’t go anywhere in Somaliland without noticing the presence of khat, which is widely used among men (and frowned upon among women). You see it in the green-painted chat stalls that line the streets every several hundred metres, with men sitting around on the ground chewing; you see it in the khat trucks that race in daily from the highland farms of Ethiopia where it grows so it can be delivered to users while it is still fresh (only fresh leaves will cause the stimulation); you see it tied up in a bundle, wrapped in a plastic bag, tucked under the shoulders of men walking about town; you see it crammed in the cheek of the shopkeeper who serves you, bits of green juice squirting out of his mouth as he speaks to you; you see it in the buzz of your taxi or bus driver, who chews it to stay alert for a long drive.
So what is it like? Well, it’s a lot of hard work for not too much of a high (on a drugs scale, it would rank even below marijuana). The leaves are bitter, so you have to get over the initial unpleasant taste and chew steadily and patiently to create an effect that only kicks after a while. So, it’s hard work. Really, I’d prefer a glass of scotch (but that is nowhere to be found).
However, once it hits you, there is a pleasant sensation of increased energy, excitement, and most of all talkativeness… it will keep you awake and make you talk shit for hours, so it’s a very social drug. I had fun chewing khat, especially on a road trip through the Somali bush. The most popular time for chewing khat is Thursday evening, since everyone has a day off work on Friday.