It is midday and the heat is in full effect as I enter Nanyuki, a small town in the Kenyan central highlands. I arrived in this place via the most uncomfortable way possible – a matatu crammed with about 20 Kenyans sitting wherever (and on whomever) they could. Despite the uncomfortable ride, you can’t beat paying 50 KSh to hitch a ride to an adjacent city no matter what country you’re in. These highlands are surrounding Africa’s second highest peak and the mountain for which the country is named – Mount Kenya, rising up 5199 meters above sea level, is the only place in the world on the equator that has snow and ice blanketing it. The lush green hills and forests are interspersed with crops and farm land in these highlands and are not exactly what most people think when they think of the quintessential “African” landscape. The dry, searing desserts to the north and the Great Plains to the south seem to fit the bill more. But this too is East Africa, as trucks zoom past day and night without regard for law or courtesy to deliver their payload to nearby markets. What is their payload? It is a plant, Catha edulis to be more precise. Known as miraa in Kenya, or more commonly khat, the plant is extremely popular among the general public (some would say a staple, but that is a stretch). I knew relatively little about this celebrity and set out to the nearby market to retrieve some for myself.
When I arrived, the smells of barbequed corn and goat was in the air; bananas, avocados, chickens bound together, various pieces of meat and other staples of a normal diet were assorted on dirty tables left out in the sun and various would be customers pawed at them from time to time. The Western side of me was a little perturbed however, the “I don’t care I am in another country” side of me was excited at all the cheap fruits and meat both alive and dead. As I walked through the market eating my newly acquired corn I asked various vendors if they had miraa. The reactions I got were mixed but could general be summed up as “What?” or “Not here other place.” I was shocked, because everyone I asked had a visible wad in their cheek. I left the market a little off put and bewildered wondering if it was because I am a mzungu that they didn’t sell to me or because they couldn’t understand my Canadian accent. I wandered the town ignoring beggars, chanters and salesmen as they came up. And eventually I came to a small wooden enclosure with no sign that a truck was parked next to unloading. As I got closer I noticed this ragged, red wooden box looked a lot like a kid’s lemonade stand. Sure enough this is where I was able to buy miraa for the first time; 40 Ksh for a small bundle wrapped in a banana leaf. I thanked the man as he smiled and said something along the lines of “enjoy this wondrous plant!” I took off down the road on foot to a camel camp I had read about, with excitement in hand.
Catha edulis was a plant garnishing a lot of attention in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (and also within me as well). But what exactly is it? Well to put it simply, it is a small shrub or tree that grows in well drained, rocky soil and is harvested for its light red juvenile stems that are chewed for its stimulating and euphoric effects. Being an evergreen, it does not lose its leaves throughout the year and is a dicot that produces small dry fruits that dehisce to release 2 or 3 winged seeds that land and sprout. The mother tree can also send out roots that grow into new, genetically identical plants that can produce seeds before maturity (which is extremely helpful in spreading offspring as far as you can, since the plant is so slow growing). Kenya is one of the top producers of C. edulis, and giant fields are able to be grown through asexual propagation via cutting (which is also the way people manage to grow them in countries that the plant is illegal).
The euphoric and stimulating effects described as “godly” by many Kenyan locals can scientifically explain by two alkaloids contained in the stems: cathine and cathionine. These are amphetamine-like substances that cause a general sense of wellbeing, stimulation, appetite suppression, and excitement (perfect for labours and farmers working long hours for low pay). Due to its amphetamine-like substances and effects, the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the plant a drug of abuse in 1980, leaving approximately 10 million chewers worldwide scratching their heads. In comparison with other drugs of abuse, miraa seems to be one of the least harmful and dependence forming and infact has been noted to relieve the symptoms of asthma, diabetes and intestinal or stomach tract disorders. On the flip side, it does have negative consequences: A study done to determine reaction times and cognitive flexibility between Khat users and non-khat users shows that the accuracy was much lower across all of the tests, and the error rate higher in the khat users. The results suggest that recreational use is associated with impaired cognitive flexibility, which is found to be similar to long-term amphetamine and methamphetamine use. Another study conducted showed that while chewing, a significant and progressive rise in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure can be observed. Originally I thought these trucks rocketing down dusty roads were doing so because people just couldn’t wait to get another shipment; however there is a scientific explanation for this manic driving as well. When picked, the stems must be consumed within 72 hours due to acute degradation of cathine and cathonine. This means if you chew an old plant, you will get nothing other than a bitter taste in your mouth and the regret of having wasted money on a defunct plant.
I arrived in the camel camp about an hour after leaving Nanyuki. There was no sign on the road stating there may be anything down the side dirt road besides a ribbon and an old fig tree. I wandered down the winding road, avoiding the ducks at all costs (I was attacked by farm ducks about a week prior, leading me to believe they were the most dangerous animals in the country). I eventually came to a stone rotunda with a camel skeleton imprinted on the side and was greeted by two very cheery Kenyans. They showed me around and explained a bit about their camp, how they hand built the grass huts and the tree house on the river. These men were from the Somali tribe of Northern Kenya, and spent most of their life living a nomadic existence. They just recently settled down (although they would still walk up to 60kms in a day to retrieve camels for mzungu to ride for enjoyment). I got settled in my grass hut and soon realised I was not alone in the small hut; a family of shrews lived in the wooden frame right above my bed. As evening came I went out to meet the nomads for tea and dinner. The camel milk chai was the best I’ve had thus far in the country, the camel milks sweetness really made the tea great. After dinner I noticed that the nomads were chewing miraa and I pulled out my banana leaf parcel and began to join them. They told me exactly what I needed to know: chew some stems and leaves and push it towards your cheek, keep chewing more and more as the wad gets ground and crushed, chewing gum will help with the bitterness and dry mouth, and to not swallow your chewed ball. I kept chewing and drinking with the nomads just chatting about everything that came to mind.
After a lot of chewing and stems it finally started to kick in. I was alert, excited and above all extremely talkative. I was living the Kenyan motto of Hakuna matata. We talked about everything around a glowing fire: life, death, work, Canada, Kenya. The night wore on and a big man dressed in camouflage emerged out of the night brandishing an assault rifle. The big man pulled up a seat and pulled up a few banana leaf clad bushels, all the while I had my gaze glued to the assault rifle. I was transfixed on the gun, not afraid just interested in it (the miraa and beer probably helped with that).The man broke the silence laughed and passed more miraa around the circle. He happened to be a friend of the nomads and was on break from his guard duty at a nearby manor. The night wore on, and the laughing and talks went long into the night until we eventually retired to our huts. The shrews were still playing above my bed as I lay down for the night in the rickety hut.
Morning came after a few hours of tossing and turning and we met for breakfast. Shortly after, chewing began again and this time lasted for more or less every waking hour of the weekend. I helped tidy up and take care of the bastard ducks and stray dogs, walked with them and tried to do as much as I could. When Sunday finally rolled around, it was time for me and the stationary nomads to part ways. They had to begin a long trek through the Kenyan landscape to get camels for a British family who wanted to ride camels on Monday. The nomads made their business in camels and their non-stop work ethic was fueled by miraa. We said our goodbyes and parted ways, me to Naro Moru for construction and them back to their camel slinging duty. I left with a new found respect for the plant, the habit, the pastime of a country, and wonderful memories with two new friends: Joseph and James.
To this day some of the most important conversations I’ve had took place around that camps fire, fuelled by miraa. Conversations that I will never forget, that humble me and allow me to look at things in a different light. Catha edulis is a drug. It is a habit. It is harmful. It is a culturally significant pastime. Why something like this is illegal in North America is understood: It contains two banned alkaloids that can cause direct or indirect harm to a user. It is not native to North America; it was brought here due to initial curiosity and an influx of immigration from the countries where it has a cultural stronghold. On the flipside, it is just as easy to see why it is not banned in countries such as Kenya, Yemen, and Ethiopia. It has been used since the 6th century, approximately 600 years before coffee in the area and has become a large part of the culture and society in these countries. It gives farmers, labours, and nomads a boost to work hard jobs for long hours to make $10 a week for their family, it gives them something to sit down and enjoy, it gives them life. And sometimes that is more important than if something may or may not shorten your life by a few years.
My experience with miraa was a good one. I regret nothing and even chewed periodically throughout the rest of my time there. It definitely gave me more energy made construction work much more enjoyable. Catha edulis is a plant with quite a reputation and it is well deserved from both opposing and supporting parties. It has scientific backing for negative side effects and even a few positive ones, but in comparison with other WHO dubbed drugs of abuse it looks like a saint. Culturally, the drug is important to where it is natively found, much like Kava in Vanuatu, Ayahuasca to Amazon tribes, or Peyote to the people of the Chihuahuan desert area. The magnificence of plants can be seen all over the world. Cures and poisons, hallucinogens and stimulants, food and drink. Plants hold keys to all things humans seek and require to have a grand and sustained existence.
Matatu – Mini bus
Mzungu – Person of foreign descent
Hakuna Matata – No worries
¥ Abdel-Kader ZY, Adbo-Rabbo AA, Al-Mansoob MAK, Awad AY, Gunaid AA, Hassan NAGM. 2000. The effect of Qat chewing on blood pressure and heart rate in healthy volunteers. Tropical Doctor 30:2 – 107-108.
¥ Al-Hebshit N and Skaug N. 2005. Khat (Catha edulis) – an updated review. Addiction Biology. 10 299-307
¥ Colzato LS, Hommel B, Ruiz MJ and van den Wildenberg W. 2011. Khat Use Is Associated with Impaired Working Memory and Cognitive Flexibility. PLoS ONE. 6:6 article e20602.
¥ Klein A and Metaal P. 2010. A good chew or good riddance-How to move forward in the regulation of khat consumption. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 132:3 584-589.
¥ Nutt, D., King, L., Saulsbury, W., Blakemore, C., 2007. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet 364, 1047– 1053
¥ The Vaults of Erowid <http://www.erowid.org/plants/khat/khat_timeline.php> Accessed February 11th 2012
¥ Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat> Accessed February 11th 2012