Saturday, 15 May 2010

Leaf of Allah : Khat

I am reading 'Leaf of Allah : Khat and agricultural transformation in Harerge Ethiopia 1875-1991' a book by Ezekiel Gebissa, 2004. I really wanted to spread open here, by way of a summary, the wisdom contained in this book - as I see it given - as well as pointing out historical info. No study of the Horn of Africa, be it historical, cultural, social and especially religious, can be complete without looking into Khat, so part one here you go:

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The mirqaana : the desired state of heightened energy, reached in all and each of the following three phases.

1. The Igabana : The Eye Opener.

‘A typical farmer in the rural areas of Harerge starts the day by going into his oyiru, the family garden’. He inspects the farm and by 9am he goes to his khat orchard and settles down with other men for the morning chew. Igabana means the eye opener). A small quantity only of khat is chewed to quickly achieve a mirqaana so that ensues a burst of energy for labour intensive daily activities. Then breakfast, then work.

2. The Bartcha :

The early afternoon chew follows. Farmers may obtain their khat from their oyiru, urbanites bring their zurba (one bundle) – commonly bought from the chat terra or the town's market. However if the Bartcha was an invitation the host provides the leaves.

The Luluqacha : Rinsing of the mouth.

‘At the end of the Bartcha the chewed leaves are usually spat out but experienced chewers swallow it with water, tea or milk ‘as a final act of ceremony.’

3. The Atarora:

It is a last evening or night time chewing although not that regular nor widespread.

Note: Solitary khat chewing is not the usual practice.

The consumption :

Chewing: the leaves are placed between the inner side of the cheek and the gum on one side of the mouth. Khat chewing is always accompanied by drinking water or an infusion of coffee husks or milk to reduce dryness of the mouth and to soften khat leaves. This helps with the extraction of juices. 'The chewer adds leaves until a quid is formed'. It is sweetened by a pinch of sugar or sip of sugar containing drink to accommodate the bitter taste. 'Preparing the full quid may take as long as thirty to forty five minutes'.

Khat be used as an astringent medicine, boiled with milk or water and drunk as a beverage.

‘In the absence of rapid delivery’, if fresh leaves are unobtainable a paste is made from powdered leaves ingested or drunk as an infusion of boiled dried leaves. Khat is rarely smoked as is tobacco, but crushing the ends of twigs and leaves to roll them in cigarettes is recorded however.

Note: Rural chewers usually eat! Khat-chewing, against all pseudo-researches and urban myths, does not cut the appetite nor risk to engender malnutrition. Gebessa notes that in Harerge's rural areas khat is chewed before or after plentiful meals.


The leaves or twigs of Khat (or Kat or Cat, no not that one, don't try to chew the feline) are known for their stimulant effects. Chewing khat is widespread and popular in many parts of the world particularly in the Arabian peninsula (Yemen), the Middle East, Asia and the Horn of Africa, and has been so for as long as the land can attest to its growth (well that's almost everywhere....).

Fresh leaves are preferred since the main active ingredient in khat is cathinone which degenerates fast (two or three days after plucking) resulting in the less potent cathine, found in dried leaves.

Khat is chewed to relieve fatigue, sensations of hunger, thirst or is used as a stimulant or medicine. The consumption of khat is almost institutionalized in the religious life and practices of several Muslim communities in the Horn. For centuries, chewing khat has been standard practice in religious ceremonies held at Muslim shrines across the Somalia, spending long hours of the day and night chewing khat whilst reciting passages from the holy Quran and praying. It also plays an important role during Ramadan and during the Arafa celebrations. Khat chewing precedes or follows religious readings and meditations during the Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet (PBUH).

In the Horn of Africa, the consumption remained contained and small until the arrival of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway at Dire Dawa in 1902. Henceforth, it has grown considerably with help of highways, Air transport and …. the Derg (yeap, khat consumption grew more rapidly and widely during this military rule than due to the other factors so far counted or analysed it seems).

Ethiopia is the foremost producer and exporter of khat but the plant is also grown and used in Africa in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, the Congo, South Africa and Somalia.

France and the US have banned the importation of khat. But in Britain, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands and Yemen it is legal. Said Barre banned it in Somalia in 1833 but the prohibition was unsuccessful.

Traditionally it is in rural areas that khat was used and known. More recently, urbanites have taken a strong liking to it. There exists a usage divide between these two communities. Rural users believe that ‘if khat chewing is not followed by hard labour it then serves as an irritant rather than as a stimulant’. Ezekiel Gebrissa says that ‘Khat is valued for its critical role in such productive activities as work, meditative worship and cultural ceremonies. However for users in cities and towns khat is a recreational substance used (or more precisely abused) solely for social pleasure.’

For both rural and urban consumers khat is a medium of social interaction.

The Khat shrub is a member of genus Catha in the family Celastraceae found widely dispersed in all continents except for polar zones. The origin and nature of the plant is still uncertain and under study.

Notes and thoughts taken through an all XX evening: Teardrops , Crystallised , Hot Like Fire , well their entire album in fact on rep-rep-peat.

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