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Chewing khat together: from indigenous practice to international issue

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Khat use as a positive social custom

Chewing khat together: from indigenous practice to international issue

Angelique Beekhuis

In view of the increasing use of khat worldwide, and the negative international attention caused by official uncertainty concerning this once indigenous practice, the present article surveys the various uses of khat, and advocates not only further research but also a positive approach to khat use as a social event.

Most publications on khat deal with the botanical, biochemical or pharmacological aspects (e.g., Trellu 1959; Hill 1965; Buschkens and Slikkerveer 1982; Kalix 1987), while West European scientists tend to focus on problems related to khat (Guedel et al. 1957; Elmi 1984; Nencini 1985; Balint et al. 1991). It is only for Yemen that a broader study of all aspects of khat, including social and economic factors, has been carried out (Schopen 1978; Weir 1985; and Kennedy 1987); this resulted in a detailed picture of khat use in the region. Comparable research in northeast Africa, where khat is equally important, has lagged behind. Only recently have more encompassing studies of khat use in Western Europe and Australia been carried out by Nencini in Rome (1989), Beekhuis in the Netherlands (1996) and Stevenson and others in Melbourne (1996). These are indications that the once indigenous practice of chewing khat is becoming an international issue. However, the attention has been mainly negative. The present article maintains that the implications of the social use of khat are still largely unknown outside the core area. As a result the actual status of khat has yet to be established: is it a drug or a stimulant? Due to the lack of clarity on this point, the authorities involved--police, judiciary, refugee aid, and organizations for the care and treatment of addicts--have no clear idea of what their role should be. Here the author reviews the current use of khat, with special reference to the positive social aspects. This review is based on the author's own research among Somali refugees in the Netherlands.

Botanical specifications
The shrub khat (Catha edulis Forsk.) has a slender trunk with smooth, thin bark. The lancet-shaped leaves are between 0.5 and 10cm long and 0.5 to 5cm wide. Young leaves are a reddish green, later turning to yellow-green. In areas with frost, the shrub grows no higher than 1.5 meters, but in places with more rainfall, like the highlands of Ethiopia and areas near the equator, khat trees can reach 20 metres. Khat is known by a variety of names, many of them phonetic transcriptions of the most commonly used Arabic khat: catha, kat, qat, ciat, tsjat and ch'at. The term mira or miraa is also common, particularly in areas of Kenya (UN 1956:7; Kennedy 1987:176-177).

Khat is native to the eastern and southern regions of Africa, but it is grown extensively as a cash crop in Ethiopia, Yemen and the northern provinces of Kenya. It is also socially and economically important in the neighbouring areas of Somalia and Djibouti.

Worldwide use of khat
Khat wood is seldom used, and then only for household utensils. It is the fresh leaves that are important, mainly as a stimulant, whereby the effect is obtained by chewing. It is difficult to say precisely how much khat is chewed; the practice is widespread, but figures are not easy to come by. According to rough estimates, five to ten million people world-wide use khat on a daily basis (Balint 1991:556). This use was long confined to the natural habitats of khat, for the leaves wither soon after harvest; the active ingredients are dissipated and the leaves become unfit for use. This means that the leaves must reach their destination within two days of harvesting. With the rise of motorised and air transport, the circle of khat use has become considerably wider (Parker 1985; Weir 1985:28; Cassanelli 1986:244-246; Kalix 1987:51-52). During the eighties, a flood of refugees from the horn of Africa entered the USA, Canada, Australia and various West European countries, which contributed to a further spread of the custom of chewing khat.

How khat is used
Khat leaves are chewed more or less like chewing tobacco. Often people drink tea and soft-drinks at the same time, or smoke cigarettes. If a person is unable to chew the leaves, they can be ground and taken as juice (a custom widespread in Ethiopia). Or one can chew a paste made of khat leaves, water and sugar or honey, sometimes flavoured with herbs. Khat can also be added to tea, or smoked in combination with tobacco.

Why khat is used
Khat is chewed primarily for the stimulating effect it produces. Although these effects may vary individually, it generally makes people feel more energetic and alert; it also enhances concentration and reduces hunger and fatigue (UN 1956:11-12; Schopen 1978:84-87).
Khat is used in indigenous medical systems in northeastern, eastern, and southeastern Africa, as a remedy for such complaints as veneral disease, asthma and other lung diseases, colds, fevers, coughs and headaches. Occasionally it is used to prevent epidemics of pest and malaria (UN 1956:12; Hill 1965:15-16; Schopen 1978:87-89).

When khat is used
At festivities, feasts, and rituals, including birth, circumcision and marriage, adult guests often chew khat, which heightens their enjoyment of the occasion. The regular chewing of khat, however, is directly related to the actual stimulating effects.
People use khat to help them to perform daily activities involving hard physical labour or intense concentration. There are many farmers, labourers, and long-distance lorry drivers who chew khat every day, as do students when preparing for exams. It is also used by clan elders when settling difficult disputes, and by judges during lengthy court sessions. The local elite, notably in Yemen, can afford to chew khat every day solely for the enjoyment of the stimulating effects (cf. Weir 1985:109-110; Cassanelli 1986:238-239; Kennedy 1987:79).

Daily group sessions
In the areas where khat use originated, groups of people (mainly men) gather every day to chew khat (Cassanelli 1986:242-243; Kennedy 1987:98-100). These khat sessions, known in Ethiopa as "barch'a", and in Yemen as "majlis al-qat" (literally "the council of khat") (cf. Kennedy 1987:79; Abbink 1992:91), are informal events. No invitation is required, and people bring their own khat (Weir 1985:109-111; Kennedy 1987:83-85). Friends, relatives and acquaintances come to the house of the host; in Yemen there is often a room especially equipped for using khat.
There are also organized khat sessions; here the participants are carefully screened and receive an invitation from their host, who also provides the khat. Those taking part in the session, and the amount and quality of the khat reflect the status of the host. Those invited to such incidental khat sessions are expected to organize similar events in their turn. Both types of sessions define social differences, in class as well as in status, and these differences are reflected in the place one occupies during the session, and in the type and quality of khat a person brings along (Weir 1985:121-123, 130-136; Kennedy 1987:86-87).

Social function and effects
The most important aspect of khat sessions is their function as a medium for the exchange of information. Participants can meet friends, exchange news, take part in discussions and debates, and make plans and decisions. The exchange of information is often highly personal and may be relevant to one's place within the community (Elmi 1984:278; Abbink 1992:89).
Khat sessions often have a cultural function as well. In Yemeni society, which is currently undergoing political, economic and social changes, many people consider chewing khat a typical Yemeni tradition by which people confirm their Yemeni identity and sense of self-esteem. (Weir 1985:126-129; Varisco 1986:8-10). This aspect of khat use has not yet been studied for other countries in the Red Sea area and northeast Africa, but it is highly likely that its social importance is similar to that in Yemen.
One effect of khat sessions is that they create--or appear to create--such a strong bond between the participants that outsiders see this as a threat, or fear that the custom is affecting the community as a whole. In the past these feelings of unease led the British and Italian colonial administrations to try to abolish khat; more recently, the Ethiopian and Somali governments have prohibited khat by law. In practice, however, all these attempts have failed (cf. Somali Democratic Republic 1983:27-30; Cassanelli 1986:242; Abbink 1992:89).

Official uncertainty
It is not only for the above reasons that research into the question of whether or not the social importance of khat remains when people migrate to the West has not yet been addressed in earnest. The situation is complicated by uncertainty about the official status of khat as a commodity. The authorities in the West are not familiar with khat, and do not know exactly how to react: should khat be considered a drug like cannabis, heroin and cocaine, or should it be put in the same category as coffee, tobacco and alcohol? Should it be banned as a drug, or tolerated as a custom which is of cultural importance to those involved? (Parker 1985; Kalix 1987:51-52; Smith 1994:101, 103; Beekhuis 1996:34).
Up to now, researchers have avoided taking a clear stand for or against khat. Thus when reporting on khat use in Rome, Nencini and others cautiously conclude that 'the Khat party has thus remained a social event and is one way for the participants to keep their ethnic identity' ( Nencini et al. 1989:257).
However, my own research in the Netherlands shows that khat use here is still highly regarded as a social event. Like going to a pub and have a drink, using khat for recreation and relaxation makes people feel good. For the participants in khat sessions, it is a way of redefining their identity and reinforcing their self-esteem as migrants in an alien society. At the same time, the khat session is an important source of news from home, and an opportunity to exchange information pertaining to Dutch society (Beekhuis 1996:56-57).

Further research
Despite the fact that khat is used by five to ten million people every day and is the most important cash crop in areas where it has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples, it has only recently started to go global. The use of khat has aroused little interest on the part of social scientists and other researchers. This may have to do with the impression which social khat sessions make on outsiders and with the duality of the official Western policy towards khat. Still, there is a real need for research into khat as a social phenomenon, and the positive effects it may have, as well as for emic perspectives on khat. Fieldwork in the areas where khat use has only recently made its entrance may shed some light on the effects it has on social life and economic patterns far beyond the regions where it originated. Only when all aspects of khat use have been documented and evaluated can an international policy regarding its use be drawn up.

Angelique Beekhuis
Cultural anthropologist
Waterhoenhof 12
5672 VH Nuenen
the Netherlands
Tel: +31-40-2906195

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Balint, G.A.H., H. Ghebrekidan, and E.E. Balint (1991) 'Catha Edulis, an international socio-medical problem with considerable pharmacological implications', East African Medical Journal July 1991:555-561.

Beekhuis, A. (1996) Denken en dromen in een andere wereld. Khatgebruik door Somaliërs in Nederland. (Thinking and dreaming in another world. The use of khat by Somalis in the Netherlands). Nijmegen: Katholieke Universiteit.

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Varisco, D.M. (1986) 'On the meaning of chewing: the significance of Qat (Catha Edulis) in the Yemen Arabic Republic', International Journal of Middle East Studies 18:1-13.

Weir, S. (1985) Qat in Yemen. Consumption and social change. London: British Museum

This document Copyright Angelique Beekhuis

Created 8/14/2001 1:36:00
Modified 8/14/2001 1:40:25
Leda version 1.4.3