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Too much kat made him mad - Hipstamatic - Harar Ethiopia | by Eric Lafforgue
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Too much kat made him mad - Hipstamatic - Harar Ethiopia

Harar, Ethiopia: this man is kept with chains in a room by his parents as he has became mad, chewing too much many...

Harar (or Harrar or Harer) is an eastern city in Ethiopia. The city is located on a hilltop at 1885 meters.

For centuries, Harar has been a major commercial centre, linked by the trade routes with the rest of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Harar Jugol has been listed in the World Heritage by UNESCO. It is "considered 'the fourth holy city' of Islam" with nearly 100 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century.

Harar is also famous for its coffees and the french poet Arthur Rimabud wholived there.

The city is protected by a huge wall, and only few gates allowed people to enter. Nowadays, no more doors, just the Wall!

If you see someone in Yemen with a swollen cheek and tossing small greenish leaves in his mouth in a smoky room ina deafening hurly-burly, there is high probability that he is a khat (pronounce “cot”; as well spelled qat in Yemen, gat or qaad in Somalia, jad, chad or chat in Ethiopia, tohai, tschat or miraa in Kenya, marungi in Uganda and Rwanda; in latin Catha edulis) user.

Whether this flowering evergreen tree with large shrubs is native of the Horn of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula is still unknown. The fresh khat leaves are alternatively chewed and kept in the cheek and the juice swallowed. Some swallow the leaves and juice altogether, but others prefer to spit it once they have lost all their properties.


Khat leaves contain a drug made up of two alkaloid molecules (cathine and cathinone organic compounds), which have psychotropic effects. This substance influences on the brain, causing excitement, euphoria, and loss of appetite and sleepiness. It is much appreciated by workers, long journey drivers and students, since it enhances concentration and muscular force. Low consumers say it acts like a strong coffee, but khat is as powerful as amphetamines some scientists reckon. Anyhow it is somewhat addictive and some of the biggest users have been reported prone to withdrawal symptoms. Therefore at a high dose, khat can lead to mental diseases as psychosis or cause heart problems. Frequently used, the cathinone leads to a rise of blood pressure and heart rate. Also it was given evidence that a long-term use of khat favors oral cancers.

More than the substance itself, it is the particular context of its use that makes khat attractive. On the contrary of some hallucinogen drugs that favor soul-searching, khat brings openness and mental clearness, enabling easier relationships with fellow consumers. And more than the plant itself, it is the consumption of sugary drinks (in order to mask the slight bitterness) and tobacco associated with khat chewing which is problematic.


An estimated 10 million people are khat users in the world today. The biggest consumption is in Yemen, followed by Ethiopia. Somalia as well copes with a large number of consumers whereas it has been prohibited by Al-Shebaab Islamic militancy movement that controls parts of the Somali territory since “it is responsible for youth unemployment”, they said.

It is prohibited as a drug in most western countries, except the Netherlands, where khat trading is free and the U.K., where it is considered as a class C drug but legally sold in a few groceries. The Somali diaspora’s consumption is a problem when khat is reputed illegal in the country they settled in: they must infringe the law if they want to keep on chewing.


Kenya, Yemen and Ethiopia are major international producers. Fresh khat leaves have passed to be one of Ethiopia’s biggest exports crops, still ranking after coffee but close. Ethiopian khat is grown in the Kaffa area, while it is sold in Harar in the East. Neighboring Awadai city, where it is legal and as widespread as coffee or alcohol, is entirely devoted to the selling of khat. It is an international hub from which every night, loaded trucks leave for Somalia, Djibouti and the Arabian Peninsula, while planes take of in direction of Amsterdam and London airports. Indeed, khat must keep fresh to have the maximum efficiency. An estimated 25,000 kilograms per day are sold through Awadai hub market.

Khat growing is twice as profitable as coffee. Therefore, over the past few years, it has been replacing the small family farms crops, and it has endangered a lot the coffee economy.


Especially men consider khat get-togethers as a social institution or habit that contributes to the creation of a cultural identity. Eventually, the khat chewing ritual has been taking place for centuries among the societies of the horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia), where a lot of people consume khat on a daily basis. They even call the leaves “the Muslims’ alcohol”.

Women are less prone than men to khat consumption. Still some of them chew it as well. In some countries female Khat chewers are associated with sexual working. Khat affects pregnant women by reducing maternal daily food intake and mean birth weight of the offspring.


Money is another important issue. Indeed, khat is relatively costly.

Economically speaking, khat diverts household income that could have been used for nutritious food, home improvements, education or other family needs that people on those countries are in very big need for. For some families, one person’s daily consumption price is equivalent amount for feeding the whole family. It is clear that, poverty, poor health, poor housing, poor education and social isolation are common characteristics of those that use khat.


Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s president is reputed to have been a khat addict before taking office. The Christian preachers condemn khat use.


© Eric Lafforgue

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Taken on January 8, 2012