By Steven W. Thomas*
As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my trip to Ethiopia, I was quite surprised by the size of the khat trade (a.k.a., qat or chat), but as someone commented there, I probably should not have been since American newspapers and magazines have been blabbering about it for years. For instance, I could have read about the popularity of this narcotic plant in Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and The Village Voice. When I travelled to Harar, I was expecting khat to be around, but dang! — I soon discovered that it was not simply around… it was everywhere; men and women carried bunches of it to and fro in their arms the way a young lover might carry a dozen long-stem roses to his date on Valentines Day, and huge piles of it were on the side of the road.
After walking around the fascinating, historic “old town” of Harar all morning, learning as much as I could about the “living museum” (as the town calls itself), I randomly met a couple guys (one American, one Ethiopian) who worked for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Command while eating lunch in a restaurant, and they explained to me that the cities of Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga export not just truck-loads but even plane-loads of khat daily to Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. To get yourself a mental picture, think about how many trucks deliver cases of beer to stores and restaurants in the United States, and you’ve got an idea of the khat market.
My observations got me to thinking that somebody really ought to write a book about the culture and economy of this mild narcotic, since books about the cultural histories of sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, etc., have had so much success. I first got interested in such cultural histories of cash crops when I was a graduate student and have since published articles on eighteenth-century poetry about sugar and tobacco; in my view, the groundbreaking Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz is certainly the standard by which all books about commodities should be judged. Anyway, after I returned to the United States, I went on Amazon.com to see what I could see, thinking all the while to myself that somebody (not me) really ought to write a book about khat. And lo and behold, I discovered several such books have already been written, so I ordered Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekial Gebissa published just a few months ago. I don’t know when I’ll actually get around to reading this book, but in the meantime, I’m going to entertain a few speculative theoretical answers to the question I asked the two guys in that restaurant in Harar.
My question was this: why has the khat market and use of khat has grown so quickly and so intensely in the past twenty years? And the three different answers I discussed with the two guys in the restaurant reflects — I will suggest — three different theoretical biases.
But before I get to these theoretical speculations, I think I should first explain what khat is in case you don’t already know. If you want the lengthy chemical and medical explanation, check out the World Health Organization’s analysis,, but if you want the simple summary, it’s basically a green leaf that grows prolifically in the same climate where coffee grows (i.e., high altitudes of subtropical regions). When chewed, it produces a euphoric effect that is both stimulating and calming, and the result is often a bunch of people spending a whole afternoon together either chatting or in quiet introspection, feeling good. The next morning, users typically feel tired, depressed, and even disoriented, so they want to chew more khat, and hence one can become psychologically dependent, but there is no evidence yet of chemical addiction. It is legal in Ethiopia and most countries around the Red Sea, where it is consumed daily by much of the population, but is illegal in the U.S. and Europe. According to a BBC article from 2002, the Ethiopian government makes millions of dollars off the export duties, even though their official policy is to do nothing about it — that is, nothing to promote it, and nothing to deter it… just sit back and collect the tax revenue.
I learned a lot of this information from the two guys during lunch, and you may be wondering why these two — who work for the U.S. Army — know so much, but both of them had college degrees in economics. The American used to be a Wall Street stock broker until 9/11/2001 changed the way he felt about the world. Now, he works for the army reserves in a section that promote economic development (more about this to come in a later blog post), and the Ethiopian fellow with him worked full time for the U.S. Army as a translator/advisor/go-between.
Anyway, the three of us debated the cause of the khat market’s rapid growth. The American believed it was natural market forces; khat grows easily and can be harvested every month in contrast to coffee which is more labor intensive and is only harvested once per year. As a result, the cultivation and trade of khat was displacing the cultivation and trade of coffee. His argument made sense to me on one level, but his naturalistic view didn’t explain the historical change that occurred in the 1990s. It seemed to assume that supply and demand were simply universal factors.
In response, I proposed my own crackpot theory that the growth of the khat market was actually an effect of the growth of the coffee market because farmers could make use of the same economic networks. As the coffee trade intensified, so too could the khat trade alongside it, especially since farmers could grow both in the same place. My theory was the opposite of the American Army guy’s because I suggested that khat did not displace coffee; rather, the intensification and expansion of the trading network would lead to the intensification and expansion of both. More begets more.
We were at an impasse, and since neither of us really knew what we were talking about, we called over his Ethiopian friend to settle our dispute. He disagreed with me and pointed out that the khat trading networks were different from the coffee networks. He had good evidence to support his view, considering that the two commodities were not exported to the same places. He told me that there was even a specific Ethiopian airline that specialized in exporting khat. In answer to my question as to what changed in the 1990s, it was the liberalization of capital after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent overthrow of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991. (The early 1990s is often considered by globalization theorists as the moment when “globalization” became the hegemonic socio-economic form leading to the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995.) Hence, it suddenly became much easier for an entrepreneur to find investors and amass enough capital to buy trucks and airplanes for the khat trade. In other words, one might sarcastically remark, thanks to the free market we have a lot more old men getting stoned all afternoon. But what the heck? The Ethiopian government gets millions of dollars in tax revenue from all the exported khat, which it is (theoretically) able to invest in stuff such as roads, schools, and other nifty development projects, so shouldn’t we all be happy? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question; see my Finfinne Diaries 3 about development.)
The Ethiopian guy’s explanation of the cause of market growth made a lot of sense to me, but still I wasn’t completely satisfied. I would also speculate that the deregulation of the coffee market in 1992 had an effect because it led not only to a growth in Ethiopia’s global market in general but also specifically to decreased coffee prices. As Oxfam has argued [here] and as the documentary movie Black Gold has shown, this deregulation was wonderful for the multinational coffee corporations, but was devastating to the poor coffee farmer. It’s no wonder they began to turn to khat to supplement their income. In addition, although I had to concede to my lunch-time interlocutors that the export network for khat was different from coffee’s, it is also clear that the same farmers were growing both, and those farmers’s access to the global market began with coffee. The khat trade was using the same roads, airports, vehicles, systems of patronage and security, and knowledge technologies that were developed by the government to facilitate the trade in other commodities.
So, what this conversation illustrates is three theoretical perspectives: my network theory which assumes that markets are socially constructed, the American’s supply and demand theory which assumes that markets are natural, and the Ethiopian’s theory that agrees with the IMF’s efforts to liberalize of capital markets. I suspect that all three of us are each partially right.
Meanwhile, what might be an unfortunate side-effect of the growth of the lucrative khat market is not a decrease in the coffee market as the American suggested, but a decrease in the supply of basic food. While the prices of coffee and khat have decreased as their distribution and consumption have increased, the price of food has increased, suggesting to me that either there isn’t enough production to meet demand or that overall inflation due to economic growth is affecting food prices. I find it a curious coincidence that khat is popular as an appetite suppressant at the same time that food prices are going up.
And while all this is happening in the many town markets that I travelled through, writers and scholars are publishing books, magazine articles, short stories, and songs about the immorality of khat and its terrible effect on the minds and souls of African men and women. The conversation about khat today, by the way, is very similar to the conversation about tobacco in the 17th and early 18th centuries which debated whether tobacco was a corrupting vice and bad for the integrity of the nation or a social lubricant that encouraged economic growth. Last week, a Ugandan friend of mine who was doing some research in Somalia forwarded me a funny short story (not yet published) that a young Somali had written about khat hallucinations. So, in a few years, maybe I’ll be able to do some literary criticism about khat just like I did about tobacco and sugar.
Other Series of Steve’s Finfinne Diaries:
Finfinne Diaries 4: Khat… Somebody Should Write a Book…
Finfinne Diaries 3: Construction and Inflation — How to Demystify Ethiopia’s So-Called Economic Development?
Finfinne Diaries 2: Ethiopia’s Museums, Public Memory, and Us
Finfinne Diaries 1: Itinerary and (Dis)Orientation
Steven W. Thomas, a good friend of Oromo people, is an assistant professor in the English Department at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University in Minnesota. His areas of scholarly interest include early American literature, the rhetoric and discourses of British imperialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, globalization in the 21st century, and cultural theory. He blogs about all of that over at the Theory Teacher’s Blog.