Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

‘The Dollar leaf’

Khat has transformed from being consumed for social purposes during religious rituals and feasts to one of the top agricultural exports of Ethiopia.  Ephrem Tesema (PhD) studied the effects of the plant that some call a drug and others call a part of Ethiopia’s heritage that should be celebrated.

Dr. Ephrem argues in his PhD thesis titled “Khat in Ethiopia; From Abolitionist Discourse to an Evidence Based and Inclusive Perspective,” that Khat has created a social dynamism in the life style of our society. He also identified the existence of Khat in many ancient monasteries of Ethiopia. He argues that from the Ethiopian nobility drink, Tej, to energy drinks and tablets, Khat has many untold social and economic values. He sat down with Capital’s Pawlos Belete to elaborate his findings; excerpts:

Capital: Why did you choose to study Khat?

Dr. Ephrem Tesema: I have been studying social anthropology for ten years and last August I completed my PhD. Khat was the topic of my PhD thesis because I feel it is good to bring the discussion to the public arena and possibly shed a new light on the issue. The topic was entered into a competition by the Swiss National Science Foundation. From this I was able to join the University of Basal. My research about Khat was fully funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and North South Competence in Research, a Swiss think tank. I tried to frame what kind of research I really wanted to address about Khat and to fully understand what the salient issues were.  

Capital: What new information did your research bring?

Dr. Ephrem: Khat is a very pervasive commodity with a benefit for public health even though there is a lot of debate around it because it is considered a drug and a stimulant. Instead of looking at the two extremes of the argument I wanted to frame it using modern anthropological frameworks which we refer to as Culture of Consumption. So I’m describing the structure of how it is consumed in the urban life style and how changes in life style affect the production, distribution and consumption of the commodity in today’s Ethiopia. I also went back a little bit to the past in Ethiopian history.

I identified 19 different factors that have enabled Khat to become a globally important commodity. These include the role Khat played during the Ethiopian Revolution, how the youth used it while there were duplicating revolutionary pamphlets and staying up all night studying Marxist-Leninist philosophy.

The other factor is migration; movement of the population from place to place. For example, students were moving from Khat chewing areas to non Khat chewing areas for further education. Most of the youth of the 1960s and 70s of Ethiopia picked up Khat chewing from universities. The Medresa, Muslim religious schools, are also included in the sociological factors contributing to the spread of Khat. Muslim students moved to Medresa from different parts of the country to learn about Muslim religion in places like Wello, Jimma etc. These students picked up the habit of chewing Khat because they used it as a stimulant to help succeed in their study. You can also observe such a trend when people move across territorial borders. For instance, people who move in the eastern part of the country as traders on long trade routes make use of Khat during the night journey, which serves them as a stimulant. This is against the background that Khat is used only by Muslim religious leaders in most literature, which I don’t agree with. Those writings argue that Khat belongs to the Muslim community but it is not true. I feel there is a lot of evidence against this because it was also used in the houses of the nobility during the Solomonic Dynasty; especially during emperors Menelik II to Haile Selassie I. It is used as one of the substances to brew honey wine, Tej. Right now if you go to ‘Addis Ababa Restaurant’ here in Addis you can find Tej brewed from Khat and coffee. That was originally brewed in the palaces for the nobles as Tej belonged to the noble in those times. As evidence, there are papers produced by scholars in the 1950s in ethnology bulletins published by the Addis Ababa University. Khat is also used in the monasteries. I have discovered an old Khat tree in Zegie in Lake Tana monasteries where seven churches from the 13 century are found. The tree is estimated to be more than 70 years old now and is said to have been planted by an old administrator of the churches. There is also some kind of relationship between the church and long distance Arab traders who supply a lot of things to the monasteries. There was an exchange between the monastery community and the traders through Khat and some other commodities. If you bring these pieces of evidence into focus, you can comfortably argue that Khat never belonged to one ethnic or religious group.

Capital: What are the controversies surrounding Khat in your opinion?

Dr. Ephrem: The controversies are many; it is a stimulant and there are claims that it is addictive. Some argue that it contributes to bad working habits and there is also the political economy of Khat. If you go to an ancient forest in the south of the country in Sheka Wereda of Kefa, you can find a big old Khat tree. The evidence indicates that religious people both Christian and Muslim, even medicine men and women were making use of Khat for centuries. If you travel to the northern part of Ethiopia where many are followers of the Orthodox Christian religion, you can find at least one single Khat tree in every farmer’s garden. Why have they kept it there for so long? That is why I recommend that before we go to the extreme and say we have to abolish Khat consumption, we have to put in to perspective that it is a biodiversity gift of Ethiopia and therefore part of the heritage of the country, and people for centuries used it for various purposes. First of all, we have to know why they were maintaining it for centuries, why did they keep it in the monasteries. If you go to Asebot Monastery, for instance, you will find it.  Why, is the question we need to first understand.

Capital: How can one find out why?

Dr. Ephrem: We have to carry out multi disciplinary research where people who have public health and agricultural knowledge including agronomists, social anthropologists, sociologists, economists and other relevant disciplines are included. Putting all these people together will allow us to come up with a comprehensive research concerning Khat. It is only then that we can help policy makers to think about Khat in the right perspective.

First, whose problem is Khat? Is it a problem that is simply imagined or a practical one? Is it a problem of the country, or just some group think it is a dangerous leaf? There are people who try to associate Khat with HIV/AIDS; there are others who try to associate it with the work habit of the youth in this country, unemployment and the like. Are all these claims substantiated with research findings? I don’t personally know how they substantiate these claims. I have friends who are serious psychiatric researchers. They claim that chewing Khat brings psychosis. What I am saying is that we need to prove such claims scientifically. If that is the case, we need longitudinal research; a research free from any sort of value judgment or bias. That is why I tried to frame this research using qualitative descriptive methods. That is only to construct how Khat evolved until it developed into a globally important commodity.

Capital: Which part of Ethiopia is your focus area in your research thesis?

Dr. Ephrem: I have chosen three regions for my research finding; Amhara, Oromiya and Southern Nation Nationality and Peoples State. For over a year, I have been travelling to these three regions including monasteries, Khat farms and chewing houses. I found that Khat exists in every farm and its connection with the life of the people is very strong. It is part of their day to day life.

Without scientific research we can’t really say if it is good or bad based on face value. We can’t say it is good because it brings a lot of dollars to the country. We can’t say it is bad simply because most young people chew it. It is very simple to judge things from one’s own perspective but that doesn’t mean it is true. In this regard, the most important thing is that we have to make sure that we have enough stock of research based knowledge in the area. This is really what I am trying to bring in to focus. That is why I said during my presentation at Beshale Hotel that before recommending anything to policy makers, we have to make sure that there is a forum for researchers to come together and contribute their evidence. Thus, we can see that the contribution of the leaf both socially and economically, both positively as well as negatively. If we start from benefits, then it is not difficult to address the kind of harm it might bring. If we start from a problem and say that it is bad; we have stop there. Then we don’t have any alternative but to destroy it. That is why my approach is that we should look at things from a different perspective like writing a biography of a person. Let us write the biography of Khat, its cultural biography, its trajectory in time and space. Then let everybody take their own share; the public, health people, sociologists, the economists, the social anthropologists, and the likes. Then after, the multi disciplinary entities come up with their findings facilitated by the government, it is possible for the government to take action either in favor of Khat or against it.

Capital: What are the claims against Khat from a public health perspective?

Dr. Ephrem: I have a fear that the claim against Khat by public health people is not serious. I have friends who have health problems but I can’t conclude that the problem is caused by Khat itself simply because most of us do not have a medical history. It is not clear whether we have hereditary problems or not. So in the absence of such medical information; whether you have a life style that exposes you to a mental problem or not is very difficult to say. For example, people, who have a very low nutrition status, who can only eat once a day, if they chew Khat every day, you can imagine how they can get in to a problem easily. It has a stimulating chemical that can get into the central nervous system very easily. On top of that if you don’t get enough sleep, you may face health problems. Therefore, we have to differentiate between a life style disease and one that comes from the stimulant. So far, all research about Khat as a public health issue, even the way it affects one chemically are inconclusive. If you read the United Nation’s Drug Control Office publication of 1966, you find that it was Egypt who raised the issue of Khat as a future problem. Mind you, the Egyptians are not major consumers of the commodity or producers.  If you read the book entitled ‘The Leaf of Allah: Agricultural Transformation in Hararghe,’ by Professor Ezikiel Gebisa; you can find how Haile Selassie I struggled with the Eden Protectorate under the British rule then to keep the trade line of Khat exports open. That was because the then Egyptian leaders had told the Yemenis not to import Ethiopian Khat. A purely political motivation aimed at eroding Ethiopia’s hard currency. By then, the emperor banned air flights between Eden and Ethiopia. That action of the Emperor solved the mystery after a year of negotiations. In this case Khat has also a geopolitical dimension. It is part of regional politics.

Capital: What can other businesses learn from Khat trading practices?

Dr. Ephrem: Khat is the only commodity dominantly exported and exchanged among African countries. It is a leading commodity; you send coffee outside the continent; those countries which have oil sell it outside the continent except, may be, Libya. But the trade of Khat goes both vertically and horizontally. If we examine the biography of Khat from production to consumption, we can learn more about the methods producers, distributors and consumers follow, which can be translated to other parts of our daily business as well. We can learn more about the peace, consensus, and honest practices among the players of the market in the absence of any legally binding agreements, corporate structures like the export of coffee and oil.  If trading is carried out smoothly by a group of individuals or interest groups, the value chain from the farm to final consumer globally is there. This shows that it is possible to trade commodities this way without any unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.

Capital: While conducting your research, have you come across any shortcomings in relation to the production of Khat?

Dr. Ephrem: There really has not been comprehensive research about the production and as a result only farmers are the experts and they have monopolized the knowledge of Khat; how to use water, where to plant, how to use pesticides etc. The only problem I want to mention in relation to pesticides utilization is that since Khat is used in its raw form; uncooked, when you use the Khat sprayed with pesticides, you may develop health problems. My research is not completed. This is because it is a very pervasive commodity.  If you examine it from a public health aspect, the chemistry takes the stage. If you see it from the economic perspective, the political economy takes the stage. I hope I will go on and bring in some additional information about Khat to the public sphere. That is why I tried to frame Khat’s biography from the 1950s and 60s when its case was presented to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Drug Office. There was not any serious legal measure that threatened the production of Khat or where it was close to being. But there was a recommendation given by WHO. However, the Americans banned the consumption of Khat for their own reasons after the 1991 American involvement in the Somalia conflict; they took Khat as a scapegoat for their situation in Somalia. They said drug addicts in Somalia killed and dragged an American soldier. As result a of this they banned the consumption of Khat in the US even though they did not have scientific grounds. They say that Khat contains a substance that looks like methamphetamine; a synthetic drug.

Capital: As a social anthropologist how do you describe the change in consumption of Khat over the past three decades in Ethiopia?

Dr. Ephrem: The change is a miracle. It is dramatic and moving with the cultural, social and economic changes that the country has been passing through. It has a relationship with the growth of our income, people and internal migration over the last thirty years. In the last three decades there has been a large population move across the country because of education, conflict, resettlement, and jobs. When all these people move from place to place; their consumption patterns of different commodities changes as well. Such a consumption habit is also observed in beer drinking. We fail to recognize this because many look at Khat as a cultural practice. But its consumption has been very fast in an unprecedented manner beyond the national border. Such a fast consumption habit creates a kind of paranoia; fear for some corners of society not only here in Ethiopia but also in some foreign countries. This is because a traditionally chewed leaf in some small part of Ethiopia has now become a part of the lives of the greater society. That makes the reaction dramatic.

Capital: Why do you think Khat consumption has risen in Ethiopia over the past 30 years?

Dr. Ephrem: The two regimes before the current one did not have a comprehensive and successful agricultural development policy. Coffee prices are also unstable and farmers need to constantly work on ways to survive with the resources they have. Many farmers can make more money from Khat than they could from coffee. Labor also plays a major role.  You can organize your family labor for growing Khat using marginal land and spare time instead of other cereals which require serious work throughout the farming season. Khat really grows in marginal land where other crops cannot grow well and it requires less labor. Also the market for Khat is a lot more liberal than other crops because the trading is more informal.

This means there is free movement of the crop without price controls and it is distributed in decentralized way with a lot of room for negotiation. This is attracting more and more farmers to engage in the production of Khat. When we come to the distribution side, the credit goes to the fast running Isuzu cars which were not heard of 30 years ago. The development of better road networks is another factor as well as better methods of transportation including planes. As far as consumption goes there is a new lifestyle among the youth.  People don’t visit Tej houses like they use to. The credit also goes to those university students who used to chew Khat to concentrate on their studies three decades ago. They brought the idea of chewing Khat to the perspective of the ordinary people. It is now, no more, a shameful act to chew Khat in public. There has been a cultural change; a shift in life style; a change in the way we spend our leisure time.

Capital: As a social anthropologist how do you see the transformation of Khat from a leaf that was used in social and religious gatherings by smaller communities to a cash crop?

Dr. Ephrem: It is not only Khat that has transformed this way; Coffee and Coca Cola also went through the same process. Many stimulants began as the result of rituals or were used as drinks food or medicine by a small group of people.  When they are used in a very secularized group, they show their strength. Their usage later has changed from a natural innocent leaf to a drug.

There is also fear when you come to Khat. Khat started as you mentioned in very closed and parochial circles, but now it has transformed into a very important globally traded commodity apart from its cultural and ritual status. Social anthropologist are really interested in commodities like this because it makes us question if the commodity is really so wonderful or if the cultural moves and lifestyle of the community are dramatically changing. There are social and economic factors like conflict and population movement but they don’t influence everything because a culture goes with the people. If you move, you move with your habit. The trajectory of Khat is not a miraculous journey but it is part of the socio-cultural transformation of Ethiopian society over the past three decades.