By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News website, Nairobi
Khat is harvested every 20 days
For decades, khat, or miraa as it is popularly known across East Africa, has been the lifeline for farmers in eastern Kenya, but pressure to convince them to abandon the trade is now mounting.
The growing numbers of young adults chewing the mild stimulant has become a major concern among anti-drugs campaigners who fear dependency could ruin a generation.
Some 30 tonnes of khat are harvested each day by both small- and large-scale khat farmers who cultivate the crop in Meru District. Most of the crop is consumed in Kenya, but some is exported to Somalia and United Kingdom.
Traders say some 3,000kg of khat are flown to Somalia's capital everyday where its chewing has become the norm at social gatherings across Mogadishu.
Some blame it for Somalia's misfortunes.
During Islamist rule last year it was banned and the streets were the calmest for decades, but there was resistance.
Most militiamen have a high dependence on the stimulant and it is argued that it causes them to be irrational and easily provoked.
When the Islamist militia seized a consignment worth about $40,000 and set it on fire to mark the beginning of the ban, there was a riot and a curfew had to be imposed to contain the upheaval.
But since the Islamists were defeated at the turn of the year, exports of khat from Kenya have resumed and so has its consumption.
Now the pressure to have khat banned is being stepped up in Kenya, where its consumption is on the rise.
FACTS ABOUT KHAT
There are two main types of khat - miraa and hereri
Miraa is grown mainly in Kenya
Hereri comes from Ethiopia
A bundle of khat costs about £3 ($6) in Britain
Khat is illegal in the US and a bundle there sells for between $50 (£28) and $80 (£41)
A survey done by the government drug watchdog, National Campaign Against Drugs Abuse, shows a big rise in new users on the coast and in the capital, Nairobi.
"Reports by our officers show that when a khat ban was enforced in Somalia the local dealers become very aggressive and were off loading the surplus products into the local market," the watchdog's national co-ordinator Jennifer Kimani told the BBC.
Now her organisation is advising the government to initiate a process where khat farmers are gradually encouraged to switch to other cash crops.
Apart from the negative health effects to the user, which include loss of appetite, lack of sleep, hallucinations, mental health issues and sometimes impotence, khat is also blamed social problems.
For instance in khat-growing areas, cases of boys dropping out of school are rampant.
"Boys choose to work at khat plantations or sell the stimulant instead of going to school because there they make quick money," Ms Kimani says.
Casual workers at a khat farm can earn up to $20 a shift while small-scale traders in markets across Kenya may earn 10 times that in daily sales.
In Mombasa, special restaurants, as seen in Yemen, have been designated as khat joints where groups of adults converge daily to chew the shoots and chat or cut business deals.
But women complain of the long hours their husbands spend in these joints.
Imam Arshad Salim Imam says that numerous cases have been brought before religious leaders by women who report that their husbands have abandoned their family responsibilities.
"We have women who complain that they do not get their conjugal rights because their husbands remain occupied most of the night chewing khat," says Imam Salim
He further notes that a lot of family income is committed to the habit at the expense of other needs like education, food and health.
For this reason, Imam Salim insists that the government should impose a ban on khat just like neighbouring Tanzania where it illegal to sell or consume the stimulant.
But Dr Samuel Murega, a medic and khat farmer in Maua, eastern Kenya, believes calls to ban the stimulant are misguided.
Instead of banning the plant, he thinks the government should license and encourage its growth.
He also denies negative health claims.
"I run an active health clinic here... but I have not treated anybody suffering from ailments caused by its use," says Dr Murega.
"Some people mix khat with other narcotic drugs to get high and they end up in undesirable state. And since they were chewing it openly then the blame goes on the stimulant and not the drugs they have taken which is unfair," argues Dr Murega.
At present the trade is probably too lucrative for an imminent ban, but the remarkable changes in behaviour seen in Mogadishu when khat was banned has given officials plenty of food for thought.
What do you think? Should khat be banned? Tell us your experiences using the postform below.
The effects of khat chewing are less than those of smoking. Therefore before considering imposing ban on khat chewing, we should ban tobacco smoking first. Secondly, it's a major cash crop and only income earner in some parts of Kenya. Myself I don't see any problem in its consumption and I have friends who routinely chew it with no notable side effects.
Peter Karenju, Zanzibar
Banning khat overnight is completely unrealistic - the reality is that many people in eastern Ethiopia rely on khat production for financial support, and would suffer if they did not have this means of income. It is true that for the many men, women and children who chew khat, it can be incredibly destructive to their health (an estimated 80% of 'psychotic' patients in Ethiopia's only mental hospital are the result of khat-induced psychosis), as well as their productivity, and the health of their marriages and relationships. But banning the addictive substance will not solve anything - if khat is eradicated, it will happen with the support of the Ethiopian government, (which incidentally takes in millions in khat taxes each year).
The government must condemn khat use and conduct research and spread public health messages about the negative health ramifications of khat, but must simultaneously support farmers and coffee growers so they do not have to rely on khat to produce a sustainable income, support education so children will have a greater incentive to go to school, rather than sell khat on the street, and support widows who are the sole bread winners of the family, so they do not have to resort to the khat trade to support their families. Only through a comprehensive approach to this region-wide addiction will there be any progress in the growing fight against khat.
Elizabeth Arend, Jijiga, Ethiopia
There is no need of banning khat. Instead, the Kenya government should regulate and market it as a cash crop since it has the potential of earning substantial foreign exchange. In spite of the negative publicity it is receiving here, khat is not even listed in the handbook of recreational drugs. As compared with synthetic and processed hard drugs like cocaine, heroine, LSD and amphetamines, khat is but a mild stimulant. Nacada has always justified its existence by spreading alarmist messages and recommending solutions that are not only impractical, but also out of touch with reality.
Kipkoriony Rutto, Matsuyama, Japan
Maybe we can liken the propensity to chew khat to the huge appetite for beer in the Western world. Which is the better of the two evils? At least khat is not manufactured. Temperance, however, would be an essential if not critical element here to consider.
Larry Whyte, Kingston, Jamaica
Having lived in Ethiopia I enjoyed the ceremony surrounding khat consumption. It was nice for the community to somewhat shut down on Saturday afternoon and sit with friends to enjoy their company.
Understanding that there are other issues, why not look at the level of cigarette consumption in Africa countries, or better yet, alcohol. Those are far greater problems.
For me it's good news if it's true that miraa is about to be banned. It is the major source of social problem in Mombas, Kenya as well in Yemen. I personally saw from my father. He would chew khat the whole night and sleep during the day. And when he woke up every body was his enemy till he got another supply and life went on like that. A huge loss to the family income.
Hashim, Dubai, UAE
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