By Seleshi Tessema
Khat, a strong, herbal stimulant chewed in the Horn of Africa region for centuries, has maintained its popularity on the Ethiopian street despite a series of bans on the leafy narcotic around the world due to the negative effects of Khat-chewing.
"For over 1,400 years," Dawit Abebe, senior researcher at the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, told Anadolu Agency, "Khat has been chewed in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula."
The indigenous, mildly narcotic plant – which produces green, sour, chewable leaves – has been legally cultivated, traded and consumed in Ethiopia for centuries.
Also cultivated in certain parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Khat has been banned in the U.K., the U.S., France, Switzerland and Sweden.
The World Health Organization says Khat users can suffer from a range of ailments, including tuberculosis, anemia and impotence.
But that does not seem to worry Ethiopians, as the popular local narcotic is poised to remain legal in the country, where it is a multi-million dollar business supported by social custom.
Solomon Tefera, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Addis Ababa University, told AA that Khat was Ethiopia's "ancient herbal high."
"Some say Khat originated in Yemen, but a number of researchers have found that Ethiopia's eastern Harari region was its birthplace," he said.
"Communities in many parts of Ethiopia chew Khat during weddings, funerals, medications – even Islamic religious processions and prayers," he added.
Over time, Abebe said, Khat has metamorphosed into a mass consumption stimulant that has grown popular among people of various faiths, ethnicities, professions and socio-economic classes.
Adem Nesru, a Khat vendor in Addis Ababa, told AA that fresh Khat supplies arrived in the market every morning.
"We sell a bundle of a Khat brand called 'Beleche' for between $2 and $4," he noted.
After buying it, customers cut the Khat leaves, chew it, and keep it in their cheeks for hours, often sweetening it with coke, peanuts or sugar.
Daniel Alemu, 25, was chewing the plant outside Nesru Beleche, a Khat shop on the northern edge of the capital.
"I chew Khat every day," Alemu said. "It gives me energy and brightens my dreams and hopes."
Elias, a 37-year-old business researcher, said he has to chew Khat "to multiply my efficiency."
"We also socialize, exchange ideas, debate freely, read books and entertain while chewing Khat," he explained.
Tefera explained the process to AA, saying that chewing Khat led to "moderate addiction, but it is not as addictive as other drugs."
"Chewers get high and reach Mirkana [as the state is called in Amharic] in two or three hours," he added.
At its peak, chewers reach a state of "increased alertness and euphoria."
But this comes at a price.
According to Tefera, the effect starts to subside within hours, after which "chewers get into a depressed mood."
"Hopelessness, insomnia, irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure are the most immediate consequences," he said.
Business-wise, Ethiopia exports high-grade Khat to several markets in the region and beyond.
"In 2013/14, Ethiopia earned around $297 million [from Khat exports]," Abdurrahman Se'id, spokesman for the Trade Ministry, told AA.
"In 2014/15, [Khat] export earnings are projected at $331 million," he added.
Farmers directly involved in the Khat trade are estimated at over three million.
But while the Ethiopian government does not discourage the business, it has not included Khat in its crop-development program, according to Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Wondimu Kebede.
The government's ambivalence comes amid rising calls to outlaw Khat, with activists and health NGOs calling for the closure of Khat vendors and chewing houses.
But Tefera disagrees.
"This is not a realistic approach. We cannot destroy farmland and the livelihoods of millions of people – not to mention social custom – overnight," Tefera said.
"However, it behooves us to control the negative impact of Khat one way or another. But this will take many, many years," he added.
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