khat and somali piratesIf you saw the movie Captain Philips you watched Somali pirates getting up the nerve to attack a huge container ship by chewing khat leaves. Khat, pronounced ‘chat’ in Ethiopia is a stimulant and mild narcotic. 10 years ago the terrace lined ridges and deep valleys of eastern Ethiopia were covered with coffee plantations up to the edge of the deserts bordering  Somalia. But then the price of coffee fell and khat replaced coffee as the new cash crop. khat plantation Khat and tea plantations look similar. But where tea leaves are picked and dried, instead khat is cut with branches intact keeping the leaves fresh. Users pull the leaves off, chew and swallow. Power users drink copious amounts of water, talk incessantly and can get quite aggressive. I tried a little and found it sweet compared to the bitterness of coca and mildly soothing. Khat sells for about 120 Ethiopian bir ethiopia 105($6) per kilo locally (Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland) and about $32 in the UK. It’s estimated an average user eats about 200 milligrams of khat per day.  Bus yards and markets are filled with green teeth hawkers and strewn with khat stems. Everyone chews, old vegetable venders, street urchins. Business men sitting in cafes order water and pull a khat bush out of their brief case. ethiopia 129Waiters in these “chat rooms” serve water and the occasioal machiatos then go back to their khat. The scary ones are those who chew and drive.  The minivan driver on the last leg of our trip to the east of the country must have just visited a khat room. He drove the winding ridge runner road, thousands of feet drop both sides, balancing on two balding tires squealing for mercy, drafting and swerving like Formula One to pass hapless drivers waving for him to slow down. I stopped looking as we drove through villages, ahead a scene from Grand Theft Auto Ethiopia. Missing by inches men, women, children, goats, cattle, camels, ethiopia 118cargo, trucks and tuk tuks (known as Bajaj in Ethiopia).

Bajaj marking its territory

Bajaj marking its territory

Behind, passengers jammed five wide on three seats asked for barf bags. The driver explained that passengers would not get sick if he could just get there faster. So with one hand out the window holding his cell phone and a wad of khat he again pushed it to the metal. Like many travelers before we felt thankful when we were finally behind the city walls of Harar, a thousand year old Muslim trading outpost, and the safety of a family compound.ethiopia 139

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