In Eastleigh – Nairobi’s bustling commercial zone dominated by Somalis where I have recently been conducting research – activity focuses on the sprawling shopping malls along its 1st Avenue in the daytime, and shifts towards the restaurants and hotels of 2ndAvenue after dusk. Business in the evening also becomes ever more brisk for the hundreds of Meru from Central Kenya selling chewable stems and leaves from kiosks draped in banana leaves. These banana leaves are the khat sellers’ equivalent of the barber’s pole, alerting customers to the arrival of fresh stock of a stimulant of ever-increasing controversy. A large proportion of Eastleigh’s population buy khat from these traders, adjourning to either private rooms, or, in the case of men, often to such public areas as Shaah Macaan. This translates as ‘Sweet Tea’ from Somali, and is a small area located near such Eastleigh landmarks as the 11-storey Grand Royal Hotel. One can indeed buy sweet tea at Shaah Macaan as well as indulge in shisha, khat and, most importantly, chat.
Shaah Macaan is not the most idyllic of spots. The view out from the rather scruffy seating area overlooks a muddy road that requires great care to traverse without a fall, while the nearby fleet of buses bound for northeastern Kenya continually puncture any semblance of tranquillity with blasts of their horns. The atmosphere is hardly healthy either, with dust, sewage and diesel fumes swirling around. Yet chewers don’t seem to mind, and happily continue their consumption and conversation. This is one of khat’s appeals: it helps induce comfort and ease in such unprepossessing locations. Indeed, khat play a similar role in making the mafrish – a place where chewers can buy and consume khat in the UK and elsewhere – warm and welcoming despite their often unprepossessing decor and scant facilities.
However, khat is, as most readers are probably well aware, a highly contentious commodity. Although chewed wherever there are communities of Somalis, many from these same communities see khat as a source of damage to health, damage to society, and as something immoral and haram. There is disapproval in Eastleigh, but it is in the UK where sentiment against the commodity is currently most intense. The UK remains one of the few countries in Europe where khat remains legal despite its sizable population of Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian consumers. Indeed, 56 tonnes are estimated to enter the UK every week, almost all of it farmed by Meru in Kenya’s Nyambene Hills and exported by Somalis, many of them Eastleigh-based.
While the UK government are assessing once more the health and social dangers of khat with a view to a potential ban, a dimension related more to the economic worth of the commodity has become prominent in the debate: a link of khat to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Viewed with fear in the West as Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, there is a great interest in where the group gets its funding, and khat has for some time been suspected of playing a role in terrorist financing, usually through the following dubious logic: we don’t know where the money from khat smuggling to the US goes; khat consumers tend to be Muslims from ‘failed states’; khat must be funding terrorism. The terrorist angle has become more prominent this year with the arrest of several UK based Somalis who had been smuggling khat to the USA. That the authorities were not just intent on closing down its illegal export was made clear in newspaper coverage, where the suspicion that proceeds from the trade were funding al-Shabaab was highlighted. A terrorist funding link certainly played well with the media, as did the claim that al-Shabaab are recruiting fighters for the war back in Somalia from the chewing dens of the UK.
Al-Shabaab and khat would seem to be very peculiar bedfellows, especially as the former often condemns the latter, while the Union of Islamic Courts – of which al-Shabaab was a part – banned its consumption in Mogadishu to the dismay of traders and chewers in 2006. Some might point to Afghanistan and the Taliban’s involvement in opium production; however, heroin production in Afghanistan is a major industry. In comparison, even the profits to be made from khat in the USA, where consumers are said to pay many times the UK price for their chew, are unlikely to make involvement in its export to the West worth the while of al-Shabaab, a group who currently have much more lucrative revenue streams including Kismayu’s port, charcoal exports to the Gulf, and general taxation of commodities (including khat) within the areas they control. (For more on their financing, see this piece by Tim Wittig.)
Khat exporters in Eastleigh are bemused by the reported link to al-Shabaab, and the word on the muddy streets is that those arrested for smuggling khat to the US were accused of terrorist links by a business rival hoping to destroy the competition. Eastleigh residents point to similar strategic use of al-Shabaab accusations in Kenya, where the paranoia surrounding the group in the wake of the Kenya invasion and a number of grenade and bomb attacks has made such accusations powerful, even when based on little evidence. Indeed, where much of the money from the international trade in Kenyan khat goes is no secret in Eastleigh, a major hub for its trade. Many Somali businesspeople there have become relatively wealthy from the khat trade, and its export to London is even reckoned to be the source of the initial capital used to buy the famous Garissa Lodge, the original and much imitated Eastleigh shopping mall. Money from its trade to the West also supports a large number of young men who package khat for air transport, as well as also paying for freight costs, transport from the Nyambene Hills where it grows, and the farmers who grow it there.
Khat, like all psychoactive substances, has its potential downsides, and these need to be acknowledged. But I suspect a link with terrorism will prove to be little more than a sensational news story, albeit one which has further muddied the polarised debate over UK policy. And khat policy in the UK is not just a parochial affair, as the links between farmers in the Nyambenes, exporters in Eastleigh, and importers in the UK demonstrate.
Dr Neil Carrier is a research associate at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford. He is currently working on a project examining the Somali-dominated Nairobi estate of Eastleigh as part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme team.