Jozi City Feature

Fields of dreams

Immigrants entering into South Africa dont only bring their dreams of a better future over the borders, but also their culture and rituals. Hasina discovers a mysterious herb, Khat, that has set its root in the country.

On the verge of Bird Street in Mayfair, Shukriyah sits with some other Somali women on a plastic chair in front of a faded mauve house. Her gold tooth glints as she tells her customer fresh herbs have just come in from the mountains of Mpumalanga. As the call for afternoon prayers starts echoing through Little Mogadishu in Johannesburg, Ethiopian and Somali men walk by after work. They stop to buy a bag of herbs, the little twigs that remind them of home.

The plant sells for between R20 to R50 a bunch. According to many chewers, the quality in South Africa is not as good as the plants back home.

Shukriyah helps customers pick out the best bunch, looking for either crimson red leaves or bright green soft barks, depending on their preference. Bunches are also graded according to area of origin, and priced accordingly.

Further down 8th Avenue, walls with peeling cream paint hide the outside world from a place that could be anywhere in the Horn of Africa. Foreign chatter drifts from behind the dirty lace curtains, hinting at life within. The backyard is scattered with plastic tables and chairs covered in green leaves. The scent of simmering vegetables comes from the quarters behind the house. Here you’ll find a room full of men sipping Coca Cola and eating their meal for the day. Others sit and watch television on the screen that is perched high on one wall, chewing their green herb.

This house is called Bertha Chadka, the Field of Khat, by the locals. Immigrants from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Eritrea and Egypt make their way at least once a week from the city centre to this area in Mayfair to stock up on their personal supply of khat. Others operate as “retailers”; they buy here and then trade informally in the city centre from dingy rooms in derelict buildings.

 

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This unassuming plant may look like a bunch of baby coriander or spinach but it is a mild hallucinogen that's chewed regularly by many East Africans.

 

Dissecting the plant

Khat, chat, mira, bushman’s tea (scientific name catha edulis) is popular in East Africa and parts of the Middle East, in particular Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The ordinary looking twigs and leaves, which could pass for mint, baby spinach or coriander, work, when chewed, as a mild stimulant. It is said that it can keep a person up all night and that it can work as an aphrodisiac. According to Abdi, a Somali chewer, those who use it infrequently will feel a loss of appetite.

Chewing khat is not just a male habit, women do it as well. In Ethiopia they chew at home, where it’s often part of the traditional coffee ceremony.

A lot has been written about the stimulant, some of it dating back almost to the time of Christ. Its use in South Africa as a social drug only goes back some 20 years when immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia started arriving in the country after apartheid ended and the borders opened up.

The herb was brought in by airplanes from various African countries. But when the police started confiscating it, importing it became difficult. Much of the khat chewed in South Africa is therefore locally grown. It grows in the mountains of the Eastern Cape, and has become a thriving business for locals. The plant, like spinach, cannot be kept for long and loses its freshness after three days. Jonathon, an Ethiopian chewer, said leaves more than a few days old are not as potent as the fresh ones.

Khat users say the plant is not addictive. Soudo Hussain, a Somali journalist, disagrees. “Back home the men used to chew only on weekends or twice a week, but here in South Africa they do it every day.”

The effects of the plant depend on which parts are eaten. Ethiopians prefer the leaves, which are less potent. They chew it to get energy and to carry on with work during the day. Somalis, on the other hand, eat the twigs and discard the leaves.

“When the men have chewed khat, they are the most generous people, but the next day they are a different person,” Hussain says. She also says that men feel more “energetic” when they chew and occasionally small fights break out – but they dissolve just as fast as they start.

 

 

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Mystical herbs: Aslam* sits on his prayer mat, chewing khat as he chants on his rosary beads. He is one of many of the Sufi sect who use this plant to enhance their spirituality.

 

Khat was used in ancient Egypt in religious ceremonies. These days it’s mainly chewed as a social habit. However, in South Africa some Sufi Muslims have begun using it as part of their rituals. Aslam (not his real name), a 23-year-old South African Muslim, chews khat “to reach a higher spiritual level as the drug opens up your mind”. He emphasises that he does not chew to attain a high but to improve his prayers. The plant also gives him stamina to stay focused on his prayers and read for a lengthy period, he says.

Most users do not chew to get a quick fix or a high. Shukriya says that “some do mix it with weed and other things, but most just chew the plant”. The plant is often chewed while sipping Coke, water or eating peanuts or popcorn. Abdi favours Chappies watermelon-flavoured bubblegum to enhance his chewing experience.

Culture or drug?

Cathinone (street name CAT) is the synthetic form of khat, which is produced by drying the leaves and mixing them with other substances. This drug, which is found either as white powder or in tablet form with an identifiable benzene ring, is illegal. The status of the plant itself is a grey area.

Khat is legal in most African countries, as well as in Britain. In 1980 the World Health Organisation defined khat as “a drug of abuse that can lead from mild to moderate physiological dependency, less than nicotine or alcohol”.

The South African Narcotics Bureau (SANAB) has put the plant on the narcotics list, which means selling or chewing it is illegal. At the same time the plant is an indigenous species, which cannot be uprooted or banned.

In African culture the plant was known for its medicinal use. The Xhosas used it to cure a common cold or flu, by brewing a tea from the leaves.

The South African Police Service has taken the stance that “the drug is illegal in terms of section 3 of the Drug Act” and says it will act accordingly.

Teddy, an Ethiopian shop owner in Jeppe Street, says he has stopped selling the plant because the police have confiscated his supplies many times and threatened him. He does allow men to bring their own bunches and chew in his cafeteria.

Shukriyah says the police have harassed her at times. “Most just want a bribe.” Some policemen use the plant themselves, she says. “On Tuesday nights, a few police who work night shift come to get a bunch to keep them alert through the night,” she adds.

People found in possession of the plant face anything from a warning to six months in jail. According to Shukriya, some of the women have been jailed for a few days.

Abdur Rahman, a Somali khat supplier, tells a similar tale. “The police come into our house at times and confiscate the leaves.”

Other chewers say they have been searched on the city streets. “The police stop us all the time. When they see us, they check to see if we have khat on us. They just threaten us all the time,” says Ethiopian Lailah Basrat.

The users say they do not understand why the police harass them. This is their culture, why would it be illegal? One regular chewer, Alex Mahomed, remarks: “It is better than tik, which is killing a generation. Why don’t police worry about that?”

Manton Hirst, a researcher for the Human Sciences Research Council on the plant, wrote in his report Reasons to Celebrate that the plant is like cannabis, in the sense that you do not run into khat users at the local mental hospital needing a fix, but you may bump into them waiting outside the local courthouse after they have been busted for possession.

From East to South

While the debate about the illegality of khat drags on, the trade and the use continue.

Situated in the middle of Johannesburg’s bustling city centre, the old Medical Arts Building on Jeppe Street has been transformed into a mini Addis Ababa, one of quite a few scattered across the central business district. The stench of uncooked lentils and stale urine permeates the air. Hidden on the top floor of the building, down the long corridor, past a bustling barber shop and stores selling cotton dresses, is a place where Ethiopian men can go to relax, chat, smoke sheesha (water pipe), sip strong coffee and chew their favourite herb. This is a little piece of home for Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, who gather here every Saturday afternoon to end off the busy working week. The small restaurant is crowded with friends and families all chatting and chewing around a colourful straw mesob (tabletop). East African music plays in the background while the Amharic chatter mixes with the sound of sizzling coffee beans. Lailah welcomes her guest with a traditional coffee ceremony and popcorn.

 

 

 

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Spice route: Shukriyah collects her wares from the storeroom after making a sale on Bird Street, Mayfair.

 

The South African trade

Initially khat arrived here by plane from Ethiopia. Unsuspecting custom officials allowed it to pass through as vegetables. But, in the new millennium this became more difficult.

During winter, khat is still “imported” from East Africa. The plant is flown to neighbouring countries and then brought into South Africa in large refrigerated trucks.

While most local South Africans are unaware of the plant, some have turned its cultivation and trade into a livelihood. According to Abdi, the plant is sold by locals to foreign Africans. He says when the first immigrants came to the country they found the plant growing in the wild. Now it is picked by locals, bundled and sold to the East Africans.

In South Africa khat mainly grows wild, and it is not harvested as it is done in Kenya and Ethiopia, where it is a cash crop. But times are changing. Rahman says: “There’s a white farmer in the Eastern Cape who has begun to commercially farm it and who is selling it to the Somalis.”

Legal, illegal, local, imported – in Mayfair no one really cares, as long as it stays available.

On 8th Avenue, the sunset call begins, marking the end of the day. Birds flutter as cars drive through the busy street. The pavements are packed with people and the odd chair or two. On one of them a young Somali sits, counting praises bead by bead on her tasbeeh (rosary).
To an innocent bystander she appears to be a pious young lady enjoying the afternoon breeze. But then a car slows down. She rises, and greets the passengers in Arabic. She shifts to Somali, money exchanges hands, and from underneath her brown burkha comes a small package.

Her deal for the day is done.

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About Hasina Gori

Hasina is currently completing her Honours in Journalism and holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Communication Science. Her love for art led her to illustrate various children’s books. She loves chasing paper trails and was the news anchor for a community radio station in Durban. Hasina was part of the media team that went to Egypt with Cosatu in 2009 and she aspires to be a war correspondent in the future.

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