Around Meru in central Kenya, life revolves around the cultivation of khat — a plant with narcotic properties — to such an extent that it has altered the social fabric of local communities.
In Muringene, about 300km north of Nairobi, the locals live both thanks to khat, or miraa as it is called, and for the sake of consuming khat. Most of what they produce is exported to Somalia, where it has been used for centuries mainly by men, or to Britain, which has what is thought to be the largest Somali community in the global diaspora from the war-wracked country.
Several million euros of khat leave the region each year, but the paradox is the business has had little impact on the villages’ standard of living, the local chapter of the Catholic charity Caritas said.
“Despite the money from the miraa, the area is very poor. The miraa money doesn’t trickle down into the households,” the organization’s social development director Joseph M’Eruaki said.
The main reason he puts forward is that the farmers have no influence over khat prices, which are fixed by a handful of Kenyans and Somalis.
Given how lucrative the crop is, children of barely 10 years of age are dropping out of school in large -numbers to pick khat.
“They make easy money on the farms and wonder why they should ‘waste their time’ in school,” M’Eruaki said.
The working day runs from 6am to 9am.
“When they’ve finished, they hang around for the rest of the day, chewing miraa,” he said.
The money earned in the early morning is normally gone by evening and, judging by the levels of malnutrition in the region, does not make its way into household food budgets.
Caritas has also voiced concern about the problems attached to having khat as the sole crop and tries to convince farmers to branch out in order to protect themselves from price fluctuations.
The green hills of this region— Kenya’s main khat-growing hub — are covered with medium-sized trees from which growers pluck new shoots as often as once a month.
Tied into small bunches and often wrapped in banana leaves and then plastic to keep the moisture in and its main active ingredient — cathinone — potent, the shoots are chewed carefully one by one to release the cathinone and the second active ingredient, cathine.
Khat is banned in the US and many European countries, though it is still legal in Britain — where the government has expressed concern in studies on khat use among the Somali population and health and social consequences.
But in Meru, referring to khat as a drug will at best draw furious denials and a few insults. Locals say miraa is “just like coffee” — a stimulant.
It also suppresses hunger — a property that made it very popular with nomads heading out into deserted arid areas with their livestock. The bitter miraa shoots enable the user to stay up all night without feeling fatigue and it can be compared to a mild amphetamine.
However, 48 hours after being harvested, miraa loses all its effects, a factor that leads to a constant race against the clock to deliver it to the end user.
Collected at dawn and quickly packed, the miraa is piled onto the back of moto-taxis and ferried at top speed to the nearest collection center. There young day workers scuffle to be the first to get their hands on the bundles and pile them onto gleaming pickups, lined up and engine already running in preparation for a speedy departure.