By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 16, 2006
WAJID, Somalia -- Before Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, Maryann Ali was an elementary school teacher who spent her days giving fifth-graders geography and math lessons. Now she earns a living dealing khat, a narcotic plant that when chewed yields a jittery high and feelings of invincibility that later melt and leave the user in a lethargic stupor.
Educated Somali women such as Ali dominate the khat trade, a profession that is both admired and scorned here, and that offers one of the few remaining job opportunities in the country's moribund economy.
"If the country was ever normal, I'd quit and return to teaching," said Ali, 40, who guards her stash with an AK-47 and has a gold tooth that she says makes her appear "tough." "What else can I do to survive?"
Somalia, a country of more than 8 million ruled by warlords, has the highest percentage of khat users in the world, researchers say. Scarred by violence and raised in anarchy, a generation of young Somalis say King Khat, or miracle miraa, as the drug is known, helps ease the pain.
Researchers estimate that 75 percent of adult males use the drug. Every town has khat rooms, where men lounge for hours listening to blaring music and chewing wads of green leaves that ooze with saliva and stick between their teeth.
The consumption of alcohol and most drugs is socially unacceptable in this Muslim country, but chewing and dealing khat are considered gray areas. So Ali, a mother of 10, peddles the narcotic, which she said enables her to earn money and abide by the philosophy of Somalia's tight-knit clans: "Above all, provide and protect."
Khat is legal in much of sub-Saharan Africa and enjoyed throughout the Horn of Africa and in parts of the Middle East, especially in Yemen. It is illegal in several African countries, such as Tanzania and Eritrea, and in the United States and across Europe.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared khat a highly addictive drug, and East African leaders have campaigned against it, saying chronic use leads to high divorce rates, wife beatings and job loss. In Somalia, opponents call the habit a national epidemic and say men who use the drug neglect their families by spending huge amounts of cash and time on it.
Khat crops have flourished in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where farmers started uprooting their coffee plants and growing the leafy green plant when the world coffee market crashed in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, Kenya exports about $250 million of khat annually, beating out tea as one of the county's most lucrative exports, according to the Kenyan government.
Dozens of flights leave Nairobi's two major airports every day, transporting burlap sacks filled with khat to Somalia in a trade that is worth about $300,000 a day, according to Kenya's National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse.
And like tobacco and alcohol, khat is a big business run by powerful people.
Warlords control the khat trade and use the proceeds to buy weapons, which allows them to maintain control of their warring fiefdoms, according to a 2003 report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Somalia.
"Several major factions and authorities have a direct stake in the business, either through partnership with khat importers or by levying charges and taxes at points of entry," according to the report.
Khat chewing also suppresses appetite. It had long been an urban habit, with most rural farmers typically too poor to buy it, but humanitarian workers say that men moving from the farms to towns are starting to pick up the pastime, borrowing money to support the habit.
"Every meeting we have with the Somali community, khat is identified as a major problem that's getting worse," said Regine Kopplow, a project officer in health nutrition with the U.N. Children's Fund in Somalia. "People don't know what to do. There is drought. There is no feeling of safety. There is real depression. It ends up hurting their children, who lose out on school and food."
Ali gets her daily supply of khat from her clan's warlord, one of two who control khat in Wajid, a dusty town 200 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu, that has drawn thousands of villagers because of the drought.
"I just don't see a better way," she said in a raspy voice recently as she sat in line with other female sellers under a thatched roof market.
As the women thumbed through stacks of cash, Ali cradled the fresh and leafy branches packed in wet burlap sacks on her lap. She wrapped and unwrapped them to show to buyers, as though displaying precious jewels. Her best khat sells for $15 a bundle. She usually sells 20 bundles a day and keeps about 20 percent of the profit, a hefty sum in a place where many people survive on less than $1 a day.
"I feel tortured by this sometimes," she said, rubbing her temples. "My relatives always tell me to quit, but I can't."
Ali's journey to this sweltering market in Wajid followed from the events of her country's downfall. She was born in northern Somalia, but her father, a high-ranking soldier, later moved the family south to Wajid. She became a teacher and married a fellow educator.
"I liked studying the children, seeing how you could learn different human behaviors from them," she said. "Some children were happy and some unhappy. It's actually helped me with this khat work. You have to always watch people and determine their moods."
When Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, warlords began carving up the country, schools closed and Ali was suddenly out of work.
She and other women she knew took "any job we could find, and khat was it. And it seemed better than becoming a fighter or taking food handouts. I was an educated woman; I couldn't do that."
Her husband plummeted into a depression and couldn't find work, she said. "The man is a vagabond, totally jobless, ah, what are we women to do?" she said, slapping her hands together and then giving the other market women a knowing look. "Men know only fighting and death. Women of Somalia have to be the breadwinners."
She said she has never chewed khat, takes cash only and tries to be "as honest as a khat dealer can," meaning she never sells old khat and tries to keep it from wilting in the sun, she said. But even so, sometimes her job is as dangerous and unpredictable as the country around her.
In December, armed men looted about $3,000 worth of her khat, shooting in the air and then by her feet. She said she thought she would be killed.
She feels sick as she watches more and more rural farmers move into her town and into squalid encampments, where they have only low-lying shelters of sticks and rags to give them respite from the pounding 115-degree heat. Some of the rural women have asked her for jobs. But she refuses most people.
"They keep saying, 'Please give me a few kilos to sell and let me pay you back when the rains come,' " she said. "But I have to be careful. Otherwise, this problem will get out of control."
Amina Saman Mohamed, 37, also a former teacher, works next to Ali in the khat corner of Wajid market. She stopped teaching in 1992 and started selling soon after because, she said, "I had eight children and the schools were closed. There was no other choice and not enough money for food."
She and Ali often talk about their dream of returning to teaching.
"This is our main problem in life: that there is never any real change and we are stuck peddling these leaves," Mohamed said. "That's the way life is in Somalia."