Where Khat Is King, But Not Much Else Works

By Anna Husarska
Sunday, August 19, 2007

GALKAYO, Somalia On a dusty street that runs through this town of 80,000 in central Somalia, a cluster of men sit on low stools, lost in their daily ritual -- chewing the green leaves of a mild narcotic called khat. Lethargic and stupefied, they seem oblivious to everything. Only when their cellphones jangle -- a surreal sound in this otherwise primitive place -- do they snap to life. Soon they've arranged the money transfers they've been waiting for and lapse back into their somnolent masticating.

Nothing much works in Somalia -- not water or sanitation, not health or education. But despite the absence of state structures (or perhaps because of it), three things function with amazing smoothness: the commerce of khat, an impressive system of cellphone networks, and the business of international money transfers.

Welcome to the paradox that is the failed state of Somalia. This nation of 9 million in the Horn of Africa hasn't had a functioning government since January 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted from power by the country's warlords. Over the past 16 years, a permanent clan conflict has engulfed most of the country. The United States tried to end the chaos in the 1990s but failed. That "humanitarian intervention" never lived up to its code name, Operation Restore Hope. It's better known by its unfortunate final chapter, Black Hawk Down, the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.

A transitional federal government was formed three years ago and sat in Baidoa, in central-western Somalia. Last December, with external support, it took on the radical Muslims who had run ("governed" is not quite the right word) the southern and central portion of the country for six months. With tacit approval from Washington, which saw the move as part of the "global war on terror," Ethiopian troops forced the Union of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu. Since then an urban guerrilla war -- complete with roadside explosive devices, mortar fire and suicide bombs -- has been raging in the capital, with no end in sight.

In the past six months, reports of unrest coming out of the Somali capital have been almost as dramatic and monotonous as those from the Iraqi capital, only on a smaller scale. In Mogadishu, a town that reporters have nicknamed "Baghdad-on-the-Sea," 30 people were killed last week, including two prominent journalists. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis have had a compelling reason to flee their capital: It's awash in mayhem.

Yet somehow, despite the bloodshed, a few things work. The import and internal distribution of Catha edulis, or khat, from neighboring Kenya has endured all the "failed state" periods, with the exception of the months between June and December 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts ran the country. The Islamists banned khat, along with alcohol and cigarettes, sparking protests. Yet it turned out that not only was it possible for Somali men not to chew khat, but all the locals I spoke to agreed that it was the first peaceful period in Mogadishu since 1991. Women mentioned that their husbands had even started working in the afternoons.

Khat, which is similar to amphetamines in its effects, is a narcotic, but it's not illegal in Somalia. Far be it from me as a humanitarian aid worker to praise the khat industry, but I can't help envying the clockwork precision of its operations. The flights taken by aid organizations like mine have to adjust their schedules repeatedly in response to fighting, but the planes that are used to import khat land with a promptness you can set your watch by. We need armed guards to escort us on our travels, so we have to rent an extra vehicle to transport them. We've never gotten our expensive private car on time. By contrast, the khat's armed escort is always impeccably punctual.

Here is how the khat delivery works. Every day, large cargo flights land from Kenya: three in Mogadishu, two here in Galkayo and one more in the south, in the town of Kismayo. As soon as the planes land in Galkayo, most of the khat is transferred to five vehicles that head north toward Bossaso -- a town on the Gulf of Aden-- under heavily armed guard, as befits a precious cargo. The cars -- Toyota Mark Twos and Toyota Hilux pickups -- are known locally as "missiles" for the speed with which they travel. The distribution schedule means that life grinds to a halt at various hours in various places. The munching starts just after 10 a.m. in Galkayo, around 1 p.m. in Garowe (180 miles to the north) and at 4 p.m. in Bossaso (360 miles to the north, over a very bad road).

Only men chew khat, but retail sales (and, in Galkayo, wholesale as well) are the exclusive task of women. And it's a serious business: a bunch of twigs to satisfy a man for a day costs the equivalent of $10. (Per capita income is roughly $130 a year.) If payment is made in Somali shillings, the banknotes fill a shopping bag.

Khat is a mild drug, but very addictive. The other Somali addiction is cellphones. They're everywhere. But the communications networks aren't uniform. Your tribal affiliation determines your area code. In Galkayo, there are two networks (with no way to call from one to the other) roughly reflecting the clan division that runs through the town from the south, where cell numbers start with a 4, to the north, where they start with a 7.

About 60 miles south of Galkayo, we came across Docol, a village where the only modern feature is a huge mobile phone tower. The owner of two cellphones (one 4, one 7) told me excitedly that he was expecting a third one soon. I tried to envision the advantages this would bring: Soon many of the 3,000 inhabitants of Docol will be able to call their cousins in Maine and complain -- in real time, at a relatively low cost of 45 cents a minute -- about the lack of latrines in Docol. They'll have the option of sending a text message to friends who emigrated to Sweden, describing the decline of their camel and goat herds because there's no functioning watering hole within a several-hundred-mile radius, or even take a digital picture of the primitive berked, or pond, with its filthy water.

Somalia may have a global wireless connection, but many of its people have nowhere to relieve themselves and no water to drink. According to the World Bank, Somalia has 1.5 more telephones per capita than Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia, but only one-third as many Somalis have access to safe water as their neighbors in those countries.

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