}

World

The wild ride of East Africa’s favorite stimulant

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

MAUA, Kenya – It’s an unassuming little red-and-green leaf, but the powers unlocked by chewing it have hooked millions of people around the world, made it one of Kenya’s leading exports and gotten it banned in the United States and much of Europe.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Known as miraa in Kenya and Somalia and qat, or khat, in Arabic, its users say munching it for a few hours makes them alert and talkative, much like coffee would. But the potency of the leaf starts to wane as soon as its picked off the tree, presenting a major challenge to suppliers in this more than $400-million-a-year industry: how to get it from the hills of central Kenya — the miraa heartland — to Nairobi, Mogadishu and other hubs of its biggest fans — the Somali community — without delay.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

A worker shows a miraa leaves he picked in a farm near Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The answer lies in a breakneck production cycle in which the leaves are plucked, sorted, bundled, and shipped in wildly careening pickup trucks to distribution centers in Nairobi, 180 miles away, in just a few chaotic hours.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Workers bundle miraa for distribution in a storehouse near Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

A potential buyer tests miraa at a market in Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The business, which is legal in Kenya, is run by trade organizations that operate like mafias. Numerous suppliers have been investigated for allegedly using unlicensed planes to fly miraa to Somalia from Nairobi, as well as allegedly using the trade as a front for money laundering. The Post witnessed evidence of child labor in one miraa sorting warehouse in Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The United States, United Kingdom and other European countries have banned the leaf, classifying it as a drug even though its addictiveness has not been proved. Producers say the bans are absurd, even racist. Half a million Kenyans rely on miraa for their livelihood, according to the Kenyan government. Daniel Ngolua, a miraa farmer, calls it a “cultural treasure for us."

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

A miraa market in Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Farmers arrive to sell their fresh miraa to resellers.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The bundles of delicate miraa leaves are packed in sturdier banana leaves and loaded by the ton into the beds of pickup trucks.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

A man labels miraa sacks with names and addresses in a cargo truck in Maua.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The ride to Nairobi from Maua is a three-hour roller coaster along winding country roads, speeding constantly at 100 mph without touching the brakes, through busy towns and villages, flying over speed bumps, running dozens of cars and pedestrians off the road along the way. Bystanders cheer the drivers on like action-movie heroes. Drivers say they are always balancing the risks with the payoff.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Benjamin Karengea, 30, has done the drive from Maua to Nairobi once a day, every day, for eight years. “It is a very dangerous work but, what can I do? It provides for me and my family," he said. "I am Christian and I have faith. The only thing I can do before taking off is pray.”

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Benjamin Karenga speaks with clients while speeding his way to Nairobi to deliver fresh miraa.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Many of the trucks head for Nairobi’s Little Somalia, Eastleigh, while the rest goes straight to the international airport for shipment to Somalia.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

At the end of the drive, miraa is unloaded at a market in Nairobi.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Motorbike drivers and other distributors wait for the fresh miraa.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The Post was granted access by the Kenya Airport Authority to witness the loading process, but hesitant traders and cargo operators blocked a photographer from taking photos.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post

Rainwater shakes off a miraa tree as a man picks the morning's fresh leaves.

Luis Tato for The Washington Post