"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Qat" Up in it All

Until recently, ‘qat’ was my number one favorite Scrabble word. It’s an easy way to dump a ‘q’ if you don’t have a ‘u,’ and because the other letters are easy to find on the board.

Not anymore.

Qat (also spelled khat, and pronounced either as qat or chaat), is the East African drug of choice. It grows primarily in Ethiopia, where it is exported to neighboring countries such as Somalia/Somaliland, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, and parts of the Sudan. Resembling an innocent green herb, the leaves of the qat plant act as a stimulant when chewed like tobacco. It produces a high for a few hours, displacing sleep and hunger, but afterwards leaves the chewer feeling weak, dehydrated, and unbearably cranky.

The shops with the counters painted green are the ones that sell qat.

Here, most men can be seen with chewed green mush dripping out of their mouths. In fact, it’s a rare sight to see a man in a place of authority (especially in the private security industry) without green goo caking his teeth. Apparently, guards and soldiers are allowed to chew qat because it allows them to stay awake for late night watch, but in the morning they are…tired, dehydrated and unbearably cranky. Big surprise.

Somali society, however, is not at all supportive of the country-wide qat addiction, as mind-altering substances are prohibited in Islam. Recently, I taught my students how to write argumentative essays, and the example I used was “should qat be illegal.” We had a class-wide discussion, and here were some of the impressions I received, from both girls and boys:

“Qat is bad for your health. It makes you dehydrated, constipated, and ruins the ability to satisfy your wife.”

"Qat is bad for family life. The father will only think about the qat, be angry all the time, and hurt his wife and children."

“Qat is bad for the family's money. If the father is addicted to qat, he will take the family’s money and spend it on qat instead of on food, so his children will starve.”

There was also an interesting note in a recent article on BBC Africa, about Somali pirates and qat.

"We need to bear in mind that the pirates are constantly taking a substance called khat, a drug which affects their state of mind. They mix that with alcohol and whatever medication they can find on the ship. So these are not rational actors," Source: Navfor's Chief of Staff, Colonel Richard Spencer, BBC Africa.

"Rational actors?" That reminds me of a little story.

On one fine Wednesday afternoon, I met one of my form 2 students (I’ll call her Salaama) for a short walk from our campus to the nearby village. My (male) coworker, Mike, who also has Salaama as a student, decided to join us, and the three of us set off for the main gate, where we could get an armed escort to walk with us.

Because Salaama is a girl, she must get a teacher to escort her off campus, and because the teachers are all foreign, we must have a guard with us if we leave campus. So Mike, Salaama, and I made our way to the main gate to find a hired guard to walk with us on the remote desert path to the remote village.

We arrived at the gate, and our head guard, Hassan, stopped us. “Where are you going?” he spat at us, with the ubiquitous green sludge dripping from his gums.

“Just to the village,” Mike said.

“What for?” demanded Hassan, chomping away on the sludge.

“Sambusa and drinks,” Mike replied. Just snack food.

Hassan stood up a little straighter, his fat stomach bulging out of his Army uniform. He turned to Salaama and said to her in Somali, “You can’t go without me, and I’m not going. You have to stay here.”

Mike and I turned to each other and had a little conference. “What are we going to do?” I said. “He can’t keep us here like that!”

“I’ll call Kiette,” Mike said.

We made a hurried call to our supervisor, who, once we passed the phone to the guard, told him to cut it out and take us. He hung up the phone, slumped back down in his seat. In Somali, he said to Salaama that he would send someone along in a minute.

Ha ha! I thought, strutting through the gate. Problem solved!

We followed the meandering path through the desert, past the stunted thorn trees and 5-foot termite mounds. The wind whipped by scarf around my face, and my long dress caught on the thorny plants. Nevertheless, we picked our way among the rocks, and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. It turned out that Salaama had beaten Mike in a game of Scrabble, so he had promised to take her to Abaarso and buy her “all the sambusas she could eat.”

Prepared to stuff ourselves with the greasy, meaty things, we followed the path until it met the one paved road in the village, and then found a food vender with “all we could eat.” The vender wrapped a pile of sambusas in old newspaper scraps to absorb the grease, and we dug in. When the feeding frenzy has subsided a little, we chatted a little about student life, how the school year had gone so far, and so on. Salaama was most upset about the fact that the Parents’ Committee had recently decreed that girls couldn’t leave campus without a teacher, while the boys were still allowed to go wherever they pleased. I was not happy about the decree either, but the Parents’ Committee had spoken.

When we were full, we bought a few extra sambusas to take back to campus, and headed back, noticing that our guard had spent the entire time hanging out at the one of the qat shops. We motioned to him that we were heading back, and he grabbed an extra bag of qat and joined us, slinging his AK-47 over his arm. At least this one kept silent and didn’t bother us.

We ambled back to campus, arriving back a little late for Salaama’s gym class (she was extremely appreciative of that). Once we walked through the gate, Mike went one way, and Salaama and I went another, toward the girl’s dorms.

However, we walked right past the fat guard’s seat. He sat in the shade, chomping away on a fistful of green. As we walked past, he shouted at us from his seat. Salaama turned, and translated for me. “He says we can’t leave campus because we’re girls.”

“WHAT?” I demanded.

He must have heard me, because he pointed at us and started yelling. I should say at this point that Somali is not a soft-spoken language. Salaama started yelling back, also in Somali. Then he got out of his chair and marched over to us. He shook his finger in our faces and screamed, spraying us with qat and spit. He got right up close to Salaama, which is something I thought was not permitted in Islam. I stepped between them an motioned with my hand for him to stop, now, yelling “Stop it! You can’t talk to us like that!”

By now, a group of girls had wandered over from the gym class on the football field, along with Margaret, the P. E, teacher. Between the two of us, we got the girls back to the football field and away from the guard, but not before he said something absolutely awful about Salaama in front of the other girls. I’m not sure of the translation, because I heard it later, but it was something like this:

“Salaama went to the village with Mike and was feeding him sambusas.”

For a woman to ‘feed’ a man in this culture is about on the same level as engaging in, um…reproductive actions. Of course, I had been with them the entire time and my presence probably would have discouraged that, but my presence and authority doesn’t seem to count for much here.

I met Salaama later that evening, after her gym class. She cried about what the guard had said, and all I could do was hold her. I had asked for the guard to be fired, but the answer I received was, “He’s better, because he actually guards and doesn’t chew as much qat.”

A few days later, the guard walked into the office, and I gave him a look that made it clear that he was not welcome in my presence. My coworker said that even she was scared by the look. I guess that means I am getting the hang of being a teacher—mastering the evil eye. Anyway, I saw him a few days later, and he said, “Hey Sophia, Salaam Aleikum! How are you? Good to see you!” This time, he didn’t spit qat in my face.

Well, then…

Now I reflect on some of what I’ve read about the region as a whole. Imagine, if a private security guard can lose it with a simple request for an escorted walk, what it must be like trying to negotiate the release of captured sailors for a ransom of millions of dollars. Imagine if the person spewing green sludge in your face is not your rent-a-cop, but a pirate on the high seas, who will decide whether you live or die.

Wow, now I get it.


  1. Oh nice story! Is Salaama the girl who wants to be a human right lawyer? If so, I can imagine how hard her work will be..Thanks for sharing your experience...

  2. Thanks for sharing that really difficult spot people constantly find themselves in when living in another culture. Your writing gets better all the time.

  3. As a Somalilander in the Diaspora, I can see how this is a true case of conflict of culture.

    Here you are, a westerner, a girl who grew up in a society where boys and girls are not watched over. A society where a girl can wear basically anything except truly show her nipples and the dry river bed down there. A society where the boyfriend can come to the girls house and even go into her bedroom, while her family member are there looking on.

    In the other hand you have an Easterner, a Muslim men(though he does not really does as the religion says because otherwise he would not beating chewing qat). The man was raised to hold female integrity and dignity intact. To protect the females precious entity.

    The female in this society is expected to not intermingle with men. She should dress modestly. She should behave modestly.

    In this society a women's value is based on how she behaved prior to the day that a man has come to have her hand in marriege. Her community will vouch on her behave. Otherwise her community will say "she was promiscous" and that would be the end of her character.

    In any rate, the bodyguard over reacted because at the end of the day, the girl did not go out with mike alone, rather, she gone out with two of you, so there was no basis for him to overreact. This is just a men disgruntled at doing his job. So Sophie, please do not associate this with the culture itself or the religion. I know your not, but your viewer should be aware of that.

  4. What an asshole! My goodness, I guess people can be jerks anywhere. I'm sorry that you have to deal with druggies on a regular basis. It is a shame that people can be so cruel to one another and then think that their actions are excusable later just because they were under the influence of something else. Because that is what that is. He was basically drunk. Shameful. How dare he call himself a man and then treat others in such a way.