My first encounter with the
chewing of green leaves sometimes written as Khat, Qat or Chat
takes me back at least six decades. Chewing chat was not popular as it
was considered unorthodox in those days.
Born and bred in Addis near
the Trinity Cathedral, I remember that there was a Yemeni where there is now a
boutique on the corner turning to the newly modified bridge or better known as
Eribekentu (yelling in vain) bridge; there was a small teahouse run by
Salah, that was the name of
the Yemeni shopkeeper, would sit crossing his legs on the top of the counter,
overseeing his business while picking and chewing green chat. I remember
the old man, with a colourful headdress round his head, stocking his mouth with
the stimulant green leaves till his cheeks were swollen to tennis-ball size.
He would stop to down the
chewed green leaves with fizzy drinks or arenchata. Those soft drinks
were also dirt cheap then, costing only 0.10 Br per bottle. (Let us be frank,
would you bow low to pick up a dime if you dropped one these days?)
As children, we used to
tease him, making faces at him as the Yemeni was toothless and had to spoon-take
crashed leaves. Benefiting from hindsight, I now tend to believe that he had
lost all his teeth due to the impacts of years of munching green leaves like
goats chewing the cud in their idle time. Incidentally, Arabs and people in East
Africa are said to have been chewing chat for centuries long before they
had ever tasted coffee.
My second experience came
years later when I went to Diredewa. Chewing chat seemed to be the way of
life for many people there. The nocturnal journey by train was quite an
unforgettable experience. Passengers shared whatever they had, including chat
which was taken to keep awake all night, perhaps to keep watch of their personal
effects and goods for sale. More serious observation took place when I went
deeper and farther into the hinterland.
Accompanying my father, I
went to Wobera, a district in the eastern part of Harrargie Province, as it was
called then. Inside the Ramis River basin, a significant amount of irrigation
farming took place. Farmers grew chat and coffee side by side. At the time I
first went there, many farmers uprooted their coffee trees and planted chat
because it paid better. Chat is a cash crop that can be harvested in
three years time if proper care is accorded.
Once the trees start giving
yields, however, farmers can harvest at least twice a year for the rest of their
lives. The chat seedlings are planted in rows about a metre apart.
Picking starts around
7:00pm in the evening and continues until midnight depending on the volume of
work. Lanterns or kerosene lamps are used for light. The chat tree is
bushy. The chewable parts are those green and tender leaves just growing on the
apex of the branches. The branches are cut in a way to protect the soft tissues.
These are then wrapped in false-banana leaves, loaded on pack-animals and
brought home for proper packing. This is where the branches are tied in bunches
or zurbas. (A zurba is a bundle that weighs about a kilo.) The team works
overnight while chewing the stimulating chat and sipping hoja
every now and other interval.
The rallying transporters
arrive at Diredewa before dawn. The bundles are covered with perforated plastic
sheets and are sprinkled with water to keep the green leaves as fresh as
possible. The chat importing neighbours are said to be looking up to the
sky waiting for the cargo plane to arrive carrying those mythical bundles.
Addis gets its supplies
from all areas. The main distributing centres are the Sarris and the Sidamo-terra
unloading terminals from where lesser tradesmen buy their bunches for
distribution to smaller centres. The types of the green leaves are identified by
the names of the sources of origin. The popular ones are Gelemso, Aweday, Gefra
and Beleche coming from the Eastern part of the country and selling at an
average of 30 Br per zurba. The Wondo Genet is relatively cheaper selling
at 24 Br per bunch. I can go on mentioning Wollene, Gedebano, Asano and Berdayou
which sell at an average of 60 Br.
Among the most expensive is
the Bahirdar chat, better known as ‘Colombia’ in some circles. This type
sells at five Birr per 25 grammes and is said to be the most potent of them all
and perhaps even hazardous to health.
I wanted to know why people
consume chat. I met Kirubel, a 40 year-old man knowledgeable about all
there is to know about chat in this country and Kenya. Incidentally, he
mentioned “mero,” another strong and expensive type available only on the
borders of Kenya and Ethiopia. Kirubel has been chewing chat for over 20
years and is now contemplating quitting due to the hike in price.
“I started chewing chat
wanting to stimulate myself and stay awake while I was studying,” he told me. “I
became addicted and could not stop it.” It gives him an illusion of temporary
pleasure and excitement, according to him. Kirubel is convinced that he can do
without it and has considerably reduced his daily intake.
Dirsha is a taxi driver who
has presently started chewing the green leaf just to chase away boredom and feel
active. He says that he is enjoying it and hopes to continue munching until
better days come to him. I have seen many people picnicking to resort areas
carrying loads of chat to chew in the open air.
Doctors in England have
carried out researches that have revealed that chat is hazardous if taken
frequently. Addis Abeba is doing a plausible job closing down chewing houses and
I fully support the move as a parent. Friends share my stand.