Khat dominates male life in the tiny Muslim nation of Djibouti

DJIBOUTI—In this overwhelmingly Muslim nation, alcohol is frowned upon and hard drugs are exceedingly rare. But one stimulant dominates the lives of Djibouti's half-million citizens: khat, a green leaf that when chewed gives the chewer an amphetamine-like high.

Here, khat is king. Women sell it, men chew it, and children either lament their fathers' habit or count the days until they, too, can take part in the national pastime.

Its influence becomes clear every day at lunchtime, when nearly all Djiboutian males retreat inside with a handful of friends to gnaw gently on ball-sized lumps in the sides of their cheeks.

"Everything we do depends on our majesty, khat," said Mahdi Moussa, 32, a hotel driver.

Khat is illegal in many Western countries, including the United States and Canada. But among Djibouti's laid-back professional class, an afternoon of khat-chewing is like a round of golf, helping to cement deals and relationships. For others, it's a social lubricant, good for whiling away the day with friends.

But the drug has more serious effects than that warm buzz. For poor people, it's a very expensive hobby.

All of Djibouti's khat is imported—11 tons of it daily, mostly by plane from Ethiopia. It's a huge drain on the economy of this country, which, despite a strategic port on the Red Sea, has no natural resources and scant rainfall.

Every year, Djiboutians spend $170 million on khat, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. For an average family, that's between $700 and $1,800 per year—10 percent to 19 percent of a household's income, the agency says.

That doesn't leave a lot of money for other things, like food. Experts believe spending on khat is a key reason why Djibouti has one of the world's highest rates of child malnutrition—about 70 percent.

Khat sucks the life out of the workday, which usually ends after the early afternoon Muslim prayer—about when the daily shipment of khat touches down at the airport.

After a long afternoon khat session, men are likely to be late for work the next morning—or not show up at all.

There's also a more insidious threat, according to some experts, who say the khat trade is controlled by warlords in Somalia and could be funding terrorist groups.

Khat is responsible for the frenzy that racks Djibouti's crumbling market district at lunchtime as men crowd around wooden stalls to purchase their day's supply from bored-looking female sellers.

There's a leaf for every household budget in a country where the unemployment rate is 50 percent. The cheapest bundles go for as low as $1, while some men spend as much as $20 on a day's supply.

Khat sessions typically take place at home, sometimes in mabraze, rooms set aside for the purpose. Men with stereos or TV sets play music or watch videos.

Khat users usually pluck an entire stem from the bunch of green leaves and stick it in their mouths, chewing slowly. The leaves are soft, but the initial taste is sharp and bitter, making the mouth suddenly feel completely dry as khat's active chemicals, cathinone and cathine, are released.

Users drink copious amounts of soft drinks and sweet tea to wash down the bitter leaf—one reason for the high rate of diabetes, some say.

It takes about an hour of continuous chewing before experienced users say they start to feel light-headed. Then the drug really starts to kick in—users sit up straight, suddenly feeling more alert, and are quicker to laugh and shout. As the afternoon grows old, the men chatter, with green flecks of leaf collecting around their lips and along their gums.

Near dusk, the group breaks up. Married men return to their families. Students hit the books, believing the narcotic helps them focus. Other men, in the words of Chideh Abdi, a father of four, "attack women. They think khat helps them sexually."

Abdi doesn't chew it every day. But when he does, his family knows.

"The day I eat it, my wife isn't happy. She probably hates me," Abdi said. "My kids aren't happy. They ask, `Daddy, why do you eat it?'

"You don't care about your family when you eat khat. You don't know if your kids did their homework. You don't know even if your wife is at home."

In the late 1970s, Djibouti's first president tried to ban khat. Riots ensued. Today, Abdi said, the government would be wise to leave khat alone, if only because it's a strong distraction for a desperately poor nation.

"If there was no khat, we'd have to think about more serious things," Abdi said. "Like criticizing the government."