Harar Ethiopia Qat Austin Bush
Photos by Austin Bush
Travel

‘People Don’t Eat Food So Much. They Chew Qat.’

In Ethiopia, the stimulant qat, or khat, is one of the largest and most important cash crops, but there’s a human cost to a stimulant economy.
June 3, 2021, 6:30pm

“I don’t chew qat in the morning. I’ll eat breakfast, do some work, then I’ll chew,” explained Redwan, a roadside water vendor. He paused for a second and added, “Nighttime is the best time to chew qat because there’s girls, sheesha, tea—it’s crazy.”

It was late 2019, when international travel was still a gloriously mundane option, and I had just arrived in Harar, the ancient walled city in Ethiopia’s east. I stopped into a café and fell into a conversation with Redwan, who was wearing a Muslim skullcap and clutching a plastic bag stuffed full of leaves. I gestured to the bag and he told me that it contained qat, a leaf that people in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East chew as a stimulant. 

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He handed me a few small buds with a waxy appearance and a maroonish green hue, and urged me to chew them. The taste was sweet and tannic, racing to the back and sides of my tongue, and I was reminded of the bitterness of beer and coffee. Seeing my face pucker, Redwan reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a few peanuts for me to eat—the nuts’ fattiness tempering the leaves’ astringency.

a woman carrying qat on her head

Harar, it could be said, is the homeland of the jitters. According to local legend, a local goatherder called Kaldi noticed that his goats were a lot perkier than usual after they’d eaten the plump, maroon berries of a local bush. This is, Ethiopians claim, how coffee was also discovered. Qat, sometimes spelled “khat,” is likewise indigenous to the mountainous desert countryside surrounding the city. Today, Ethiopian authorities estimate that half of the men in Ethiopia chew the leaf—its use is considered an epidemic by some—and per acre, the income generated by growing qat is thought to surpass that of Ethiopia’s other crops, including coffee, making it the country’s second-largest source of foreign currency.

To learn more, I reached out to Alem, a Harar-based guide, and native of Jugol, the city’s ancient walled district. “Harar people don’t eat food so much; they chew qat,” Alem explained. “Even poor people sleeping on the street, they have bags of qat.” In Harar, she told me, there are qat sessions for different times of day and each has a name in Oromo, one of the local languages. The post-breakfast chew is ija bena, meaning “open eyes.” After lunch is barja, a lengthy chew that can also include smoking sheehsa and drinking tea. And after dinner, ije choufa, meaning “closed eyes.”

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I had witnessed qat’s prevalence earlier, wandering through the historical center of Harar, a walled enclave with winding, narrow, marble-paved alleyways; pink adobe compounds; and turquoise mosques. It was impossible to avoid. Like Redwan, most of the men in town were clutching clear plastic bags full of green stems. The city’s streets showed the human cost of a stimulant economy: men addicted to qat, sitting in doorways, slumped in front of piles of bare twigs. Those with mouths too weak to chew pounded the leaves to a green paste with small mortar and pestles. The qat markets at the town’s famous gates were some of the most ferocious places of commerce I’ve ever seen. 

men lounging, surrounded by qat

I had asked Alem to take me to the qat market in Awaday, a town a few miles northeast of Harar, allegedly both the origin of the plant and the only place of non-stop commerce in Ethiopia, with vendors shilling qat 24/7. Awaday seems like a sleepy Ethiopian town, but go just behind the main drag, and it was one of the most frenetic places I’ve ever been. In the heart of the main qat market, buyers and sellers racing around with immense bundles of the leaves formed a mass of humanity that was difficult to navigate. The floor of the market was literally carpeted with the undesirable mature qat leaves and branches, with both goats and people competing for the detritus (the stems can be used to cook injera, Ethiopia’s staple sour fermented flatbread). 

Qat varies immensely in quality and price, and it isn’t bought so much as bargained. Every transaction seemed to require a lengthy process of tasting, assessment, and negotiation, with potential buyers chomping on stems, fingering buds, and haggling.

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“Export qat can sell for as much as 10,000 birr (approximately U.S. $350) per kilogram,” said Abdi Yusuf, a 39-year-old qat seller who called me over to talk. He had sold his qat harvest for the day—approximately 10 kilograms—and was winding down, chewing with friends. I mentioned to him that there seemed to be as much chewing as selling—a market seemingly getting high on its own supply—and proudly he said, “I chew more than one kilogram per day. Sometimes this isn’t enough!” 

Alem and I continued walking around the market, and Maliha, a female vendor wearing a Muslim headdress, invited me to sit in her stall. She told me that her qat sold for the high price of 7,000 birr (approximately U.S. $240) per kilogram, and sent a boy to fetch a few high-quality stems for me. I chewed them, and compared to the qat I’d tried previously, this stuff was almost exclusively young, tender buds, purple in color. Unlike the cheaper qat I’d tasted, which packed some sweetness, this had a distinctly bitter flavor. “I sell the expensive stuff and chew the cheap stuff,” she told me. As we were talking, a crowd formed at the entrance of the stall—a ferrenji (foreigner) was chewing qat!—and some of the rubberneckers took photos of me with their phones. I mentioned to Maliha that qat seemed very much a man’s world, and she said, “Qat sellers are both men and women, but they’re all Muslim.” 

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Alem had arranged a visit to a qat farm, and we left the market and rolled through the hilly countryside in a rattling blue Peugeot, the taxi of choice in these parts. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia was scheduled to visit Harar the next day, and we were stopped at numerous roadblocks by edgy, gun-toting soldiers. It was Sunday, and along the road were also dozens of Christians, shrouded in white, making their way home from the morning church service.

carrying qat

We pulled up to the home of Fatima Idris Mummat, a farmer and mother of 14 children. She told me that she had more than 100 qat trees mixed in among coffee bushes and stalks of corn. We walked through her farm, and most of the qat trees were about seven-feet tall, and in addition to the green leaves, also sprouted tiny round yellow flowers, which I was told also packed a buzz. Fatima explained, “Qat money is good, I’ve sold it for as much as 2,000 birr (around U.S. $70) per kilogram.” Although this is on the cheap end of the price and quality spectrum, for a farmer whose crops were otherwise consumed in-house, this was a huge amount.

I asked Fatima if she chewed and she said, “When I was a kid, I chewed a lot of qat and I couldn’t sleep for three days! I haven’t chewed it since then.” Hammal Siraj Muhammed, a local teacher who had followed us on our impromptu tour of the farm, chimed in, “After I chew qat, I have a lot more energy to read and teach the Quran.”

That night, after returning to my hotel room, I thought about my experience in Harar. After several qat-chewing sessions, from my first experience with Redwan to multiple tastings at the market in Awaday, I had to admit that I wasn’t feeling it—literally nor figuratively. I suppose I may have sensed a very, very low-key, slightly less edgy, caffeine-like bump. But it was hard to tell, as this was Ethiopia, and I was also drinking a lot of coffee at the time. Surely there had to be something more. Qat was everywhere in this country. Did I not chew enough? Was I given a bad stash? Was I doing it the wrong way? I went to bed and tried to sleep but couldn’t. 

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