Africa, Politics

A qat above the rest

A qat above the rest

As the Dutch government moved on Tuesday to ban qat, a mild narcotic plant popular in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Yemeni activists also launched a campaign against it. Lamenting the effects of the plant on Yemeni life, activists are marking January 12th as a qat-free day in the embattled Gulf state. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Qat is a natural stimulant from the Catha Edulis plant grown in parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Not discernibly different from baby spinach or withered basil, fresh qat leaves are typically chewed like tobacco and produce a mild cocaine- or amphetamine-like euphoria. After filling their mouths with fresh leaves, or stalks, users then chew intermittently to release the active components of the plant. Casual users claim qat lifts their spirits and sharpens their thinking; detractors argue qat users are a menace to society, passing their days careening between hysteria and lethargy.

A joint statement from the Dutch interior affairs, security and justice and health ministries on Tuesday indicated that social problems, particularly the high level of unemployment in Somali-Dutch communities motivated the ban. “Health Minister (Edith) Schippers will soon place qat on list II of the opium law. This will make possession and trade in qat illegal,” the statement said.

The opium law is the Netherlands’ principal drug legislation. The act criminalises possession, cultivation, trafficking and importing or exporting of banned substances, categorising drugs in two classes. Schedule I drugs are deemed to present an unacceptable risk to Dutch society and include heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and LSD; Schedule II drugs include “traditional hemp products” such as marijuana and hashish and now, qat.

The Dutch government has been under immense pressure from other European nations who allege Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport is a gateway for qat into the rest of Europe. For their part, the Dutch government estimates more than 800 tonnes of qat were imported into the Netherlands last year, of which 80% was transported, mostly by road, to other European countries, including Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where it is already banned.

While the Dutch ban on Qat may force traders to search for new routes to smuggle the drug through Europe, the demand for qat in the Western world is growing alongside burgeoning Somali immigrant populations.  But not only Somalis cultivated their qat habit. In Yemen, millions of men, women and children chew the leaves daily.

Photo: A man arranges qat at an open market in Aden, south of capital Yemen November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous

So endemic is qat to daily life in Yemen that 87% of children between the ages of seven and 15 are reported to chew qat on “social occasions”, while 38.3% of children were regular users of the drug. It’s little wonder then that qat informs 10% of Yemen’s GDP, employing 12-14% of the country’s total workforce and 30-33% of its agricultural labour force.

If the social effects of qat on immigrant populations in Europe are worrying, then in Yemen, where poverty and malnutrition vie for an unhealthy precedence in a country hurtling towards a failed state, qat is blamed for everything from government corruption to a lack of productivity. However, an outright ban of qat in the same vein of the Netherlands is fraught with challenges.

In the morass of information on the prevalence of qat in Yemen, a World Bank report on the use of qat in the Gulf state concludes, “The system has to refrain from the utopian fantasy that human folly can be eliminated through legislation-regulation provides a framework: it cannot prevent us from making mistakes.”

Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist, says the Gulf state would not be able to endure the economic impact of a ban on qat. “Banning qat now is impossible,” she says, “The farmers are depending on it and there are people who have strong position in the government who have lands for planting qat and will never accept a ban.” For Yemenis, Aleryani says, qat has become the country’s sole leisure pursuit. “People keep nagging that they don’t have a places to go and chewing qat is the only option for social interactions.”

Aleryani is part of a group of young Yemenis leading a campaign to mark Thursday, 12 January a qat-free day in Yemen. “The campaign started on Twitter,” Aleryani says, “then Facebook. I created this event and we started talking about it.” Blame it on the enthusiasm of youth but the activists were not daunted by early scepticism of their campaign. “At the beginning people were sceptical and they told me this campaign won’t succeed,” Aleryani says. Garnering the support of key local figures however, has rescued the campaign from general contempt.  When Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman lent her support to the campaign, even jaded Yemenis began to take note. “What made more people know about and became interested is when Tawakkol Karman supported the campaign. She wrote a status in Facebook saying, ‘support the activists who initiate no qat for a day’.”

Abdullah Al-Maisari, convening ambassador of the Yemeni chapter of One Young World and an ardent supporter of the campaign, notes the current campaign is not the first of its kind in Yemen. “A lot of campaigns have been done earlier,” he said. “The interesting thing about this one is the revolution going on.” The fragile political context in Yemen is certainly an interesting time to launch a campaign questioning deeply established social norms. “We want to see the reaction of people during such uprising,” he adds hopefully.
Significantly, Al-Maisari notes the use of qat is not confined by social class in Yemen. “Doctors, engineers, artists all chew Qat everyday knowing its bad impact,” he says. The success of the campaign among ordinary Yemenis, however, is yet to be determined. “We may not have a good chance with old ordinary people, but certainly will have it with the younger aged ones,” Al-Mairsai says, “A big portion of ordinary youth at the villages have become more enlightened of what is best for them and the nation.”

The chances of a campaign that originates on social media however may suffer in a population with an overall literacy rate of 50.2%, but Aleryani insists that more traditional methods of mobilising support for the campaign have also been used. “The posters of the campaign are everywhere in Change Square,” she says, referring to the square occupied by anti government protesters in the uprising in Yemen. According to activists, no qat will be allowed into Change Square on Thursday.

Long-term regulation of the use of qat in Yemen remains, however, a naive ambition.  As the World Bank rightly points out, any controls on qat must be motivated by a need to protect individuals, families and communities and not for the benefit of professional interest groups.  Unlike the Netherlands, where regulation has been refined through the years, the cost of regulation is in itself an insurmountable challenge in impoverished Yemen.

The case of South Africa attests to the harsher realities of regulation. Qat is readily available in the Somali refugee community in Mayfair, Johannesburg. Zealous metro police officers do routinely confiscate the little bunches of leaves on sale at the corner of Bird street and 8th Avenue, but the demand for qat has outstripped the bumbling attempts at keeping qat off Johannesburg’s streets. Intriguingly, the South African Narcotics Bureau (Sanab) has placed qat on its list of banned substances, which means both trade and use of the drug is illegal. At the same time, however, qat is an indigenous species, which cannot, by law, be uprooted or banned. Musa Farah, a shopkeeper on 8th Avenue eagerly enlists the evils of qat, proudly announcing that Somalis have relied on “white farmers” for a reliable supply of the drug into Johannesburg. In the unrelenting January heat, a small bunch of qat costs between R20-R30, but the winter sees the leaves fetch up to R100 per bunch in Mayfair, Farah says.

The little Mogadishu district of Mayfair teems with Somali refugees gathered together, chatting amiably while others stand behind store counters, trying to eke out a living selling electronics, clothes, groceries and indeed, qat. Soudo Hussain, a Somali journalist living in Johannesburg, believes Somali immigrants in South Africa chew qat far more than they would ordinarily do in Somalia. “In South Africa, they chew qat and then are not stimulated to work and look after themselves and their families,” she says. “Back home there is more shame in sitting around and doing nothing all day but there is no accountability.”

As another Somali man tosses a lone qat twig onto the road, it’s clear that South Africa will soon also be forced to address the qat problem. DM

Read mores:

Photo: Army soldiers chew qat as they stand in line to block a women’s demonstration demanding the ouster of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz May 17, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah


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