Saturday afternoons present a perfect opportunity to chew khat. And when the World Cup is beamed to every television in Africa, many East Africans see few options outweighing a good khat session and fútbol.
I took a minibus to meet my friend Tamrat at the city limits. I met Tamrat on the streets of Addis Ababa, and since he was working as an elementary school teacher giving lessons in English, communication was simple. We paid our 15 cents and jumped out of the minibus on a muddy road in a suburb outside of the capital where several gari (horse drawn carts) were waiting. Instead of jumping on the gari, we hoofed it through the chocolate puddles left over from the daily rains. Tamrat’s friend darted towards us from across the street with a bag full of khat. Four bundles for four dollars.
Chat, or khat in Arabic, is a mild narcotic native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Fresh chat leaves are chewed to unlock an alkaloid called cathinone, and produce a slight euphoric state of mind, excitement and awareness. Because of its perishable nature, transport and exportation of khat is difficult. In Addis Ababa, however, khat houses are almost as common as coffee shops and on any street you can spot a bundle of khat. Khat stands often resemble the Peanuts character Lucy’s advice booth where Charlie Brown always came with his mundane problems.
Here in Ethiopia and neighboring Somali chat is a socializing drug used among friends, often restricted to males, but not so in Ethiopia. Tamrat organized our chat circle with other friends. Besides Habtamu, there was Danyecho, and Yenenish and Fantasia, the latter two being female. One thing that is always entertaining while at the same time fascinating is the meaning of Amharic first names and surnames. Take Habtamu Degefi, for example, which loosely translates to “Richman Supportme” or Tamrat Ayelleh meaning “Increased Miracle”. Every name has a personality and in Habtamu’s case some serious expectations!
After enjoying a home cooked meal of injera (Ethiopian spongy bread) and spicy beef cubes cooked by Fantasia, we got down to the chat chewing. The correct chat position is sitting with your legs crossed. One person in the group is the “chofer” removing the khat leaves from the stems and dishes out leaves to each person. Habtamu was our chofer for the day. When a chewer is ready for more khat, the rubs his hands together, in an up and down motion, like he’s trying to warm up, only slower. The chofer’s job is to catch the hand signal, this way the chewer doesn’t have to vocalize his desire for more.
The leaves are soft and after a few chomps, begin to dissolve. The closest thing I could equate chewing khat to is chewing coca leaves. They both have similar effects as well as users: stimulants often used by laborers to reduce fatigue and hunger. Unlike chewing coca leaves, chat doesn’t produce an acrid stank from your mouth, and unlike chewing khat, coca leaves do not dissolve, and remain in your mouth as a painfully obvious lump.
A khat session can last up to four hours. There are different types of chat, each named for its region. I don´t know the names of the regions, but Danyecho said one type of chat makes him cry. Luckily for Danyecho, we weren’t chewing the tearful khat that day. With every new handful of leaves, chewers add some peanuts to mask the bitter taste. Chewing is also accompanied with a glass of water or soft drink of some kind.
While we chewed, Fantasia fired up the Ethiopian coffee, typical in most Ethiopian homes. The coffee is roasted on a small surface over a charcoal fire for over 45 minutes. She then grinds the beans in a rock basin and brews the coffee for another hour or so. Visitors shouldn’t refuse the coffee, since so much time goes into the brewing process. Each person is expected to drink three small espresso-like cups of coffee. Like the holy trinity (known as selassie in Amharic), even coffee comes in threes. The first cup is the abol, the second, tonna, and the third berraka. And each time she served a cup, she threw incense on the fire, filling the room with smoke and fragrance.
Tamrat told me that experienced khat chewers will not swallow a big portion of the khat that goes into his mouth. By the end of my gnaw I had nothing left, rather my teeth had ground the chat to a hyperactive saliva. The effects were not much unlike drinking too much mate or coffee, but there is a slight euphoria that races through your veins. After we crushed the four bundles of chaw, we went for some beers to counter the effects; and the rain clouds doused the city one more time with their watery quota.