Khat and the Diaspora

Posted: February 29, 2012 by mitsar in Feb. 29

This week we read several readings on the use of khat, a mild stimulant drug originating from Africa and the Middle East. Each reading focused on a different region and their consumption practices with khat. Weeden observed khat use in Yemeni culture, while Carrier and Klein explored the worlds of Kenyan and Somali users. It is clear from the readings that the consumption practices of khat are different in every region but one thing that seems to be consistent across the board is that khat use is not considered a dangerous or harmful practice as it has been portrayed in parts of Europe and North America. While the lines of legality are blurred in each case, khat use has been deemed destructive, but as Klein and Carrier point out, it is the social context that might make them harmful, not the drug itself.

In Carrier’s article Bundles of Choice, he explores the world of miraa (another name for khat) cultivated in the Nyambene Hills in Kenya. Found abundantly in these hills, miraa’s intensity varies and is dependent on where, how and when it was cultivated. As Carrier points out, this gives users a wide variety of choices, and since commercialization, different types of miraa (cultivated in Nyambene and elsewhere) are enjoyed in different regions, claiming the loyalty of users to certain strains. The value of miraa therefore changes in every place; its origin, age, strain and location from the tree, and even the way it is packaged are all factors that determine a miraa’s worth, not just internationally, but locally as well.

Klein delves into the world of Somali khat consumption primarily in the UK. As Carrier points out, much of the international exportation of khat is run by Somalis in the diaspora, even though the tradition of khat chewing did not come to them until the 1970s. Chewed by Somali immigrants in the UK, khat has been associated with problems of unemployment, social exclusion and health deterioration. Migration patterns show that women and children are first to immigrate and once established the men find it hard to reassert their traditional family roles when they join their families. This has led to a trend in khat-chewing amongst unemployed Somali men in social settings. What Klein shows us is that khat use in Somali culture is widely taken out of the context of its original uses. Largely believed by farmers as a performance enhancer, khat use in the UK is misconstrued because of the large unemployment rate amongst Somali immigrants. Klein is careful to point out that while consumption practices might be more extreme in Somali culture, the research on other khat-using cultures in the UK is not sufficient to make any solid conclusions. However the little information that exists suggests that khat use in other cultures is not as frequent or socially unacceptable.

While reading these articles as well as the various articles on khat importing in North America, I finally began to understand the different shifts in value as an object moves through social settings. As Carrier points out, different standards and factors come into play, some being emphasized over others at various times. While I thought Carrier concentrated a little too much on defining value, it is clear from his article that the value of miraa can change over a short distance and one object becomes a multitude of objects all at once. By calling it by different names, picking it from specific places and cultivating it a certain way makes each type unique in its own way. Once it moves out of its place of origin, it takes on a whole form, laden with social, political and cultural connotations not found elsewhere, as we have seen in the UK. Klein prudently showed us that while we cannot make any definitive conclusions, the cultural context in which khat is used in the UK has a more powerful effect in the Somali community than that of perhaps other cultures; not because Somalis are drug-addicts, or even because it is part of their traditional history, but because their social situations have led them down a misinterpreted path.

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