“I don’t deal in khat anymore; Coronavirus sent me to an early retirement.” It was the early days of the pandemic and I was messaging with Aisha. Somalia’s borders had recently closed and Aisha, one of the biggest khat merchants in the region, had decided it was time to retire.
The leaves of the Catha edulis plant, for some the flower of paradise, for others a scourge, were difficult to find in Somalia early in the pandemic. The buzz of khat is ephemeral and while chewed throughout Somalia, it’s mostly grown in the cool highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, and then flown from Kenya, or rushed on the backs of pickup trucks from Ethiopia. Millions of dollars change hands in this complex, geographically distributed network linking growers to chewers. Managing this logistics of khat and its just-in-time demands had made Aisha rich.
Aisha explained that the government had banned flights, grounding the plane she had bought a decade ago. Mask requirements and limits on gatherings had ostensibly banned khat chews. High prices, low supply, and rumors that the coronavirus could be transmitted from khat leaves (khat is picked by hand, sorted by hand and assessments on its quality all require touch) had also led to a decrease in both supply and demand.
We checked in semi-regularly over the past year. As case numbers in Somalia had remained low, her updates were mostly about khat. Her plane was still grounded. Khat prices had skyrocketed, especially for “Covid safe” khat and hospitals were seeing a number of people suffering from khat withdrawals.
“Maybe there will be no more chat [khat] in Somalia if things go on like this?” I asked recently. “You sound like an anti-khat activist,” she replied. She was not a fan of anti-khat activists.
Last week, I got a message from Aisha saying her plane was getting ready to fly again. Ethiopia and Somalia had just signed a trade deal, with Somalia supplying fish to landlocked Ethiopia in exchange for khat. Aisha was on the market for blast freezers to send frozen fish to Ethiopia and fly back khat.
“I didn’t like retirement.”
Jatin Dua is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is the author of Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean.