Interlude: A mini essay on Qat.

Qat is famous for 2 things. One is that it is powerful in Scrabble (yo SOWPOD people!) and the other is that it is infamous in the Horn of Africa. So here is a short essay on Qat, since i have too much time while seated on long distance buses.

Qat, or chat, or tchat (pronounced chart), also known by its scientific name of catha edulis is a plant cultivated in the highland regions of eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Grown at altitudes of 1500m to 2800m, the 2m shrubs are grown mainly in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya (where it is known as Miraa). From Ethiopia, it is exported daily by truck to neighbouring Somaliland and Djibouti. It is banned in Eritrea.

The consumption of Qat brings about feelings of euphoria in the individual. It is a mild natural stimulant that creates a”high”. The qat itself is bitter tasting, and needs to be chewed on constantly for the effect to take place. Continuously eating the chat leaves will leave the individual oblivious to his surroundings.

It is a pastime that many indulge in, especially in the afternoons. In Ethiopia, qat is sold by the bundle for as cheap as 25 cents USD. Often carries by street vendors, shopkeepers and the like, it can be easily obtained. In Somaliland, colourful green qat booths litter the side of the road, hawking the various grades of chat. In Djibouti, whole shops and other small businesses shut for the afternoon, for the customary qat chewing activity. It is normal to find shopkeepers sprawled on their sides on the ground outside their shops, quietly “grazing” on the qat.

As can be predicted, qat chewing would have serious socio-economic consequences. In Yemen, qat consumption takes up 10% of personal income, and 25% of usable working hours in the afternoon is devoted to chewing. Even in affluent Djibouti, qat is said to be the reason for numerous divorces. Prices of chat here are higher, about 10 times what it is sold for in Ethiopia, where it imports its supply. The main impact of qat consumption is therefore productivity loss, with other side effects such as engaging in anti-social behaviour while under the effects of the plant.

Environmentally, qat cultivation is replacing other crops such as millet and sorghum because it is a more lucrative crop for farmers to grow. A recent study has suggested that qat is 10 to 20 times more profitable to cultivate that competing crops. It also consumes less water than other crops to grow, and so in some places, like water scarce Yemen, it makes more sense for farmers to grow qat. This however, is detrimental to the land, for, as qat cultivation increases, the water table drops and precious water to be used elsewhere is instead used to cultivate qat.

The simple solution to reduce qat consumption in the region is through education. But to wean societies that have grown up on qat consumption for hundreds of years will not be easy. It will take 10 or 20 years for education to have any effect. In the meantime, schools should raise awareness of the impact of qat consumption. Governments, short of banning the plant altogether, should draw up regulations to cut down on the percentage of arable land for qat farming over the next 20 years. Importing nations, such as Djibouti and Somaliland should raise the price of qat sold. This would have the effect of reducing demand, and subsequently the supply would also drop. On the exporting countries’ part, they could raise the export tax to make it less worthwhile a crop to produce, though this, if not managed well, would increase smuggling activities across the border.

Finally, in hushed tones, if one looks at this from another perspective, qat does have the potential for export to countries outside of the Horn. The detrimental fallout, should this happen however, is too huge to even think about.

Shadow of the Sun,  Ryszard Kapuscinski.
What has tchat got to do with Yemen?,Capital, January 24,2010, Alazar K.
Lonely Planet, Eritrea & Ethiopia, June 2006.

57 – Ribcages go *Thok!* when they slam onto the floor of 4WDs

Fri 22st  Jan, In the back seat of a 4×4, Djibouti – Somaliland Border
Nothing is open this morning in the city. First we went south to the street where the 4WDs are parked. These leave for the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa. We arranged with the people there to pick us up at the hotel at 3pm later today. Price negotiated? It was 5000 DJF for front row seats and 3000 DJF for back row. Of course we picked the cheaper option, with an added 500 DJF each for the backpacks. Next we walked down to the beach to catch some salty air and went back to the internet cafe. There was no breakfast as all the shops were closed. Friday is the weekend. In most places elsewhere, shops open in the morning, close for lunch friday prayers, and reopen again. Here i think shops stay close in the morning, remain closed for friday prayers, and then everyone gets high on qat so everything is closed all day.
After checking out of the hotel, we had a quick lunch outside before making a beeline for the hotel grounds to wait for our pickup. The afternoons nowadays are characterised by both of us hiding in the shade somewhere. It is way too stifling hot here. The pickup was at 330pm and they took us to the 4WD street. Wait here, they say. And we waited, for about 2 hours. We wondered who would be our neighbours in the car. We had lots of time to sit there and wander too. Me, i’m the spectacle who hears “China” or “Hey you, China!” each time they try to catch my attention.
One thing i never could understand is why there is so much rubbish littering the streets. Here in Djibouti City, especially, i would expect to be better managed since it is such a cosmopolitan place where businesses and trade takes place. In front of us is this drain clogged up. True, there are workers assigned as rubbish pickers who walk all over the place to clean up after rubbish thrown by everyone. But why not just put bins everywhere and then get these rubbish pickers to clear the bins. That would be so much more efficient. But like Chris and I concluded, the style of management here is more reactive than preemptive. In this case, if nothing goes wrong, eg. There is no outbreak of disease or eiots or something, then let throwing rubbish on the ground carry on. Strikes me as being a very short term kind of thinking.
The 4×4 finally decides to leave just before sunset. We will travel in the night because the sun would be too hot to travel in the day. There were 12 people in the car, all Somalis. The driver, two ladies up front. 4 guys in the 2nd row, one of whom was totally qat-stoned for the ENTIRE 16 hour ride. And then 5 of us lumped together in the square area in the back. Well 4 actually since one guy was seated perenially on the roof during the journey.
And off we went. First to the border at Loyada, which was a painless process on both sides of the customs. We had to change 4WDs though, and so had to lug our belongings around. I think the reason is because the vehicles don’t run on either’s roads. Djibouti is right hand drive whereas Somaliland is left hand drive, following the British system. One of the Somalilanders in the back with us is a nice guy who speaks English and helps us along the entire trip
A bit about Somaliland then, though i am hardly an expert and my facts are probably messed up. Initially divided during the colonisation period in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The British got what is today Somaliland, the Italians got what is Puntland and Somalia, while the French got Djibouti, and the Ethiopians got what is today the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. When Brit and Italian Somalia gained independence in 1960, they merged to form present day’s Somalia. The new 5 pointed Somalia flag was done up, a sign of uniting the 5 regions (Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, Djibouti, Ogaden region). However, over time the northwestern Somalilanders felt increasingly marginalized as the cultures are different, influenced by the marxist like regime of Siad Barre. The Djibouti Somalis, meanwhile prefered continued French rule while an invasion into the Ogaden region failed. At the start of the ongoing Somalia civil war, in 1991, the Somaliland rebels declared a breakaway independent state. This led to the main government reacting and bombing Hargeisa to ruins. However, the Somalilanders have recreated their city, set up a government, ministries, a proper education system and a semblance of proper governance since then. Unfortunately, they are not recognised internationally, despite much effort (this car below traveled 27 countries to raise awareness of Somaliland), and remains a part of Somalia. The reason for this i think would be UN and other bodies still hoping for a resolution to the Somali conflict, which continues to be in the news even now, albeit for different reasons (now extremism worries after the transitional govt etc) than 10 years ago.
So, excluding the occasional trouble where Somali terrorists from Mogadishu sneak into Somaliland borders to cause trouble (there are plenty of recent cases), Somaliland is a safe place. But just in case, we are required to have armed bodyguards whenever we get out of the city.
After the border crossing, the road turns to shite. The road is not sealed, and the terrain is a flat sandy ground, surrounded by dry low 1.5 shrubs. I have no idea how the driver navigates in the absence of a proper road, he is following the criss-crossing tyre tracks ahead. The 4 of us at the back are suffering. You get what you pay for. Sitting cross legged, my head smashes into the ceiling repeatedly, and i have trouble trying to get a hold of something. There are also some equipment undearneath us like a large coil of nylon rope underneath me which made it very uncomfortable. The terrain got worse when we started climbing uphill. Tossed all over to the back of the 4×4, i tried many times to sleep on the floor. But each time my ribs smash into the underside, and i will wake up in pain. Finally at around 5am, we stopped somewhere to sleep for 2 hours, before carrying on.
From top to bottom: La Nation weekly papers in Djibouti, menu from my fav restaurant, fish shoppe, random building, our vehicle to Hargeisa, me by the Djibouti beach that smells of fish.

ps / i really apologise for the crap grammar, but these entries are getting way to long and i cbf to change them.  hahaha.

56 – A city of many facades

Thu 21st  Jan, Horseed Hotel, Djibouti City
The best laid plans come to nought sometimes. We started off the day with the intention of taking a dhow across the bay to Tadjoura. As im writing this, we are still in Djibouti City. For the purpose of this entry, the conversion of DJF to SGD is around 125 DJF to 1 SGD.

In the morning, we first got breakfast (fuul and bread and honey for 700 DJF) at a street restaurant before making our way down to the banks and Ethiopian embassy. I didn’t need the latter since I have multiple entries, but Chris figured he’d better sort out his reentry asap.

Waited for a bit, till i got bored and went off to get some Internet time. (300 DJF/ hour). Then we got back to the hotel, and rushed down to the L’escale, which is the set off point for boats carrying Qat across the bay north. Chris wanted to get aboard the slower dhows (which take 3 hours) but there were only the fast speedboats (45 minutes, 2000 DJF) which were pricey. I was ok with just sitting around in the city, to be honest, so in the end we foregoed the idea. The rushing down to the harbour though, left us completely drenched in sweat. The afternoon sun here is brutal.

We had lunch next, at one of the many streetside restaurants. These were considerably cheaper than what lonely planet gives. The author who wrote this section must have really lived well here, for he recommends only the posher eateries where the expat and loaded tourist community who goes on package tours would hang out. Lunch then was by other countries’ standards, very pricey, but affordable (1000 DJF for a meal of what seems like Briyani Rice with chicken and acar and a fruit cocktail for dessert). Entirely worth it if you ask me. The other thing to note is that from lunch to around 3, the qat trucks arrive from Ethiopia, and all the shops close for a couple of hours. And everywhere on the street, the qat eaters get stoned.

I am not well. I must have caught  something along the way. Right after the late lunch, we made our way back to the room. My runny nose that i’ve been carrying over the past couple days is getting worse. And now this is compounded by a phlegmy cough. I do hope it is nothing serious. In the late afternoon i decided to sleep it off.

Woke up for dinner feeling considerably better, though i have no voice now. Sigh. We went out nearby to another streetside restaurant. I do not think everyone here speaks fluent French, the restaurant owners do Arabic better. In Djibouti, there would be a host of immigrant workers coming into the city to make a living. Then you have the expats who come in and work here. And when we say expats, it is not only the westerners. We did see the French foreign legion rumbling around town in their jeeps, as well as the occasional American GIs. And we also saw plump western women in tank tops walking huge dogs in the hot afternoon sun. But there were also the the Indian money changers, Africans from elsewhere and Arabs from across the sea. Case in point, there was a group of 5 or 6 expat Arab kids aged around 5 to 12 at the next table. They knew they were the bosses, eating dinner and frequently calling out to the restaurant staff by name and asking for this and that. It  was pretty difficult to tell where each one was from though. Elsewhere, facial features would tell from which tribe or people they belong. Here it is a smogasboard (sp?) of people.

Then you have the poorer folk, a stark contrast to the rest of the city. They are everywhere, begging for change (where change is this case can be coins of up to 4SGD value!). Opposite from us, hunched beside a parked pickup, is a father and son duo squatting down and eating from the floor. They beg, not only from the tourists, but also from the locals.

Tomorrow morning, we decided we will leave with one of the many battered 4WDs going to Hargeisa, Somaliland. That trip will take all of 20 hours, and i hope i’m well enough to be up to it

55 – Vous voulez aller a Djibouti? Pas de problem!

Wed 20th Jan, Horseed Hotel, Djibouti City
We got up early in the morning and went out to the main drag. We will need to approach the many truck drivers by the road and try to flag one down. One who would be willing to take us down to Djibouti not at cutthroat prices. It would be difficult, since we didn’t arrange something the night before.

Fortunately, at our 5th or 6th try, a friendly Ethiopian trucker who spoke decent English stopped for us. He was willing to take us to the border and no more. Better than nothing, we thought and took up his offer.

The terrain on either side of the road into Djibouti was described on the maps as plains. I stared out my window. A plain of rocks. Flanked by more rocks. More Afar houses and yet more rocks.  After the border crossing though, i begin to see sparse patches of green here and there. It was pretty boring watching these go on for hours and hours. I wonder how truckers break the monotony of driving down the road for 8 hours straight. And our driver will drive for 4 days in total, to and fro. It was easy to fall asleep at the wheel, even in the day. And this was evident from the many carcasses of trucks we see littering the roadside. Little remained of these trucks, anything that was useful from them would have be removed.

The border crossing at both sides was pretty painless. Our driver worried that Ethiopian vehicles were not supposed to carry passengers through to Djibouti. But the customs officer waved off a tout who was trying to get us to go aboard their 4WD. So, we stayed aboard our truck and carried on. At another checkpoint along the way, a Djibouti officer made us open up our baggage and rummaged through everything, going on and on about Al-Qaeda suspects, just because he can. According to our driver, all the guy wanted was a bribe “some Qat money” to let us go through, but no. I was not going to give him the satisfaction. It was a hassle, and yes, he had that smug look on his face, but in the end he let us go. On hindsight, he was probably just doing his job.

We reached the outskirts of Djibouti City which is as far as the truck went and paid our driver (200   birr each). This was an Ethiopian shanty village located outside the city. A minivan took us into the city proper and charged us 50 birr each (the locals we saw paid less than 10 birr). The driver came out and created such a scene until we backed down and just paid him his 100 birr. For a 10 minute ride into the city.

In Djibouti City. Finally, after three solid weeks in Ethiopia, i was exploring a new place. Everything here is in French. The signs, the french foreign legion, the french speaking locals. It was a place to explore, albeit an expensive one where we would not stay more than a few days. But first, we would have to look for our budget hotel. The Horseed Hotel is a budget hotel located at the edge of the city area. It has shared bathrooms and is pretty much what a similar hotel in Ethiopia would look like. The cost of the Ethiopian hotel – 7 SGD, benchmarking the Dessie twin-bed one. The cost of the Horseed Hotel (one of the cheapest, if not THE cheapest, in Djibouti) – 48 SGD.

I went out by myself in the evening to look for the ATM (we had no Djibouti francs with us). The Islamic Saaba bank was the only one that accepted VISA and Mastercard. Walked around a bit more, a foreigner here is a common sight, though in the European quarter, there was the same extraordinary amount of hassle from people wanting to help you with something you don’t need, and then demanding payment. I bought some water and baguettes, getting the change in coins. I noticed that i have to be careful with my coins here. Back in Ethiopia, i give out my spare change once in a while to those beggars who are unable to make a living themselves, due to some disability for example. That would set me back 2 cents SGD. Here a coin could have a value of up to almost 4 SGD!