By Janet Otieno,
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Djibouti was that people usually disappear from around midday to about 4.30 pm. The streets are deserted, shops and government offices are closed, not for afternoon prayers, but because people have gone to take a nap or enjoy their hobby of chewing khat when the daily shipment arrives.
Khat is a plant that usually contains the alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant. The World Health Organization classifies it as a drug that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence. It causes, among others, excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Djibouti spends $170 million on khat, annually.
Temperatures in the country at times hit 52 degree Celsius; so little can be done in such heat besides whiling the hours away in dreamland. People return back to work late in the afternoon when the weather is favourable. For a visitor, the temperatures here are punishing.
I walk to the ministry of Information headquarters and I find the receptionist who is an old Somali man together with his colleagues lying down on the floor, chewing khat and downing it with fizzy drinks. They notice the shock on my face and laugh uncontrollably, showing the unsightly green substance swelling their cheeks.
I leave and head to Rimbaud market where I find cobblers sleeping on their neatly laid mats. Other traders are doing the same while others are huddled in corners gnawing their khat gently.
A spot check along Ethiopia Road shows business premises closed including restaurants. I am told those who don’t live near town have gone to nap in the nearby mosques.
Around 4.30 pm the streets are abuzz with life again as people are now awake and businesses open again only to close later at around 11:00 pm local time.
Khat chewing is too common in this Horn of Africa country where alcohol is frowned upon. Nearly all men chew khat including President Ismail Omar Guelleh. It is a national passtime. From noon, a number of men are seen chewing lumps of khat which form ball shapes inside their cheeks. However, at night some men drown alcohol in pubs despite the teachings of the Koran.
According to Unicef, chewing khat is a practice deeply ingrained in Djibouti society and a session lasts for over five hours. These leaves have been arguably lauded in some quarters as being helpful in easing pain and suffering in a country where any form of dissent is suppressed.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that each household spends 30 per cent of their income on khat.
Women are all covered up during the day as they watch the men gently gnaw the bitter herb but at night, some leave their veils and come out looking like cover girls of some glossy magazines in skimpy attires. This made me wonder why the khat-chewing men frown upon those who do not veil themselves during the day. They are the same women who entertain these men in the nightclubs by lap dancing.
A few of the women I interacted with said they come to while hours away the hours in the nightclubs since men turn out to be useless after khat-chewing sessions. Though there is no concrete scientific evidence linking khat and lack of sexual prowess, there has been talk of how chewing the bitter twigs affects libido and fertility.
It cannot also be said that khat marketing in Djibouti generates income in a country where unemployment stands at 59 per cent. Not to mention that the khat market is still dominated by cartels close to power.