MAUA, August 18 – 7pm in Maua town, Meru North District. Such other towns in rural Kenya are asleep.
But not this one.
Men carrying loads of miraa (khat) on their heads, women with huge bundles of banana leaves on their backs streaming towards the Maua Market, people talking at the top of their voices, pick-up trucks blaring their horns.
Welcome to Maua town, my friend. A few words of advice; watch your language here and never mind if the people speak to you in foul language or harsh words. Most people here are short tempered and careless utterances may land you a couple of insults or worse still, you may get roughed up. Not forgetting this is a community that rarely uses or understands words like sorry, excuse me or even the most common -please.
If you are driving, give way to pedestrians. They have right of way, but nobody minds if you hoot impatiently. When you get tired, you will stop!
But these people know which vehicles to give way to; the recklessly-driven miraa pick-ups. These, they have learnt to compromise.
It is a Saturday evening and Capital News arrived just when miraa farmers are gathering their packages for transportation to Nairobi. This is the fourth batch after the 11am, 1pm and 4pm trips.
Any stranger is quickly noticed. You are most welcome if your sentiments on miraa are positive, but woe unto you if your intentions are to criminalise the herb.
Miraa My life, Miraa My Wife
I approach a group of men and begin my conversation: “The Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim recently said…” Before I complete my sentence, I am bombarded with strident reactions from all directions.
“Is he sick to ban miraa? It’s my life, it is my source of living and I cannot do without it. How will I take my children to school, my son is also marrying soon, and what do you expect him to take to the girl’s parents?”
Due to the overwhelming noisy responses, I have to move to a corner and talk to the miraa dealers one by one but after having clarified that I am not necessarily opposed to miraa.
John Rasta is a standard eight dropout and a father of three. The 38 year-old is not worried that he never completed his school because he has everything he financially requires.
“I earn about Sh2, 000 from Monday to Friday and over the weekend I make about Sh5, 000. I use this money to maintain my family; two of my children are in boarding schools where I pay about Sh30, 000 per term,” he explained.
“Rasta” is his trade name. He exports miraa to the UK, Holland and he sells it locally too.
Cindi Kahuho is another vocal and a hot tempered man who wishes an audience with the Deputy Speaker to give him a point-by-point argument on how misplaced his comments were.
“For me to marry my wife, who is now the mother of my two children, I had to look for the best type of miraa, the Kangeta. I took it to her parents and she ate two sticks and gave me two, what else could I have used to engage her if it was not miraa?” he wonders.
Kangeta is the top-grade miraa, and it’s mainly for export. Other types include Gisa and Kolombo which are consumed locally in Nairobi, Lamu and Mombasa.
Stephen Ntoiti is Cindi’s father; he says he educated his seven children with miraa earnings. However, not all his children managed to complete school.
Mzee Ntoiti used to export miraa to Canada, but now his harvest can only make local markets, after he subdivided most of his plantation among his children.
The man who thinks Maalim should be sacked for trying to kill their source of income says miraa is a social herb, as chewers enjoy consuming it in groups.
By 9pm, we had made trips to Mutuati, Laare and Muringene areas. One point is clear- miraa is a part and parcel of Meru North and the people here are not about to let it go.
The best quality of miraa comes from Nyambene hills. Originally miraa was chewed on special occasions and only by old men. It plays a fundamental role in the traditional and cultural aspects of Meru North. Today, the young, old, even women chew the twigs.
The tree-like crop has deeply engraved itself in the community and convincing anyone that it is not fit for consumption will fall on deaf ears.
A controversy exists between miraa users who claim it is not a drug and has no side effects and researches who say otherwise. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority and an American research institute have said that miraa causes high blood pressure, mental problems, uncontrolled emotions, and that extensive use may even lead to impotence.
Other effects include excitation, rapid talking, restlessness, poor concentration, major memory loss, mouth diseases and insomnia.
But whether it is a drug or not, miraa dealers have vowed to protect their crop which they claim is the backbone of Igembe. In fact, “beer, cigarettes and drugs are very bad, but miraa is safe!” Ask pastors, teachers, parents and doctors in Meru North they will tell you that!