MERU, Kenya, Feb 7 – Here around Meru in central Kenya life revolves around the cultivation of khat, a plant with narcotic properties, to such an extent that it has altered the social fabric of local communities.
In Muringene, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of Nairobi, the locals live both thanks to khat, or miraa as it is called here, and for the sake of consuming khat.
Most of what they produce is exported to Somalia, where it has been used for centuries mainly by men, or to Britain, which has what is thought to be the largest Somali community in the global diaspora from the war-wracked country.
Several million euros of khat leave the region each year but the paradox, according to the Catholic charity Caritas active here, is the business has had little impact on the villages\’ standard of living.
"Despite the money from the miraa, the area is very poor. The miraa money doesn\’t trickle down into the households," the non-government organisation\’s social development director Joseph M\’Eruaki told AFP.
The main reason he puts forward is that the farmers have no influence over khat prices, which are fixed by a handful of Kenyans and Somalis.
Given how lucrative the crop is, children of barely 10 are dropping out of school in large numbers to pick khat.
"They make easy money on the farms and wonder why they should \’waste their time\’ in school," M\’Eruaki said.
The working day runs from 6 am to 9 am.
"When they\’ve finished they hang around for the rest of the day, chewing miraa," he said.
And the money earned early morning has normally gone by evening and, judging by the levels of malnutrition in the region, does not make its way into household food budgets.
Caritas has also voiced concern about the problems attached to having khat as the sole crop and tries to convince farmers to branch out in order to protect themselves from price fluctuations.
The green hills of this region — Kenya\’s main khat-growing hub — are covered with medium-sized trees from which growers pluck new shoots as often as once a month.
Tied into small bunches and often wrapped in banana leaves and then plastic to keep the moisture in and its main active ingredient — cathinone — potent, the shoots will be chewed carefully one by one to release the cathinone and the second active ingredient, cathine.
— \’Slaves on their own land\’ —
Khat is banned from import to the United States and many European countries, though it is still legal in Britain — where the government has expressed concern in studies on khat use among the Somali population and health and social consequences.
Here, however, referring to khat as a drug will at best draw furious denials and a few insults. Locals say miraa is "just like coffee" – a stimulant.
And indeed, as well as suppressing hunger — a property that made it very popular with nomads heading out into deserted arid areas with their livestock, the bitter miraa shoots enable the user to stay up all night without feeling fatigue and it can be compared to a mild amphetamine.
But 48 hours after being harvested, miraa loses all its effects, a factor that leads to a constant race against the clock to deliver it to the end user.
Collected at dawn and quickly packed, the miraa is piled onto the back of moto-taxis and ferried at top speed to the nearest collection centre.
There young day labourers scuffle to be the first to get their hands on the bundles and pile them onto gleaming pickups, lined up and engine already running in preparation for a speedy departure.
As soon as a pickup is full it races off to Nairobi with a total disregard for bumps, potholes and other traffic.
The miraa is either sold the same day in Eastleigh, Nairobi\’s Somali quarter, or crammed into small planes to be flown to Somalia out of the capital\’s domestic airport Wilson.
An intermediary who asked not to be named explained that one pick-up can transport 100,000 euros ($136,000) worth of khat, and 50 trucks head out of the region every day.
With stakes that high, in the event of an accident, sending a new vehicle to pick up the load takes precedence over getting medical help for the driver.
In recent years the men who handled the transport side of the sector have also broadened their activities to production and have managed to put in place what amounts to a system of sharecropper tenants.
Now, "many people in the region are slaves on their own land," said M\’Eruaki.
Caritas has launched a sensitisation programme to counter the harmful effects of the khat, and said already several dozen small growers have started planting cereal and vegetables between their trees.