Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Queens of khat

Shura Adnan, one of Somaliland's first Khat Queens

Photography: Susan Schulman

Hargeisa, Somaliland

The glaring sun has stilled the Somaliland capital into submission. A group of men squat in the shadow of its prison walls, picking halfheartedly at nearly bare stalks of khat. Nearby, a goat nibbles at piles of rubbish strewn over the potholed, dusty road. A listless calm hangs over the city. Suddenly the atmosphere shifts. Something is approaching. The men get to their feet and peer down the road, towards the building urgency of blaring horns. Excitement grows. Crashing through a cloud of dust, a heavily laden lorry approaches at extreme speed, veering perilously around the craters that pockmark the road. A young man clings on for dear life to the huge white sacks piled on top of the vehicle. The driver pounds his hand on the horn and flashes his lights before finally jack-knifing to a halt in front of the eagerly awaiting men. The truck has barely stopped when half a dozen of the onlookers jump on top of the sacks, untying and throwing them down to others who separate them, stuffing some into waiting vehicles and tossing others into a nearby stall at the bidding of a tiny woman clad in a white hijab who, with the deliberate pace of power, has assumed her place at the centre of the maelstrom. She barely reaches the armpits of the men surrounding her, but she is clearly in charge.

Her gold tooth flashes as she barks orders, inspects the merchandise and waves the loaded vehicles on their way. Just five minutes after the supplies arrive they are despatched to outlets across the country. Leaves are scattered on the ground in front of the stall as an announcement. The khat shipment has arrived, right on schedule. The woman takes a seat at the stall, which is emblazoned with an ‘FF Somaliland’ logo. This is Shura Adnan, 50, an illiterate mother of eight. She is one of Somaliland’s first Khat Queens.

Men chew, women sell

Khat, which as of June 2014 is classified an illegal class C drug in the UK, is an evergreen shrub beloved throughout much of the Horn of Africa. It has long been prized for the narcotic effect of its leaves which, when chewed, provide a mild stimulant and a sense of euphoria. It is addictive, both physically and psychologically and has been blamed for creating health problems ranging from emaciation to uncontrollable ejaculation, and social problems such as indolence, unemployment and divorce.

Khat chewers in a local mafrish

Khat chewers in a local mafrish

While in southern Somalia – where the brutal, extremist Islamist group Al Shabab has put khat onto the “haram” (forbidden) list and it is rare to see khat in public – here in the self-declared independent northern region of Somaliland, it is ubiquitous. The streets of the capital city, Hargeisa, are lined with the characteristic small, green wooden stalls of vendors and carpeted with discarded coloured plastic bags used to keep the bunches of leaves fresh. Everywhere you go in Somaliland, you see men lounging away the day chewing; they consume an eye-watering £170-£300 million of khat every year.

It is traditionally taboo for women to use the drug, so while the men waste away their days chewing khat, women like Shura are busy selling it to them. As the country’s male workforce idles in a narcotic haze, women have become their families’ breadwinners. Today, 72 percent of khat vendors are women and the most influential sellers, the ‘Khat Queens’, have come to dominate the multi-million dollar business. In a socially conservative country where women are neither included in decision-making nor expected to have money, these women are the ones putting the food on the table, paying the rent, sending their children to school, supporting their husbands’ khat habit – and, for the first time, buying political influence.

But as the khat addicts who sprawl on the country’s streets are marked out by their blackened teeth, the lined, hardened faces of many of today’s Khat Queens are testimony to the desperately difficult past of the illiterate cadre of women who currently dominate Somaliland’s second biggest industry.

Khat mogul Shura Adnan handles a newly arrived shipment of her product

Khat mogul Shura Adnan handles a newly arrived shipment of her product

The reluctant smugglers

Hargeisa’s prison casts a long shadow. Today, the prison guards are customers but when Shura began her work in the ’80s, khat was illegal and they were her jailers. Just about every Khat Queen she knows has spent time in jail. Khat has an ancient, culturally and politically significant history in Somalia. However, in 1983, it was banned by Somali dictator Siad Barre. Declaring the leaf the “mother of all evils”, he napalmed all of Somalia’s lucrative khat fields and imposed a ten-year prison sentence for possession. “It was like the United States government banning baseball,” remarked a western businessman quoted on 23rd February 1985 in The Afro American newspaper. A brutal civil war followed. With their men fighting or dead, and all other industries destroyed or barred to women, the Khat Queen was born. “I had to take up the business of smuggling khat,” Shura explains as we chat by her stall opposite the city prison.

I had to take up the business of smuggling khat… the children had nothing to eat. There was no other way”

“The children had nothing to eat. There was no other way.” The business then was dangerous cross-border smuggling. “I used to bring it in wrapped around my body with a scarf” says Shura, holding up the edge of her head shawl, which drapes to her waist, and gesturing towards her midriff. “When they caught you, they would put you into prison.” She shudders, nodding at the walls and towers opposite, “We were always very scared. We were only brave because we had to be.”

Hamse Abdulrahmin Khaire’s mother began trading khat at the same time as Shura. “One time a border guard shot at her and the shot killed the man sitting next to her,” Hamse, a 30-year-old development researcher and consultant, recalls. “As a young child, I remember my mother being arrested at least three times.” On other occasions, the officials would steal the khat off the women and sell it themselves. Shura recounts a time she was returning from Ethiopia with a particularly large supply. “Two days and two nights we were walking. As soon as we got home, military officers circled the house, took all of the khat, and went off to sell it elsewhere. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t do anything. And even if I cried, it was better for me not to be in prison. There was no other source of income and the children had nothing to eat.”

A truck carrying khat passes in front of Hargeisa prison, in which several female khat distributors have been incarcerated

A truck carrying khat passes in front of Hargeisa prison, in which several female khat distributors have been incarcerated

But prison wasn’t the only peril for smugglers. “They were badly mistreated, beaten, sometimes raped – just not treated like human beings,” says journalist Abdi Aalen. “It is a huge accomplishment for the Khat Queens to have made the business they have. To achieve this success they struggled, suffered, starved – they went through hell.” “My mother would have loved not to have had to trade khat, but she had no choice,” Hamse tells me. “It was a high-risk business and women were brave enough to risk it. I know a lot of mothers who did it and I sympathise with them.”

Somaliland’s first lady, Amina Mohamed, recalls that time as a testament to the strength of women. “Women are determined to accept reality,” she tells me. “They are more adaptable than men and of course, there wasn’t much else to do… Khat was the only industry that was thriving.” The end of the war was good for business. Khat was legalised, refugees flooded back and the formula of “men chew, women sell” saw the women’s businesses grow exponentially.

“The only reliable Somaliland service”

Kala Baydh is a dusty one-horse town on the edge of nowhere. Its sole claim to fame is its border crossing, the gateway for khat supplies arriving from Ethiopia. It’s open around the clock, staffed by 85 people who unload, weigh and collect revenue from the lorries which pass through. The customs shed processes 110 tons of khat with a street value of $1.2 million every day and collects large sums of import revenue, which must be paid in full on the spot in cash.

In the administration building vice customs officer Ahmed Mohamud Habana, 28, sits in his Spartan office looking out over the customs area forecourt where a man is sweeping dust from one place to another with a broom made of leaves. “Ninety-nine percent of the revenue here is from khat,” Ahmed says, underscoring the figure on a piece of paper.

The assessment and collection of the revenue is presided over by officials from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Customs and the Anti-Corruption Police. There are no computers in sight. Yet here, in this supremely lo-tech, crumbling customs post, 163,930,630,050 Somaliland shillings – £16,130,936 – was levied and collected in 2013. Ahmed is called away to help process a delivery.

Lorries travel at speeds of up to 160kph on heavily rutted, potholed roads. They travel with their horns blaring and lights flashing – an ambulance carrying drugs to needy patients”

A truck, emblazoned on all sides with the word ‘Gaafane’ and carrying a mountain of khat bales, has burst through the gates. Ahmed and his fellow officials take their places alongside the single weighing scale, pen and papers in hand. They note down the weights and sums as a swarm of men toss down massive bales, place them on the scale and partition them amongst smaller vehicles. Minutes later these newly loaded lorries screech out in a huge cloud of dust.

Cash from khat sales is brought to money changers and exchanged for Ethiopian birr to buy the next day's supply

Cash from khat sales is brought to money changers and exchanged for Ethiopian birr to buy the next day’s supply

“Drivers here are the best in the world,” Ahmed tells me proudly. They have to be. Speed is of the essence and the poor infrastructure of the country is challenging. Lorries travel at speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour on heavily rutted, potholed roads. They travel with their horns blaring and lights flashing – an ambulance carrying drugs to needy patients – and other vehicles on the road pull over to let them pass. But in rainy season, flooded roads threaten both the sellers’ stocks and the drivers’ lives. A week before my arrival, Shura lost a lorry of khat to a heavily flooded river on the road to Berbera. The drivers only survived by clambering out of their cabs and hanging from a tree branch.

Collectively, the Khat Queens of Somaliland have built the only industry in the country that functions like clockwork. It has the best drivers, the best vehicles, the best sales agents, the best accountants and the best money changers of any business in the country.

“It is the only reliable Somaliland service,” Hamse Khaire states unequivocally.

Drugs for votes

A customer is arguing with Shura. He claims that he has been given khat left over from the morning’s delivery and wants to swap it for a fresh bunch. Freshness is vital as khat’s potency diminishes rapidly, disappearing altogether within 36 hours. Shura picks up another bunch, breaks the twine holding it together with her teeth, and fans it open. The customer leans in, carefully inspecting it, looking for the plentiful leaves and thinner, paler stems said to be a mark of quality. An incessant stream of customers arrives at the stall, some dressed in the khaki uniform of the guards from the prison opposite. As well as selling full bunches, the vendors scrunch together the handfuls of leaves left on the floor – known as tachuro – which will be sold at the lowest price to those who can’t afford anything else.

Men will remain unemployed but women will go out and take the lead. Women are far more creative, far more entrepreneurial”

Once customers have secured their purchase they sprawl on the ground outside and in the adjoining khat chewing room, the mafrish, settling in to chew their khat and drink the sweet tea brought to them by tea ladies. Just down the road, the junction in the busiest part of Hargeisa’s central market is in complete chaos. Vehicles are piling up, caught in inextricable gridlock. A donkey pulling the battered cylinder of the neighbourhood water supply is stuck in the middle of a honking mess of cars. Hawkers are shouting, shaking bundles in their hands, as men push by impatiently.

In the middle, nearly out of sight behind a green stall, surrounded by a neat lattice of khat bundles reaching waist-high, a woman in her late fifties with a face as hard as nails and a suspicious manner to match is exchanging super-sized khat bundles for super-sized bundles of cash with well-dressed men. This is not just any khat stand. This is the top quality only, the khat of choice for government officials, the elite and the diaspora, who make a beeline for this tiny woman’s stocks and push up her earnings during the summer holidays.

This is Amina Gaafane, the illiterate Khat Queen who has singlehandedly built her eponymous business into a multi-million dollar diversified concern – the largest in Somaliland – and whose pioneering business innovations have led to her being called “the Steve Jobs of the khat industry”. Amina does things differently. Unlike others, who hire retail outlets and work on short-term arrangements, Amina owns the entire wholesale and retail chain starting with long-term contracts with farmers in Ethiopia. She has created a product “brand” and targets her marketing exclusively at high earners, with her relatively few retail outlets strategically placed to capture only her target consumer.

Alone amongst Somaliland khat businesses, Gaafane is run on a zero credit basis. Amina has also diversified to solidify her empire. Her new petrol station on the busy road leaving Hargeisa is the biggest and shiniest in town, with a gleaming, well-stocked market, car wash – and a khat stall in the forecourt, conveniently placed for quick stops. “This woman should be teaching business in university,” says Hamse Khaire. But Shura and Amina are not the only uneducated women running multi-million pound khat businesses.

A short walk from Amina’s marketplace outlet, painted scarlet curtains decorate the walls of 48-year-old Kaltuna Ismail Kabadhe’s business, beckoning her customers into the painted luxury of a casbah-like mafrish, the only one of its kind in Hargeisa. Kaltuna’s unique angle is that she has cut out the middlemen to buy her khat directly from the farmers in Ethiopia, and can pass the savings on to her customers.

Khat queen Kaltuna Ismail Kabadhe in her outlet. Kaltuna is one of the first women to gain influence in the male-dominated world of politics, and hangs campaign posters for local candidates in her stalls

Khat queen Kaltuna Ismail Kabadhe in her outlet. Kaltuna is one of the first women to gain influence in the male-dominated world of politics, and hangs campaign posters for local candidates in her stalls

The khat trade has brought enormous benefits to the Khat Queens and their families. “Our living quality has improved. I have been able to raise all my children to a good standard,” says Shura. “I can’t read or write. The reason I am doing this is so my children can get an education.” She beams. “One has already graduated from secondary school and another is about to.”

Khat has also bought women influence in the traditionally exclusively male domain of politics. Election time in Somaliland is dubbed ‘khat season’, with votes bought with khat and debate conducted in the mafrish. Siad Barre might have publicly claimed his 1983 ban was to arrest the moral rot caused by khat but there is no denying the long-term and important role khat has always played in politics – and the danger of banning it. However corrosive the impact on the political landscape, khat has given its queens influence where women never had it before.

Kaltuna is pleased with her newfound involvement in the political sphere, and proudly hangs campaign posters in her stalls. But it is Amina Gaafane who has had the most important success. In the last election her chosen candidate, who she allegedly sponsored through large amounts of khat, successfully secured a seat on the city council. It was the first time ever that her sub-clan has been represented.

However, while the khat business is bringing power and influence to women, it is exacting a terrible cost on society – and on men in particular.

The khat conundrum

Men sprawl on the carpeted floor of the mafrish, chewing to the convivial strains of music and conversation. Some have university degrees; all are unemployed. Unexpectedly, they emphatically speak out in support of the UK ban, saying it will force their “lazy” UK counterparts into getting jobs. The same, they say, does not hold true for them, as there are simply no jobs to be had in Somaliland. Critics blame khat for exacerbating male unemployment and contributing to a lack of productivity the country can ill afford, and employers are increasingly refusing to hire khat users.

Hope for the economy is pinned on the oil exploration currently underway and on the self-declared autonomous nation at last securing the international recognition that would enable foreign investment in the country. In the meantime, khat is a major source of employment. The 265,000 jobs it provides represent a critical source of revenue for the government for which, at this time anyway, there is no substitute. “I am against khat. It is throwing money away,” minister of commerce Dr Mohamed A Omar tells me.“I see much more negative impact than positive – and employment is the key issue… Men will remain unemployed but women will go out and take the lead. Women are far more creative, far more entrepreneurial.”

First lady Amina Mohamed agrees. “Khat is the country’s most complex problem,” she says. “Khat is unhealthy, it causes family problems, husband problems…” She sighs. “A lot of people say we should do something about this khat – and yes, in one aspect yes – but in the other aspect when you look at it, these women might be selling khat but they are sending their children to school. They are sending them to university.” In doing so, they are benefiting the nation. “Women in Somaliland are the backbone of the country,” she declares. The reign of the Khat Queens has been an extraordinary one. These women are blazing a trail for female empowerment in a country which has oppressed women for centuries, leaving their male contemporaries flailing in their wake. Slowly but surely, society is being transformed.

“We used to buy women with 100 camels, a gun and a horse,” Hamse remarks. But no more. “It is the end of the era of men.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #15 of Delayed Gratification

Buy issue Subscribe

More stories...

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme