Somalia’s coronavirus khat bans leaves chewers in a stew

Flights carrying the mild stimulant khat have been banned from entering Somalia, leaving chewers of the leaves in a stew, write the BBC’s Mary Harper and Bella Hassan.

In normal times, around midday, when the bunches of fresh leaves arrive in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, by plane from Kenya, men disappear from view, lounging in khat kiosks or chewing at home.

The leaf, also known as miraa, acts as a stimulant, sending users into a frenzy of excited chatter. Business deals are made and broken, tired fighters are kept awake.

In March, the government of Somalia banned international flights, including khat planes, as part of its efforts to contain coronavirus.

When it imposed a lockdown, it forbade people from gathering together to chew their beloved leaves as this would break social distancing rules. Officials warned that because khat is picked by hand it could help spread Covid-19.

But the stimulant is still finding its way into the country.

Some comes in by road from Ethiopia. Some is transported by boat from Kenya, where many khat growers and traders say they have lost their livelihoods. The situation is especially grave in central Meru county, the heartland of khat farming in Kenya.

Crafty dealers

The chairman of the Nyambene Miraa Traders’ Association, Kimathi Munjuri, said members of his organisation exported about $250,000 (£200,000) worth of khat a day to the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

About half-a-million farmers cultivate the stimulant in the Horn of Africa; many will be hit hard by the ban.

Although most khat sellers in Somalia have nothing to trade, a few crafty dealers have hit a goldmine.

“Before Covid-19, we got fresh leaves from Kenya,” says a woman who sells khat in Mogadishu. “Now we get it illegally from the port city of Kismayo, and because it is so limited, we can push up the price. I used to sell one kilo of leaves for about $20 to $25. Now I sell it for $120. This ban has been very good for us.”