Khat producers left high and dry after UK ban
(Channel4)A UK ban on khat – widely used in the Somali community – comes into force in the next few months. But there is anger in Kenya, where thousands of farmers depend on exports of the herbal stimulant.
Somali campaigners against the herbal stimulant khat are celebrating on Tuesday, writes Jamal Osman. They have invited some Conservative MPs who supported them in their fight to ban it. The ban is expected to come into force in the next few months.
But anti-khat activists have been holding victory parades since the home secretary announced khat is to be banned.
By making such decisions, Theresa May defied government scientists and some of her fellow MPs. But she became an unlikely hero of the Somali community.
Khat is used by an estimated 90,000 people in the UK, mainly Somalis. A mild stimulant, it’s blamed by many for family breakdown, unemployment and mental illness.
It’s already banned in most of the west, which has led to the UK becoming a hub for illegal trading to Europe and America.
Known locally as “miraa”, khat comes from Meru in Kenya, and thousands of farmers depend on the UK trade. It’s one of Kenya’s main exports, worth over $100m a year. Here there is anger and fear at what the British ban will mean.
“I will never eat, my child will never go to school when miraa stop,” one of the farmers told me.
Transporting khat to the UK is a sophisticated operation. It has to be consumed fresh as it loses its effect after three days. Khat is picked in the morning, is flown to London overnight, and is in UK shops by the following lunchtime.
‘We will all suffer’
Elija Murathi has been farming khat for nearly 20 years. He is illiterate – but because of khat, his children are not. He has paid the eldest through school and university. One is now a doctor inRussia. The youngest are unlikely to have the same chance.
One of his daughters, Dainah, said: “Because of the income of miraa, I will not be able to become a doctor because I will not be able to continue my education.
“We will all suffer because that is where we get everything. We will really not go to school, and through not going to school we will be illiterate people, not able to help yourself to go from one step to another. So it means we will just be poor people.”
On Sundays, the community prays for divine intervention. Everyone will be affected. Khat makes up 80 per cent of their income. It even paid to build the church – and pays to run it. Pastor Kalinjo Kirimi remembers the reaction when they heard the news that Britain was about to ban miraa.
“In fact, almost every man and woman and child – even children who could not understand what the news was all about – we were all shocked,” he says. “I think in that day many people spent a night fasting and praying that it doesn’t happen.
“It’s like cutting a blood vessel that supplies our body with blood and expect someone to survive. So hard, extremely hard.”
Threat of direct action
The farmers may be relying on God to intervene, but the dealers have started to threaten direct action. Japhed Muroko, head of the Global Miraa Dealer Network, wants to take action.
“We can riot and we can try to force the government to accept, since it is our lifeline” he says. “Because if we accept it to be banned, it means that we are all accepting to die. So we better die fighting than waiting to die after our lifeline is being interfered with.”
The Home Office has confirmed it will go ahead with the ban, and while Somalis in the UK hope it leads to a big change in their lives, in Kenya they know it will change theirs – and they are dreading it.
By Jamal Osman