They make an odd pair, the Premiership and the khat plant, and yet the two have a similar impact in the Horn of Africa.
The televised matches of the English football competition offer a shared euphoria, while chewing the glossy green leaves of the plant, which grows on the region’s hills, gives an amphetamine-like buzz. Both offer succour to those who are unemployed or have dull jobs and can afford to do little else.
This role as an opiate of the masses suits governments just fine. Boredom – and the space it creates for thoughts of dissent and vexation – carries serious socio-political implications. It helps drive migration toward Europe and ferment civic unrest, as seen during the past year in Ethiopia, which remains in a state of emergency.
This boredom is all the more wounding nowadays because of the glittering worlds presented by the internet on smartphones. The contrasts couldn’t be sharper.
“Five years ago, people in rural Ethiopia didn’t know what was happening in Addis Ababa,” says Yves-Marie Stranger, a tour guide, translator and editor who was based in Ethiopia for 15 years and recently released the book Ethiopia: Through Writers’ Eyes. “Now they turn on their TVs and phones and know.”
In Ethiopia locals joke that the government, renowned for meddling and micromanagement, won’t interfere with the dive bars televising sports channels and the khat houses that proliferate across the capital, Addis Ababa. It wants the populace to think about less weighty matters.
Whether in Ethiopia, Djibouti or Somalia, across the Horn of Africa it is the same story. There are satellite dishes in the roughest corners of towns and poverty is no longer a barrier to owning a smartphone or accessing the internet.
Stratospheric levels of unemployment don’t help. Djibouti has an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. In Somaliland it’s around 52%, with youth unemployment a whopping 75%.
At 17%, Ethiopia has a much lower rate, but this translates into the biggest problem due to the size of its population, which will soon surpass 100m. Meanwhile, having a job in this part of the world is often scant consolation.
In the duty-free zone of Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, the dead eyes of the listless female shop assistants say it all. Utter boredom, if not despair.
They’re far from alone. Men split large rocks into smaller pieces under the sun, constructing pavements. Others cluster on street corners, each carrying a rusty tool, hoping to be hired for the day on some construction project for about $3.
Meanwhile, no correlation exists between earning capacity and spiralling prices in Ethiopia’s developing economy. People just have to work out the riddle. Job satisfaction isn’t a concept for the majority. Neither is disposable income.
“There are not enough jobs for people, and salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation,” says Tesfay, a tour guide in the scenic Ethiopian lakeside town of Bahir Dar, which experienced serious unrest during the summer of 2016. “After increasing rents, food prices and transport costs, people have no money left.”
On top of all this, people have to face the obstacles that remain stubbornly entrenched in many African countries: total inertia in governmental and administrative departments, the undercurrent of corruption and nepotism, and Orwellian bureaucracy at every turn.
Foreigners living in countries like Ethiopia and pummelled by such frustrations have a release valve – they can fly out for a break.
The vast majority of people living in the Horn of Africa, however, can’t dream of such an option. Instead, they take what distraction is available. Hence the bars showing Premiership matches are jammed, men whooping or clasping their heads at each near miss.
“People grew up with it. When I was a little kid every Saturday afternoon Ethiopian television had a programme showing highlights of the English league,” says Tamrat, an Ethiopian in his 30s.
“People are talking about it at the office after the weekend, so you have to watch it if you want to join in the conversations,” he adds. Tamrat also notes how the small time difference between the UK and Ethiopia – two to three hours, depending on the time of year – makes for a good late afternoon viewing of matches in the bars.
Time to chew
Then there are the leaves of the khat plant. Even in the dingiest khat house you always take off your shoes before entering a room, and then greet everyone, regardless of whether they are strangers.
Amid the discarded leaves and peanut husks littering the floor, decorum reigns. For many it’s a great way to spend a slow afternoon. According to a factsheet from the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, in cultures where khat use is indigenous, it has traditionally been used socially, much like coffee in Western culture.
“[Khat] sits on the fence of our preconceived ideas and on either side of it too, challenging our conceptions of what a drug is, of what addiction is,” says Kevin Rushby, author of Eating the Flowers of Paradise, his account of following the khat trade route from Ethiopia to Yemen. “It questions where we draw the limits and makes those limits look as ridiculous as those straight-lined colonial borders on maps of Africa.”
But, at the same time, it only takes an encounter with a khat chewer wide-eyed and spitting green mush to appreciate how, like alcohol or any psychoactive drug – which includes coffee – khat creates problems when overindulged.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, travelling the Horn of Africa it is impossible not to notice how deeply khat pervades its societies. This is especially true in Somaliland, where up to 90% of the male population chew.
“It’s better than alcohol as you can still function normally afterwards,” says local journalist Abdul, who before coming to the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, lived in the US. He chews whenever he is on deadline.
In 2014 after lengthy debate, the UK finally banned khat, which had been widely used in communities from Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. Back in those home countries, however, such censorship would carry greater implications. Deny people their khat or Premiership football, and governments would have many more frustrated men on their hands.
“If the government tried to ban khat here you’d have a revolution,” says a man in Hargeisa, his left cheek bulging with the leaf.
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