Chewing with the Jobless Millionaires: Khat Chewing in Uganda

The SSMJ were recently sent this article about the tradition of chewing the Khat plant. South Sudan recently banned its use and cultivation:

Down on Master Coffee Alley in Jinja, Uganda, the day starts at around 11. The narrow alleyway, named after a since-closed shop, is a bustling trade spot, but it’s not staffed by early risers. For sure, by 10 AM the orange tarpaulins will be stretched across the alleyway, each one protecting a small shop from the sun to come. But the real business, and the reason why this line of stalls are selling their cigarettes here and not in the market, arrives at 11 in a succession on black plastic sacks.

The commodity these traders will deal in is khat, or as it’s known in the local Lusoga language, mirrar. Common across the Middle East and North and East Africa, this plant has a reputation as the drug of choice for long-distance lorry drivers, soldiers and even Somali pirates. It varies depending on where it’s bought, but in Uganda it’s a small leaf, up to about the size of a 100 Shilling coin, sometimes on a twig and sometimes not. When chewed the leaves are a mild but addictive stimulant with amphetamine characteristics, characteristic of the Cathinone family of drugs.

A bag of leaves costs 1,000 UGX and will give its owner perhaps 2hrs of satisfying chewing. The buzz is a curve, with a good rush at the onset, which makes the chewer feel chatty and sociable, as well as very awake and alert. Then it levels off, a flat mellow stage of relaxation while the chewing continues and the teeth and jaws start to get tired. Then, abruptly, the feeling is gone, replaced by emptiness as the amphetamine wears off and a silent depression kicks in.

In Uganda mirrar is chewed with Big G bubble-gum to hide the bitter flavour. The traders on Master Coffee Alley display their mirrar wrapped in small banana leaf parcels, along with cigarettes and bubble-gum, on small tables underneath their tarpaulins. The leaves are only worth anything when they’re absolutely soft and fresh, and they are softest when picked at dawn, before the sun has a chance to dry them out. So every morning groups of pickers head to the plantations in the villages and forests and load sacks of leaves.

When the leaves reach town at 11, Master Coffee Alley becomes a bustling market. The traders have benches beside their stands, which are occupied all day by chewers. Soon the tea-ladies are doing the rounds, delivering hot milk tea to the sellers as a steady stream of shoppers pass through, each leaving with a black plastic bag of leaves and gum.

When chewing, the ball of leaf and gum is held in the cheek for as long as possible, being slowly added to. This ball of vegetable matter swells the chewer’s cheek and they slowly masticate it, turning it over and mixing it with saliva before swallowing the juices that emerge. The leaves themselves are never swallowed, but instead spat out as drained green pellets, which go brown in the heat. Piles of drying pellets mark every well-used chew site.

As the alley fills up with chewers, the customers, many of who are also friends, surround the sellers. It’s a collegial atmosphere, full of laughter and joking through full mouths. Said Mohammed, a seller who has been chewing and selling since 1978, grins with green teeth and says, “I like it- I don’t feel boredom. You know for us, we chew since childhood. Our dads, our granddads, they all chew”.

But there is a clear appeal, too, for young men whose job prospects are low and who find solace in the days spent chewing. The leaves act as an appetite suppressant, making chewing cheaper than eating for at least two of the day’s meals. They find friends and end up in a cycle of waking, waiting for chew, chewing, sleeping fitfully and restarting. Unemployment is extremely high in Uganda, and so the mirrar sellers do well from selling comfort to the dispossessed.

In many parts of the world, mirrar has been typified in the media and in health reports as a drug whose use and abuse causes laziness, and it is often suggested that its use can cause flaring tempers and make rebel fighters trigger-happy. The World Health Organisation highlighted it as far back as 1980 as a “drug of abuse”, and while it is traded freely in many countries it is banned in many others. South Sudan recently banned its use and cultivation, and several other African countries have tried to regulate and stem its use.

Those concerns are echoed by two accountants enjoying a mid-day smoke on a bench near the mirrar market in Master Coffee Alley. They explain that its addictiveness is dangerous to health, and echo the belief that it causes laziness. I point out that they are both smoking cigarettes, and one replies “but that (he points to the mirrar sellers) is much stronger than this.” And yet the market is booming.

Buyers come from a wide range of society. They are predominantly young and male, and often Muslim, but there also many smartly dressed middle-aged men passing to pick up their evening chew, which they will enjoy with friends at home. Some women also chew, but they are rare and are often the sellers themselves, or girlfriends of chewers. They sit and joke with the chewers, but generally take their leaves to private places rather than chewing in public.

The young men and women congregate in Jinja at a place nicknamed “Jobless”. A small line of little rooms near the town centre, Jobless is home to a transient group of chewers calling themselves “the Jobless Millionaires”. They have adopted this title because they are unemployed, and yet there is always enough money to buy another chew and another packet of cigarettes. They revel in their status, with a vague hierarchy and clear rules, watched over dotingly by an aging Indian named Mama Bebi who lives next door.

Walking into Jobless, you see people lounging all over the floor and two beds. There is a card circle in one corner and a group down the other end discussing politics and the electricity supply (both are hot topics in Uganda). The Millionaires chew non-stop, a wet sound punctuated by the crackling of burning cigarettes. The card game is rowdy, while on the bed a man nicknamed ‘Obama’ lies with his eyes open, watching but not seeming to see.

Khalid, who claims half-jokingly to be the president of the Jobless Millionaires, chews loudly as he deals the card out for another hand of blackjack. He is Ugandan-born of Somali descent, and wants to be a pop star. He laughs as he explains the rules of the room- no wearing shoes, be polite, no rubbish on the floor and always share. The black bags of leaves are always offered round, always available to those who have none. Khalid is open about his reasons for chewing, explaining that it makes him more relaxed and makes the time fly by. “A day can just pass, you know.”

Mirrar in Uganda sits on a fine line. Offering cheap good times to those who can’t afford them, it is simultaneously the solution to the boredom of unemployment and also the cause of its continuation. Its allure, of friendship and time flying, appeals greatly to young dispossessed men who have little else to do. There has been a moral panic created around it here and elsewhere, with the implication being that chewing mirrar causes laziness, but in reality the chewing is a symptom of deeper social issues.

There’s still camaraderie and a social code between the chewers, and in many ways that replaces the socialising which work would bring. It’s not a solution to a problem, but in a society where jobs are scarce and days are long, it feels like a solution for many.


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