‘I Need the Money But I Feel Guilt.’ How a Drought-Resistant Crop Turned Women in Kenya into Reluctant Drug Lords

This article was originally published on TIME Magazine in collaboration with The Daily Nation on August 20th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Jillian Keenan and Nasibo Kabale. 


A woman holds a bunch of khat out for sale on her stall in a khat nightmarket. The khat is imported by truck from Harrare in Ethiopia and it is a big busness, around GBP 157,000 (USD 200,000) is traded each day. 

Hours before dawn at Soko ya Nadhif market in Garissa, Kenya, middle-aged women in neon hijabs shout orders at men. They glide smoothly, like ghosts, through the darkness, groaning under the weight of heavy bags of fresh, long-stemmed leaves, each emblazoned with a woman’s name. They work quickly: just one day earlier, on July 4, 2019, a rumored threat from al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group just across the border, had sent everyone at the market scurrying to safety and cost them a day of work. Now the pressure to make up time is palpable – and so is the sense of looming violence.

“The safety of this place is not something we can take for granted anymore,” a woman yells, urging the men who work for her to get the leaves off the trucks as quickly as possible. The other women match her urgency, and by the time the sun rises, the leaves have been re-packaged into neat parcels, tied with banana leaves. The sales take place quickly, and before long the leaves and twigs have transformed into piles of cash.

“We are big time,” Khadija Dabar, 52, says with a wry grin as she counts her profits. “This is a good business because it’s always there. Whether it is drought or it is raining, miraa never lets us down.”

Khat, also known as miraa, is an amphetamine-like plant native to the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula. Banned in the United States and most of Europe, khat is one of the most popular — and lucrative — drugs in the region, bringing in an estimated $400,000 a day in Kenya alone. The industry is so central to the regional economy that when Somalia briefly banned khat imports for a single week in 2016, Kenyan farmers lost millions of dollars. Khat is most popular with men: in Somalia, an estimated 75 percent of men chew the leaf for its mild stimulant effect.

In Kenya, they say khat makes men stoned, docile, and impotent. But it makes women rich.

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