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Breaking Free

The church helps Ethiopians battle a growing addiction to khat

text by Emeline Wuilbercq with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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When she crosses the courtyard of her condominium, Rahel tries not to attract attention. Since moving into her new residence in Dire Dawa, a city about 280 miles east of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, she has not spoken with her neighbors, dreading the inevitable questions about why she is rearing her daughter alone.

Rahel is a Catholic who works as an emergency project coordinator at the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat, the charity of the local church in eastern Ethiopia. Her faith matters deeply, as does the well-being of her family — especially her daughter, Lydia. As fights between Rahel and her husband became ever more frequent, however, the 31-year-old woman — on the advice of her parish priest and bishop — separated from her husband. She hopes that this time apart will force her husband to face an addiction that has torn their marriage apart.

Explaining it, the frank young woman does not mince words.

“Khat,” she says without blinking, “is the cause of my separation.”

A plant cultivated in the Horn of Africa, khat is a stimulant said to induce excitement and euphoria. While classified as a drug of abuse by the World Health Organization in 1980, and declared illegal in many countries — such as the United States and most European Union member states — it is completely legal in the Horn of Africa, where the practice of chewing khat recreationally dates back thousands of years. Ethiopia is the biggest exporter of khat in the world.

In the eastern part of the country, people consume it in large quantities; khat chewing is an integral part of the culture. Ethiopians customarily gather together to chew the plant, especially in the afternoon, and the routine can last for hours. Users keep the small leaves in their cheeks as they chew, drinking soda or eating peanuts to mask the bitter taste. Many people, including Rahel’s husband, say chewing khat enhances their concentration.

“People think it’s normal to chew, that it has no harm, that they’re not addicted,” she says. Some even treat it as a medicine. But as with any addictive substance, these leaves can also have a devastating effect on the users’ lives. In Rahel’s case, her husband was wholly consumed by his habit, purchasing khat to the exclusion of providing for his family, and even going into debt in the process.

“It’s mostly my salary that allowed us to buy food. At the end of the month it was hard to make ends meet,” Rahel says. After a few futile warnings, frustrated and despairing that her husband would not change, she made the decision to leave their house and care for Lydia on her own.

That was a year ago. But even since separating, his pricy addiction leaves him only enough disposable income to pay for his daughter’s monthly school fees.

For Rahel, the choice to leave her husband carries a stigma. In a patriarchal society such as Ethiopia’s, if a woman separates from her husband, many consider her to be the one at fault. Some friends turned their backs on her.

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