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of the country’s population, Ethiopia’s Catholic Church is

disproportionately influential in a nation dominated by Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Its social development outreach and emergency services — such as rushing food during times of food shortage and potable water in times of drought — and its system of Catholic schools, has heightened the church’s profile. Saving young people from the devastating effects of khat is an extension of that work, but it is an uphill battle. In Ethiopia, khat is pervasive, even inescapable. “Khat,” says Abba Michael, “is deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture.”

From the courtyard of Abune Endrias School, one can see the fields of khat and cereals extend across the horizon. Although noted for the cultivation of its coffee beans, more and more of Ethiopia’s farmers prefer to cultivate khat. Its cultivation is also tolerated by the Ethiopian government, for whom the khat trade is immensely profitable.

In December 2018, the Ethiopian Business Review reported that khat exports have more than doubled in the last decade. Other sources note that khat generates more revenue per acre than coffee, the nation’s largest export. The money this lucrative product generates represents a significant barrier to any effort to curtail its use, even for public health concerns. Moreover, with Ethiopia’s changing climate, khat is easier to grow than coffee, which requires regular irrigation. Khat can also be harvested multiple times a year, making it a practical choice for many families.

But talk to some of the students at Abune Endrias School, and you sense they are coming to understand just how dangerous and destructive khat can be.

“People who chew khat do not realize where they are, they might lose their consciousness,” says Abel Yohannis, a tall, wiry 16-year-old. He has told his parents that chewing khat is not good for their health, but it has proven difficult for them to stop. Their situation is hardly unique. Life is difficult in Abel’s village, which lies just outside the town of Karamile, about 60 miles from Dire Dawa. Many farmers use khat to help them carry out their strenuous work.

Abel’s parents are struggling to make ends meet for their eight children. That is why one bishop proposed to his mother, Rosa Yosef, now 38, to take care of her son’s education.

On a recent July morning, the tall woman, whose face is framed by a pink scarf, prepares coffee in a very dark house with swarming flies. She started to chew khat as an adult. Now she cannot stop.

“It helps me relax, it gives me energy. I have a lot of children, a lot of responsibilities,” she explains. Her husband also decided to grow khat in their field, to earn more money, but he now complains about the middlemen who benefit far more than he does.

For Abel, it is difficult to see his parents chewing khat; he knows the side effects of the leaves can include a weakened immune system, heart disease, and kidney and liver problems. While his parents continue on in this way, he does not expect life to improve.

But he also understands the circumstances that precipitated their habit.

His father seems unconcerned.

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