From ONE Magazine

Breaking Free

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.

In her mother’s apartment, lying on the couch, 5-year-old Lydia quietly watches cartoons on television. Rahel says she lets Lydia spend time with her father on special occasions, such as birthdays, adding that, in her own youth, she suffered too much from the absence of her parents to allow her husband to fade from Lydia’s life.

Abandoned when she was a child, Rahel was eventually helped by the Catholic Mission in Harar. She went to Abune Endrias School, a boarding school that welcomes orphans and children from families of limited means.

Rahel credits the school and the mission with saving her life. Without it, she says, “I would have ended up as a street child.”

It is a fate that could affect countless young people in Ethiopia. But a visit to the Catholic Mission shows how the church is trying to change that and, in every sense, is working to save the next generation.

Inside the ancient fortified city center of Harar, one of Islam’s holiest cities, the compound of the Catholic Mission is a haven of peace. The Capuchin sisters and father who administer the boarding facility guide their wards, teaching them good manners as well as how to live a healthy lifestyle. One of their important goals is to keep children from becoming addicted to khat.

In this predominantly Muslim town, where khat addiction prevails, many succumb to the temptation of chewing. Outside the church compound, in the maze of colorful alleyways in the old town, many locals chew the best leaves, forming a big ball inside their cheek; after several hours, they feel the effects of mirkana, the dreamlike phase that follows the consumption of khat that differs according to the person.

The physical effects of the plant, however, pale beside the social

and economic ones. For some, addiction leads to poverty and unemployment. It is a painful cycle: They do not work, so they chew to pass the time, but then the time spent chewing, coupled with the effects of khat, robs them of both the time and desire to work.

Making matters worse, khat is reaching younger consumers. There are not enough recreational outlets in the country for young people, laments the Rev. Andreas Michael of the Catholic Mission, so they are drawn to the plant.

But in this boarding school, he says, the teachers explain to their students the dangers of khat.

“We have to keep them mentally, physically and spiritually strong,” the priest says.

Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, believes engaging children in their early stages of development, instilling solid ideals and values as well as a healthy sense of self and purpose, is the right way to shape their future.

“We need to help them develop the right moral attitude — to help them avoid exposing themselves to destructive behavior, such as chewing khat,” he says. “We try to instruct them in the Catholic faith, teach them how to live a worthy life, knowing the purpose of their existence and their final destination.”

Catholic schools, Mr. Fantu says, highlight these matters in various ways — such ethics classes that discuss destructive behaviors and school dramas that demonstrate the effects of drug addiction on individuals and families.

Although a tiny minority, making up no more than 1 percent

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.

“As a farmer, it gives me motivation and strength,” his father says. “It’s like my engine. But I’m thinking of stopping little by little.”

In the room, only Abel and the youngest children do not chew. One of his little brothers grabs a branch of khat near him, but his mother takes it back.

“We are not on the right path,” Rosa Yosef admits, adding that Abel sometimes tells them, in a joking tone, that khat is for goats. It is clear to her, however, that her son remains disappointed his family does not heed his advice.

“Convincing them is easy, but changing them is difficult,” Abel says. “If they get another income and don’t have to rely on farming, they will stop. But it is difficult for them.”

The Missionaries of Charity run a treatment center in Dire Dawa for those battling mental illnesses and khat addiction, which are commonly linked. The sisters and their volunteer network of health care professionals, however, are overwhelmed: Most patients — brought to the center by family members or the Labor and Social Office of Dire Dawa — stay an average of three months. The center offers them medical care and psychological counseling. Much of the latter centers on group meetings, as costs of one-on-one care are high and the center is understaffed. While the government has agreed to provide water and electricity for free, the sisters must raise funds to cover everything else.

Despite the limited resources, more than 600 patients were treated in the last year. And while the sisters and their health care partners care for many patients from the more marginalized segments of society, they also care for people who are the leaders of their

communities: doctors, engineers and teachers.

“The number of patients is increasing,” says psychiatrist Henok Nega, 42, who volunteers at the center. When he’s not providing care to the center’s patients, he works at a public hospital.

“It needs more study, but the illnesses we find here are mostly related to khat,” he explains. He is worried because of the low capacity to admit people. “The demand to get mental health services in the country is high,” he adds. In Ethiopia, there are very few institutions for people suffering from addiction.

It is sometimes difficult to convey the dangers of this culturally entrenched herb; many people presume that if there is a problem, it is the result of another drug, such as cannabis. Others believe a rival has cast a spell on them, though the Catholic Church does all it can to dispel such superstitious thinking.

In Dire Dawa, the 40 girls of the boarding school Abune Andreas Girls’ Home sometimes go to neighborhood homes to explain

the dangerous effects of khat, says the young priest of the parish, the Rev.Wondwossen Wube.

“In the eastern part of Ethiopia, khat is like bread or injera for the people,” he explains, referencing a traditional spongy flatbread staple of Ethiopian cuisine.

“We are concerned about that because it implies child labor: the children go fetch water or collect wood [while their parents chew],” he says. It places the youth in a difficult situation, as they recognize that their parents are earning their living by growing this crop.

“It’s not easy for parents to accept their child’s advice because their life depends on khat,” he adds.

Abba Wube watches the girls play near the volleyball court. He has

also suffered from the effects of khat. He never chewed, but his father was a habitual consumer. As a result, he ate almost nothing and lost weight. He passed away a few years ago.

For Abba Wube, it is important to teach them about the dangers of khat — to do everything they can, with what little resources they have, to reduce consumption, open minds and, hopefully, save lives.

“I tell them about my experience,” he says. “We are trying to save our daughters from this.”

Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa, where she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other publications.