Khat is a chewable herbal stimulant, popular among the UK’s Somali and Yemeni communities. Despite there being little or no evidence that the drug causes harm to its users, the British government is working to outlaw khat. Home Secretary Theresa May says she’s worried that without a ban, the UK will become a hub for smuggling it to the US and Europe, where for the most part it is already illegal. Meanwhile, experts warn that a ban might alienate Somalis in the UK and cut off vital exports from Kenya, the UK’s largest khat supplier.
VICE News followed the khat trail from the farms of Meru, Kenya, to the suburbs of west London, meeting businesspeople, users, and community members all keen to have their say. With exclusive access to a London khat warehouse and khat cafes in the English capital and Nairobi, we explored the industry and the implications of a ban at home and abroad.
Smugglers are happy, the youth of Kenya are not.
Somali Jihadists’ Growing Pains Are a Pain for Everyone
When I left Somaliland (northern Somalia) a few weeks ago, after two months spent listening to the chatter and news in cafes and ministries, I’d come to believe that the Somalia-based violent jihadist group al-Shabaab, while still dangerous, was fundamentally shattered. During my stay I chatted with former Shabaab supporters and even an ex-Shabaab soldier, Qawdhan, whose stories of infighting between older members, who believed in a limited, nationalist agenda, and the younger recruits who advocated international jihad, led me to believe that the organization, though swollen with manpower, had descended into paralyzed bickering, limiting its ability to act.
Today the president of Kenya announced the siege carried out by members of Shabaabon the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi was over. Still, the attack, which began on Saturday when armed militants stormed the mall, killing civilians and taking hostages, made it clear my assumptions were incorrect. As of this writing, the body count sits at 67—61 civilians and six soldiers—with almost 200 wounded, at least ten of them officers, and the news remains dominated by images of bodies splayed on the ground and a plume of black smoke rising up from the mall.
Qawdhan was a member of the old Shabaab guard. During his time the group was composed of Somali nationalists pushing for an Islamic state as a means to end foreign interference in the country’s politics. He fled shortly after Moktar Ali Zubeyr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Godane), a member of Qawdhan’s Arab clan and Shabaab’s current leader, officially affiliated the group with al Qaeda in early 2012, ushering in a new level of chaos and violence between the nationalist and international jihadist camps. By the end of this June, there were signs that the chaos might be tipping in Godane’s favor; Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the group’s longtime spiritual leader and advocate of limited, nationalist goals, fled Shabaab and surrendered to Somali government custody. In another recent boost to his authority, Godane’s forces purged two of his most vocal and visible opponents: Abu Mansoor al-Amriki and Usama al-Britani (the American and the Brit).
Kenya’s Slum Abortions Pit God Against Death
While in Kenya, through a contact at a local radio station, a friend and I were able to access an illegal abortion clinic run by a Catholic doctor. We had hiked for more than an hour across Nairobi’s hot and dusty Kibera slums to reach the clinic, and found ourselves sitting awkwardly while we waited for our friend Jobe to make the necessary arrangements.
The pharmacy was no bigger than my bedroom. At the back of the tiny room a wooden door blended into the wall. Above it hung one of the portraits of the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, which are ubiquitous in businesses across Kenya.
Peter, a doctor from Kisii, had opened the clinic several years earlier. Working in the slums can be tough, and occasionally dangerous. During the violence in Kenya after the 2007 presidential election, which killed 1,000 people and forced a quarter of a million to flee their homes, he patched up fighters in return for protection. In spite of the risks, however, the large population and lack of competing medical facilities in the slums meant he could run a lucrative business, generating more income than some of the doctors at the major hospitals.
Through the wooden door we found a treatment room where Peter carries out minor surgeries. Inside we found little more than a couple of chairs, a wooden desk, and a blue plastic bed with grimy yellow stuffing poking out through several large tears. Abortions were being performed here four or five times a month, either chemically, using Misoprostol, or through manual vacuum aspiration.
Abortion remains illegal in Kenya, and women can’t discuss it or ask about it openly. “People are ashamed to talk about abortion,” Peter told us. “They know it’s going on, but they fear talking about it and they are ashamed.” Instead, a careful and secretive negotiation takes place: “First they come in for the pregnancy test and then maybe the test is positive. Then the lady tells you, ‘I’m unmarried,’ ‘I’m divorced,’ maybe ‘I’m supposed to go for a job somewhere,’ and then ‘I don’t want this pregnancy.’”
Is This the Century of Africa’s Rise?
For decades, the dominant African narrative in the media was of famine, war, and disease. Recently, in light of a perceived economic upturn and a relative reduction in famine and disease across most of the continent, the narrative has changed to one of thrusting progress. The Economist and TIME magazine have both published big articles in the last two years called “Africa Rising,” complete with positive economic statistics and photos of children flying rainbow kites in the shape of the African continent.
We have moved from pictures of starving children with flies crawling across their faces to pictures of young men in big cities talking on mobile phones. Of course, neither narrative is correct. No narrative that attempts to take on something so large and diffuse can ever be correct. But there is something about these conveniently totalizing stories that fires the passions of believers and cynics alike. Believers point to fast-growing economies and fragile but intact democracies, non-believers refer to what the Kenyan writer and investigative journalist Parselelo Kantai told me was an “insidious little fiction manufactured by global corporate finance.”
The idea of Africa’s rise comes from a straightforward interpretation of high growth rates and increased foreign investment in parts of the continent. As The Economist’s piece pointed out, “over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African.” According to McKinsey & Company, real GDP in Africa grew twice as fast in the 00s as it did in the 80s and 90s. Suddenly everyone has a mobile phone and that mobile phone has great reception.
Renaissance Capital’s Charles Robertson, author of The Fastest Billion, drew my attention to annual growth rates of “around six percent across sub-Sahara since 2000. Some say rapid growth is inevitable from a low base. This is nonsense. People got poorer in sub-Saharan Africa from 1980 to 2000.” Recent growth in Africa and rapid increases in Asia-Africa trade and investment have taken place against a backdrop of global austerity. As people struggle desperately in southern Europe, gas and oil resources are enriching a new generation in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and even—if proposed exploration occurs this year—Somalia and Somaliland.
The problem, though, is that most of this wealth is extractive. There is, as Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, told me, a “lack of value added on the African side.” “The energy companies are seeing massive domestic demand from Asia and they are capitalizing on that,” he said.
Parselelo Kantai put it more bluntly: “What is happening on the continent economically is a new era of massive resource extraction, catalyzed mostly by Chinese domestic demands. And because it is almost exclusively extraction without on-site value addition, it’s a process where the continent’s elites, the Chinese and Westerners, are the only people who benefit. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be called by its real name: the Second Scramble for Africa.”
What both Smith and Kantai are referring to is a system in which an elite minority, often not from Africa, benefit extraordinarily from the natural resources the continent has and the world needs. The outsiders may not wear pith helmets and long for a proper cup of tea any more, but it’s colonial business as usual.
Quality Time with Kenya’s Secessionists
The Kenyan coastline is known for its endless white sand beaches, turquoise blue ocean, and a charming fusion of Islamic and British colonial architecture. Tourists come here for the cheap booze, attractive locals, and exotic scenery. What they may not be aware of is that many of the people serving drinks and changing towels are part of a massive underground secessionist movement likely to bring chaos and bloodshed in the upcoming presidential election.
The Kenyan government would like the public to believe that the Mombasa Republican Council on the country’s south coast is a gang of criminals and terrorists.
In reality, this outlawed movement is made up of young, poor, landless locals who are sick and tired of being marginalized by the government and brutalized by police. They’re ready to rumble this election season, planning to boycott polling stations in Mombasa and beyond, and they’ve promised trouble for anyone who tries to cast a ballot in the province.
The MRC is similar to Somalia’s shifta militia (a group in the northeast that advocated for secession in the 1960s until the government violently stamped it out), and was among 32 others declared “illegal organized criminal groups” in 2010. Its leaders claim to be against violence, but the majority of its members are disenfranchised youth who are ready to take up arms.
HOW TO BREW YOUR OWN CHANG’AA AT HOME:
DISCLAIMER: Kangara (the brown, fizzy, fermented mixture kept in barrels) will probably kill you. The women who make this stuff are somehow immune to it and partially live off of it (as in, they eat it), but it is really not recommended, so just don’t do it. In fact, don’t follow this recipe whatsoever. You’re going to end up killing yourself or someone else—this is just for curiosity’s sake.
- 90 kg of maize flour
- 90 kg of millet flour
- 200 L of water
- 1 giant pan (at least
- 3 feet in diameter)
- 1 spade
- 1 enormous plastic barrel
- 20 kg of brown sugar
- Lots of firewood
- 40 L cauldrons
- 50 kg of white sugar
- 2 aluminum pots (one 10 L and one 15 L) per cauldron. The pots must fit in the mouth of your cauldron, one on top of the other.
- Banana leaves
- 5 L and 25 L plastic jugs for water and chang’aa
1. Mix one full bag of maize flour and one full bag of millet flour. Add 20 L of water. Mix the maize and millet flour into the water until it thickens. Scoop the paste out and put in the pan, and use the spade to flip and push the mixture across the pan to bake and dry it. It should have the consistency of really thick mashed potatoes and be cooked until it’s a burned brown color.
2. Take the remaining 180 L of water and pour it into the giant barrel. Move the millet/maize mix from the pan to the barrel of water. Next, add all 20 kg of brown sugar and stir. Make sure everything is under the water and perfectly mixed.
3. Seal the barrel and store it (usually in holes or shacks due to police harassment). Let it ferment for five days.
4. After five days, ignite fires under the cauldrons. The fermented mixture (kangara) can technically be ingested now, but it will probably kill you. Now it’s time to distill.
5. Take the kangara and add white sugar.
6. Divide the mixture into the giant black pots/cauldrons. Place the empty 10 L pot in the neck of the cauldron; this will catch the chang’aa. Put the 15 L second pot, filled with water, on top of the first pot to prevent the alcohol vapor from escaping. Then seal the entire thing with banana leaves.
7. When the water in the 15 L pot is heated, pour it into a waiting plastic jug for home use (laundry and showers). Refill the top pot every hour, and cook the whole thing for three hours.
8. After three hours, empty the bottom pot. If done correctly, you should now have 10 L of quality chang’aa! The kangara can be reused two to three times by letting it stand for three days and adding more sugar. Its alcohol content is 70–90 percent, depending on the cook and recipe, so invite a few of your hard-drinking friends over, serve them a few rounds of banana beer, and show them that they know absolutely nothing about alcoholism.