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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Khat, Miraa, Somali and Northern Kenya Addiction Growing

Nairobi — Every afternoon, Garissa town residents meet for a miraa (khat) chewing session. The twig is a way of life in this stuffy and sun bathed town.

"Miraa creates a social bond and keeps most of us away from crime and drug abuse," says Ahmeddin Nur. A group of young men high on the mild narcotic plant nod their heads in agreement.

But this is about to change if proposal to ban trade and use of miraa in the town becomes a reality.

In a recent workshop on Islam and health, more than 40 religious leaders backed the call to ban miraa in the district.

A potential showdown among traders, consumers and the leaders is looming. Miraa traders and lovers have vowed to demonstrate against the proposed move.

A farmer harvests miraa in Meru North. Muslim leaders want the sale and consumption of the crop banned in northern Kenya.

Although livestock is the chief source of income in the district, the twig provides an alternative for many families.

If the demonstrations go ahead, it will revive memories of similar confrontations in Somalia when residents rose against the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC.

In 2006, the Islamists banned khat and closed entertainment joints.

Street protests

These triggered street protests and the UIC, who had attracted goodwill for restoring order, found itself on a collision course with the people.

Three people were killed when UIC soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators.

Mama Zeinabu Abdi, a Garissa resident who has been in miraa business for the last five years, says it is the only source of income for her and other families.

"The business has made me educate my three children in secondary schools," she says at her miraa stall on Ngamia road. Mr Steven Mayak says he is supporting three school going children with the trade.

Religious leaders say they are not against the income generating trade per se.

"Miraa business has been used to aid trafficking and peddling of hardcore drugs like cocaine, heroin and bhang," the Garissa Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims (Supkem) leader, Sheikh Hussein Mahat, said while reading the resolutions.

Spread of HIV

Mahat said the drugs adversely affect the community by promoting immorality, poor performance in education and the spread of HIV/Aids.

The leaders also want sale of alcohol, condoms and video showing banned.

The North Eastern Provincial Medical Officer of Health Dr Osman Warfa said drug abuse is a big factor in the spread of HIV.

"The HIV prevalence rate in the town shot from 1.6 per cent to 2.6 per cent last year," he told the workshop. It is as a result of this revelation that the leaders proposed the ban.

Two days later, religious leaders met a section of youths to enlist their support.

This elicited mixed reactions from traders and consumers of the stimulant.

Mr Abdinassir Abdi, a taxi operator, said: "The ban is long overdue. It is time the future of the youths is protected. Many people have become useless and lazy as a result of drugs. I support the resolutions."

Miraa is an addictive plant and has taken toll on the socio-economic life of the province.

Activities in the province come to a halt in the afternoons when majority of the residents partake the stimulant.

Women traders

Some women complain that the shrub has contributed to breakdown of family values. "Men have abandoned their family roles and spend most of their income on the drug," Mrs Rukia Ali regretted.

Ironically, most of the miraa traders in the district are women unlike other parts of the country where men dominate the business.

They can be spotted at the dusty roadsides, mostly past midnight, selling the stimulant under a lantern lamp. Here, the lantern is a sign of a miraa outlet.

A report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicates that miraa trade is slowly overtaking livestock as the economic mainstay in this region. The twigs managed a near 5 per cent GDP growth in 2006.

In a province where alcohol is not consumed on religious grounds, miraa chewing is a favourite pastime.

A vehicle arriving with the twigs always stirs the sleepy villages. Not even the sweltering heat can stop women and men from scrambling for the stimulant.

When the delivery of fails, villagers become edgy and gloomy.

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A first time visitor here will be surprised by the sudden pandemonium of hooting vehicles and shouting announcing the arrival of miraa.

The driver of the miraa vehicle is usually accorded respect .

In the afternoons, it is common for major towns in Northern Kenya to be deserted, save the stray livestock.

Locals remain behind closed doors to chew miraa for several hours. The cross-legged residents also puff cigarettes and sip tea.

The effect of the stimulant is evident as they engage in animated talk. The dens become the region's parliament.

But this routine could be redefined if the religious leaders' proposal to ban the miraa takes effect.

The Rest @ AllAFrica

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