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Thanks to the Pandemic the Horn of Africa’s Recreational Drug Faces Mixed Fortunes

For centuries, the khat, a leafy shrub native to the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East, has been a part of daily life for millions of people: It’s used to induce excitement and euphoria and, some speculate, to boost sexual performance. Bus drivers waiting in traffic, friends socializing on weekends and workers on lunch breaks are among the regular users of this affordable drug across Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland and parts of Kenya. Now, the pandemic is disrupting the consumption of khat, a regional economy worth millions of dollars, and also reshaping family dynamics. An estimated 90 percent of adults in Somaliland chew khat, and the autonomous region’s government figures show that 30 percent of its gross domestic product — or $36.4 million — comes from the drug. The Kenya Medical Research Institute estimates that more than 10 million people consume it globally. Most consumers are male, while sellers are women, often the family breadwinners. But lockdowns and travel restrictions due to the pandemic have dramatically hit cross-border trade of khat. In turn, that has served as a major blow to the women selling khat.  Still, every cloud has a silver lining. With most recreational pleasures put on pause for men in these communities, women who aren’t sellers are hopeful that their husbands will turn over a new leaf, say activists. Experts say addiction has led men to spend money on khat that could have been used for their children’s education or to upgrade the quality of their family’s life.