Academic journal article Africa

The Need for Speed: Contrasting Timeframes in the Social Life of Kenyan Miraa

Academic journal article Africa

The Need for Speed: Contrasting Timeframes in the Social Life of Kenyan Miraa

Article excerpt


This article contrasts two very different timeframes in the 'social life' of the plant stimulant miraa--known elsewhere as khat--in Kenya and beyond. One timeframe is connected with the old miraa trees growing in the Nyambene Hills District of central Kenya: these are known as mbame, and are greatly respected for their age and link to the past. The miraa from these trees is put to much ceremonial use by the Meru inhabitants of the Nyambenes. The other timeframe is the very different one of the harvested stems. These stems are highly perishable and so must reach the consumer quickly, leading to urgency in their trade and transportation: the 'need for speed'. The globalization of the miraa trade has intensified this urgency further: the stems are now desired as far away as North America. Miraa trees have not escaped this 'commercial' timeframe, and some farmers experiment with chemical sprays to speed up the production rate. The article concludes by arguing that such attempts to speed up the timeframes of the trees are met with resistance, and have not diluted the cultural significance of ancient mbaine trees and their ancestral links.


Cet article met en contraste deux cadres temporels tres differents de la << vie sociale >> du miraa, plante stimulante egalement appelee khat dans d'autres regions, au Kenya et au-dela. Un de ces cadres temporels est lie aux vieux arbres a miraa qui poussent dans le district de Nyambene, dans la region centrale du Kenya: ces arbres, appeles mbaine, sont tres respectes pour leur age et leur lien avec le passe. Les Meru du district de Nyambene se servent beaucoup du miraa extrait de ces arbres a des fins ceremoniales. L'autre cadre temporel, tres different, est celui des tiges recoltees. Tres perissables, ces tiges doivent atteindre le consommateur rapidement, amenant a traiter leur commerce et leur transport dans l'urgence. La mondialisation du commerce du miraa est venue intensifer cette urgence : on convoite desormais ces tiges jusqu'en Amerique du Nord. Les arbres a miraa n'ont pas echappe a ce cadre temporel << commercial >> et certains cultivateurs desireux d'ameliorer leurs taux de production commencent a les pulveriser de produits chimiques. L'article conclut en indiquant que ces tentatives d'accelerer les cadres temporels des arbres se heurtent a une resistance et n'ont pas affaibli la dimension culturelle des vieux mbaine ni leurs liens ancestraux.


Kiswahili abounds with proverbs praising a slow pace. Thus pole pole ya kobe humfikisha mbali wisely points out that the 'tortoise is carried far by his slowness', and newcomers to the language are taught the assonant haraka haraka haina baraka ('haste has no blessing'). Yet anyone travelling in mid-afternoon along the main road in the Nyambene Hills will be passed by pick-up trucks whose speed suggests disdain for such wise old saws. These vehicles are loaded with sacks filled with the commodity most associated with the region--miraa, more widely known as khat--and are petrol-powered emblems of the 'need for speed' in the miraa trade: so fast do they travel that one Kenyan friend has nicknamed them 'concords'. This 'need for speed' can largely be explained by the perishable nature of the crop transported by these vehicles. Perishability is a factor in the trade of many goods, but in the case of miraa it plays an especially crucial role in dictating how the trade operates. When dried, miraa becomes far less potent, (1) and frozen miraa becomes distinctly unpalatable. Refrigeration can keep miraa fairly fresh for four or five days, but few miraa traders or consumers have access to refrigerators. The longer the time since harvest, the less economically viable miraa becomes. To be involved in the miraa trade therefore requires operating in a highly compressed timescale, and the frenetic activity of traders and transporters bears this out.

This article examines this urgency in the trade and transport of miraa, and draws out a contrast with the timeframe within which the trees that generate the crop operate: one where old age is considered a virtue, and where the oldest trees are imbued with the most cultural significance. …

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