Magazine article New African

Globalisation of a Native Gash Crop

Magazine article New African

Globalisation of a Native Gash Crop

Article excerpt

Miraa's origins as a mild stimulant, used in cultural rituals 500 years ago in East Africa, and its evolution to an export commodity with a global footprint, closely resembles coffee's rise. But prejudice, suspicion and official bans have severely disrupted miraa's multi-billion dollar trade, says Paul Goldsmith.

The American explorer William Chanler set up base in the Nyambene Hills that lie east of Mt Kenya, in 1893. He found a thriving local economy where miraa was commonly snared to cement relationships among traders. He commented on the twigs' slightly tangy taste and mildly pleasant effect.

For visitors who came from as far as the hinterland of Lake Turkana, the botanical stimulant--known as khat or qat in Somalia, Yemen and Djibouti; chat in Ethiopia, and whose formal scientific name is Catha edulis--was a rare treat reinforcing the ties of Active kinship underpinning their diverse communities.

For the Igembe Meru, miraa was intrinsic to their Nyambene prosperity.

Two decades previously, the wandering French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, having exchanged his superstar literary career for that of an expatriate coffee merchant in the predominantly Muslim walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, had been given leaves of chat to chew by Oromo traders. Bored of the coffee business, restless with the slow pace of things in Harar--the birthplace of the Ethiopian coffee trade--and dreaming of relocating to Panama to work on the canal, he overlooked, to his detriment, chat's potential both as a stimulant and a commodity on a par with coffee.

Locals from Ethiopia and Yemen to northern Meru cite the happy goats story to explain the discovery of Catha edulis. One day a herder concerned over the occasional disappearance of his goats followed their tracks to a forested glade where he found them contently munching on the fresh red-green shoots of a wiry shrub.

The same story is cited for the discovery of coffee. The 500-year globalisations of Catha edulis and Caffea arahica have followed parallel but contrasting trajectories.

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Integral to day-to-day rituals in their birthplace in eastern Africa, they have become major global export commodities today. But not without difficulty.

In both cases the migration out of their traditional milieu in eastern Africa generated religious opposition and political condemnation. Coffee was banned in 16th century Mecca and was labelled "the drink of the devil" after its discovery by Europeans.

The Satanic beverage surmounted these barriers in due course. By the middle decades of the 1700s, coffee houses were providing an alternative to the recreational role of alcohol. Coffee houses quickly evolved into information centres, and the focal point for sober discussions of economics, politics, religion, and other issues of the day. The sobriquet "penny universities" underscored coffee's contribution to the European enlightenment.

Half a millennium after its discovery, miraa faces the same kind of widespread religious and political opposition from the authorities. Banned in Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK and the Netherlands, and treated with widespread suspicion almost everywhere else, is this a bump in miraa's slow evolution to acceptance, or an existential threat to it?

Svstemic biases, some of which can be traced to its historical association with Muslims, often punctuate more recent research and critiques of Catha edulis. When it comes to the idiosyncratic characteristics of this Afro-Arab commodity, indigenous knowledge is paramount.

Miraa is best understood in localities where its consumption was institutionalised. In Harar, knowledge of chat is said to be a gift from the archangel Jibril; in Yemen the herb is celebrated as the "Flowers of Paradise". As is the case in the Horn of Africa, users praise its medicinal qualities.

Miraa is stronger than coffee, and considerably so in the case of certain varieties. …

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