Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Talking about “chat”


Photo: A boy holding out a small bunch of “chat” at the market in Dire Dawa.

My first experience of chewing “chat” (a kind of leaf chewed by many people in East Africa and Middle East) when I was in Ethiopia was awful. I resisted trying it for a long time albeit hearing locals bragging about the many “feel good” effects it brings to one’s state of mind.

I finally gave in when I visited Harar, known for its top quality “chat”. Selling at about USD5 for a huge bunch of fresh young leaves, it’s a huge bargain for those who have to pay USD28-50 outside of Ethiopia.

Anyway, I read on the paper recently about a proposal to impose a more severe law against the importation of “chat” into the United States of America. 28 states  have passed a bill on the possession of “chat”, punishable by up to 1 year of jail sentence and USD1,000 fine. This has given rise to a lot protest from Eastern African immigrants. Many of them have argued that “chat” is like coffee to the Americans. “Chat” by the way, is legal in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya.

This is what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of USA claimed. “It is not coffee. It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word ‘khat’ (in certain countries, it is called khat) and put in heroin or cocaine.”

When I read this, I couldn’t help but laughed out loud. I mean, you have got to be kidding me, right??!! As far as I am concerned, while living in Ethiopia for close to one year, I have not even once witnessed any young or old kids going out and shoot somebody.

I am sorry but I think the DEA was probably on heroin or cocaine when he said this. He should first investigate whether those school kids in America who went ballistic and started shooting up their peers and then killed themselves were on “chat”, heroin or cocaine.

I am not promoting any intoxicant (“chat” contains alkaloid cathinone, a chemical structure to amphetamine but about half as potent) but I doubt that it is as harmful as what the DEA claimed.

“Chat” is not just a substance used to create that “high” people often talk about. It is a cultural practice that bonds the community and create fellowship. I wonder if the name “chat” itself is synonymous to chat because it makes you chatty. I’ve been told that it enhances one’s concentration level and at some stage, you may even gain some sort of spiritual alertness. That’s part of the reason why people often gather in a group and chew for hours because it allows them to engage in intense conversation, which often range from politics, religion and life. Many students chew “chat” to help them concentrate during exams.

My own experience of “chat” was nothing out of the extraordinary. A few friends and I gathered in a room rented out for “chat” chewers. Two of them were Ethiopians and hence they were able to guide us on how to achieve “nirvana”. The room was dark (apparently when you chew, you become sensitive to light) and cozy with carpets and rugs thrown on the floor. Teas and drinks were served regularly.

So there I was, pretty excited about my first flirt with “chat” and I thought the ambience was right to strike my first deep conversation but sadly, it never came. After chewing for hours and hours, it made me nauseous more than anything. The leaves left a bitter taste on my tongue and I kept gargling my mouth with water right after I spat out the dark green remnants of the leaves. You’re supposed to chew on the leaves until all the juices are completely drained, swallow and then spit the pulp out.

If anything, I was getting sleepy and my jaws hurt from all the chewing. Yet, nothing intelligible came to my mind. I was even more quiet than normal. Well, I was taught not to talk with my mouth full! I looked at my friend and asked whether it was working for her and she nodded vigorously. She said that she could feel a cold chill running up from her spine to her head. Apparently, that is another side effect of “chat”.

I looked around me and everyone else seemed to be happy and relaxed. One of the Ethiopians who was normally quiet had started to loosen up and none of them looked like they were going to shoot anyone.

I checked my spine and head, nothing…… I didn’t become more chatty on the “chat” and I didn’t feel any sensation that I was supposed to feel. So, there and then, I decided to break up with “chat”.