Throughout Kenya, and especially in the Central Highlands and on the coast, you’ll often see people selling and chewing what looks like a bunch of twigs wrapped in a banana leaf. This is miraa, more commonly known abroad by its Somali name qat, a natural stimulant that is particularly popular among Somalis, Somali Kenyans and Yemenis. The shrub (Catha edulis) grows in the hills around Meru (the world centre for its production), and the red-green young bark from the shrub’s new shoots is washed, stripped with the teeth and chewed, with the bitter result being something of an acquired taste (it’s sometimes taken with bubble gum to sweeten it). Miraa contains an alkaloid called cathinone, a distant relative of amphetamine, with similar effects, though you have to chew it for some time before you’ll feel them. When they do kick in, they include a feeling of alertness, ease of conversation and loss of appetite. Long-term daily use can lead to addiction. It’s not always looked upon favourably, with signs prohibiting the chewing of it in many hotels and bars.
Miraa comes in bundles of a hundred sticks called “kilos” (not a reference to their weight) and various qualities, from long, twiggy kangeta, which is the ordinary, bog-standard version, to short, fat gisa kolombo, which is the strongest. As it loses its potency within 48 hours of picking, it’s wrapped in banana leaves and transported at speed. Street stalls selling it often display the banana leaves to show that they have it, and the best place to buy miraa in many towns is where the express matatus arrive from Meru. The use of miraa by bus, truck and matatu drivers goes a long way towards explaining why they have so many accidents. There are no legal restrictions on the use of miraa in Kenya, although imams have issued a fatwa (legal judgement) condemning it as an intoxicant, like alcohol, which means that it is forbidden to true believers. In fact, in most countries (but not the UK), miraa is a controlled narcotic, the possession of which is a criminal offence.