A Russian Antonov takes off every day from the runway of Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia. The V.I.P carried on this specially chartered plane is eagerly expected in Djibouti, like some august personage, and tremors of suppressed pleasure flutter through the arteries of the town. A hush of expectation descends and the town awaits Her with a dry mouth and a glint in its dusty eye. When the chartered Antonov lands, disgorging its precious cargo, a green wave surges out into the limp arteries of the town. First, there is a vociferation, then as mouths fill with cud, calm in the guise of an emerald veil descends on the torrid city.
Chatt (cata edulis) is Ethiopia’s fourth biggest export (after coffee, leather and oil seeds) and one that is growing every year. The traditional narcotic is exported mainly to Somalia and Djibouti, but also to the United Kingdom (73 tons last year) and a recent article in The Times of London pointed out that the consumption of chatt was becoming a concern among the youth of… Birmingham.
Closer to home, the leader of the new sharia courts in Somalia has been quoted as saying that he would ‘ban the leaf.’ But as Mohammed Seyid, a Somali shop owner in Addis Ababa told me, ‘that would be the end of them! Siad Barre – the leader of Somalia before the country’s descent into anarchy – tried the same. He quickly came back on that decision!’ ‘So, how about chewing a little, my friend? Nothing wrong in a few green leaves!’ Mohammed Seyid enjoined to me, with a grin on his face, showing me the green wares that hung from the roof of his minuscule shop.
Chatt is a narcotic, with calming effects and it is widely believed to be a tool in the hands of politicians. As Abdi Mohammed – not his real name- a Djiboutian health professional told me, ‘the damn thing keeps everybody complacent; they talk, and then they talk some more. They chew, then they chew some more. They make revolutions in the afternoon, forget them in the evening, sleep fitfully and get up to wait for the next plane.’ Nothing wrong in a few green leaves?
The first time I chewed chatt was on the deck of a dhow bound for Tadjoura. We had left the port of Djibouti in the late afternoon, and as we sailed across the gulf, dolphins dove into the surf and the sun set on the high black mountains at the bottom of the Ghoubbet el Kharab. A fisherman kept pulling silver colored fish out of the water with nothing but a hook decorated with a piece of crimson rag and clouds hung in a sky as blue and motionless as a photographer’s studio background. The chatt leaves were reddish green, bitter and chewy. ‘The best from Harrar, especially for you,’ Ali Suleiman, had said on the market in Djibouti. But he would say that. He was selling the stuff, and chewing it too. He had an intent gaze and pumped his contraband cigarette for all it was worth, a big bump of chatt filling his cheek. As I gingerly sampled the tough little leaves, the Djibouti gulf became a great mouth that swallowed the half walnut of a boat whole, chewing on us and swirling us around before spitting the dhow out onto the shore of Tadjoura. I had seen the green eye of the typhoon for the first time. ‘Her Majesty,’ Ali had called the intoxicating leaf, without a trace of irony.
The plan had taken shape during a chatt chewing routine with my friend Sammy Asfaw, chewer extraordinaire, dreamer, visionary and sometime writer. It must have been some very good chatt, because soon we had decided to take a trip, in the footsteps of Rambo, as Sammy was to put it later. We both, of course, thought this was a splendid idea. The strange thing is that for once, a chatt dream was put into execution and Sammy and I soon found ourselves gazing out across the escarpment from the ancient imperial seat of Ancobar, in central Ethiopia, towards what might have been Tadjoura in the distance with a lot of imagination and the help of a few good leaves.
The French poet Arthur Rimbaud (aka Rambo in Ethiopia) traveled from Tadjoura to Ancobar in 1886. He was running guns to the Negus Menelik, King of Kings of Ethiopia. The symbolist poet wrote his best poems before the age of 18, stopped writing altogether by the age of 20 and escaped to the ends of the earth – Scandinavia, Java, Cyprus, Yemen – then, finally, Abyssinia where he was to seek fortune for 12 long years, only giving up in the face of death.
And, five years after tasting those first leaves on the high platform of the dhow bound for Tadjoura, Sammy and I had decided to follow in the poet’s footsteps, from Ancobar to Harrar, where the best chatt fields of Ethiopia are found. ‘Why do you chew Sammy?’ I asked him, as we were chewing in the bus from Addis to Harrar. ‘I chew because I chew because I chew because I…’ I stopped him there and gave up on my question, a little ridiculous anyhow. ‘The Ethiopian youth of today chew because chatt is sold on every street corner, and because there are no jobs, and it wiles away time and it makes you feel good. You can be a genius for the afternoon before you go back to sleep in you tin hut’ Sammy declared sententiously a little later, a twinkle in his eye. ‘You can be anybody – even Rambo if you like,’ he added.
In Harrar the hills were covered in chatt and corn in alternated lines and Sammy smacked his lips in anticipation. Arthur Rimbaud lived in the walled city for many years, trading goods with local tribes and dreaming of making a killing, by selling guns, by finding limitless supplies of ivory. He talks disdainfully of chatt, ‘a mild stimulant that the locals use.’ Those words have been paraphrased countless times, although there is nothing mild about chatt and it is now a crop exported to Djibouti, Somalia and London. In Awadey, the Harrar chatt market, an old chewer was on skid row. His toothless mouth was full of leaves he had crushed with a mortar; his eyes were empty and his clothes torn. He insulted a man who picked up a stone and threw it violently at him, hitting him in the small of the back. The old man ran away. There did not seem to be a person in town, be it goat or human that wasn’t chewing and the atmosphere was volatile. Sammy, even in the midst of a chatt dream, had not accepted to come. They loaded the Isuzu truck till midnight, vociferating, pushing and fighting. Goats stepped in daintily and licked up twigs that formed a green mattress on the muddy floor. It was cold and the men’s mouths’ had an acrid smell when you moved too close to them.
Isuzu trucks are known by the name ‘Al-Quaeda’ for the daredevil driving of their chauffeurs that leaves trucks and road users wrecked and maimed. They leave at midnight from the walled city and there is a premium on arriving early in Addis Ababa –chatt depreciates fast with time. The drivers chew, soon fancy themselves to be driving tanks laden with green dreams and finish buried under the truck and load on the side of the road – a green dream turned green nightmare.
The driver drove with extreme concentration, as if our very lives depended on it, which they did. He considered bends and calculated the optimum speed to come out of them whizzing on the edge of his wheels, like in some action movie. He boasted he had never hit even a bird and I chose to believe him. He only took his eyes off the road to check how he was doing with his chatt supply that he ate the whole night long. We were stopped at check points in the rain where soldiers poked at our load and let us go. We saw hyenas bounding off back to the darkness where they belong. We saw, finally, a sliver of light towards the horizon in a sky that was gray and full of rain as we entered the suburbs of Addis Ababa. At the last check-point, a soldier asked me what I thought I was doing and I answered that I was traveling with my action hero, here at the wheel.
In Addis Ababa, the driver nodded to me, and as I slipped out of my seat I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror. My mouth was green, my face was gray and I was punch drunk from my travels with Rambo. Another chatt dream was dying. Nothing wrong with a few green leaves?