Across the world, the rhythm of the day is determined by different things: the nine-to-five grind of financial hubs, the intervention of the afternoon siesta in some hotter reaches and the cycle of prayers in parts of the Islamic world.
Djibouti moves to a different cadence. Djibouti moves to qat.
In this sweltering Horn of Africa country where seemingly nothing is on time or precise, qat – a flowering plant chewed as an amphetamine-like stimulant in east Africa and Yemen – is the exception.
Nema sells qat from a rickety wooden table on Djibouti’s Airport Road. A tattered umbrella shields her from the sun and a hessian sack keeps the dust from the street off her valuable product.
Fallen teardrop-shaped leaves littering the ground around her stand are greedily nibbled on by a goat.
She asks that her surname not be used, saying that if the nationally worshipped drug appears in a negative light she could face repercussions.
Every day, Nema’s qat shipment arrives at 8.30am. In less than 12 hours, all of her merchandise are gone.
“I sell everything by the end of the day, but how quickly depends on the pockets of the customers,” she says. “When I leave this place I have nothing left on my table.”
The bundles of qat Nema sells run between 300 and 5,000 Djiboutian francs (Dh6 and Dh100). Buyers examine bundles, searching for stems with purple tinges and leaves that are juicy and not brittle.
Nema says she does not pay attention to the weight of the qat she receives, or how many bundles she gets. All she knows is that at the end of the day it is all gone and she has sold between 40,000 and 50,000 francs worth of product.
In a country with a GDP per capita not much higher than Yemen and India, the daily qat consumption takes a serious bite out of users’ wallets.
When users cannot afford their habit, they open a line of credit with qat sellers. But if their tab goes unpaid too long, the sellers take action.
Nema says her first course of action is to talk to the buyers and their employers. If that does not work, she goes to the court. The qat sellers say the courts can force users’ employers to withhold part of their salary every month and hand it directly to the sellers, ensuring their employees can still chew and be content and the dealers will get their money.
Does Nema chew on qat too? “I can’t be addicted to this. I’m selling it,” she says.
Qat, banned in most countries in the Middle East and across the world, is a unique commodity.
It starts losing its kick not long after it is harvested – usually within 48 hours – and is one of the few products in the world where the entire amount imported by a country is consumed that same day.
That means for it to be of any value to the Djiboutian chewer, it must get to them quickly. Djibouti’s sweltering desert climate is far too hostile for crops, so it is grown in neighbouring Ethiopia.
The qat must be harvested, brought by truck across the border to Djibouti City and dispersed across the country.
Last week The National tagged along as a shipment of qat made its way to the farthest corners of the nation.
At a fishing port in Djibouti City, the day’s product arriveed at mid-morning by truck. Bundles of qat were loaded onto a fishing skiff in the harbour and then passengers taken on as the qat transporters kept an eye on the load to make sure it was not too heavy.
After a crowded hour-long boat ride, the vessel pulled up on a remote sandy beach 30 kilometres outside the town of Obock. The qat boat was unloaded well outside of town so that they are not immediately swarmed by unruly customers.
At the beach, passengers hopped off into the shallow water and walked a few paces ashore where a pickup truck was waiting to take them – and the drugs – to town.
Loading up the vehicle, it was clear who the VIP passenger was: the qat was piled into the the cab of the truck, shielded from the elements, while passengers were relegated to the truck’s bed for a gripping, off-balance half-hour drive to town.
All along the desert road to Obock, buyers were already lined up for the hotly anticipated shipment.
Some stood in the middle of the road to make sure the vehicle stopped. Others came running to the truck from huts and lean-tos on the side of the road.
Buyers without money in hand were left in the dust, cursing and chasing the vehicle after not receiving their daily fix.
Back in Djibouti City, the impact of qat is easy to see.
By noon, the city’s streets start to clear out as people line up at qat stands, many decorated with paintings depicting the drug and its effects.
Soon, most of the men on the street have bulging cheeks and specks of green on their teeth. Their eyes start getting bloodshot, their movements a bit more erratic, and shouts for foreigners to come into downtown shops grow more aggressive.
While in some other countries like Ethiopia, qat is used on social occasions or more moderately to give a boost to productivity, here it is an essential part of everyday life.
Very little gets done in the afternoon in Djibouti.
On hearing The National inquire about the effects of qat in Djibouti, where so many are people hooked on it, a man buying his daily bundle proclaims: “When somebody is on qat, he doesn’t want to make trouble. It’s all peace and love.”