Nadifa Abdi, 47 sells khat, the mildly narcotic leaf that is chewed across the Horn of Africa
I started the khat business a week after the dictator's regime was toppled in 1991. That regime banned khat but permitted cigarettes and wine. Our faith does not allow for the consumption of alcohol, so very few people indulged in it. I was a housewife and my husband was a driver and life was good.
In 1991, hungry Somalis looted factories and banks. Khat became an open business. My husband had no government car to drive, so I tied my scarf at the waist (made more effort) and started earning our daily bread -- you see how life changed.
My husband became the babysitter. Women became the breadwinners of the families. Sixty percent of the women started selling khat and the rest sold jewellery, tea, milk, fuel, meat and vegetables on the streets.
Most of them were widowed. Men were either killing or being killed or becoming house husbands. Women from rich families also started running businesses. Hungry men with no jobs were looking for women who sold khat, milk or had a small shop to marry.
The period after 1991 was good for women. Women who were neglected like pet animals ruled the family. Men had to be loyal or else they were told, “Take this cash and give me a letter of divorce.” Men who looked after the children enjoyed life, chewing whatever their wives sold -- khat, meat or vegetables.
Unlike wine, khat is good. Any man who chews its leaves or branches becomes alert, aroused, happy and stimulated. Old women whose husbands chew khat appreciate it. They say, "My husband sees me as a young girl but to him I will look my real age if he stops chewing khat.” However, the young wives of khat-chewing men say their husbands are not active in bed.
I'm sure warlords were good for Somalis. Life was cheap and business was open for all. Militias bought a plane of khat, tanks of fuel, meat and vegetables daily, so there was a circulation of money. A kilo of khat was only $2 but now it's $13-$15.
In 2006, brutal Islamists emerged. Their main aim was to destroy society. First of all, they destroyed the warlords and their militias who were mainly driving the economy. They forced us to put on heavy veils in Somalia’s hot climate. And lastly, they banned khat.
People talk of six peaceful months under the Islamic courts but this is nonsense. They prevented women from working and people almost died of hunger during their rule.
Ethiopian troops came and drove out the cruel Islamists in December 2006. This was a joy. We never wanted the Ethiopians but Al-Shabaab forced us to love them because Al-Shabaab beheaded our people and closed our businesses.
Unfortunately, Al-Shabaab came back and carried out many explosions in 2007. But they did not ban khat this time. Instead they took thousands of dollars in daily tax from the K50 airstrip where planes carrying khat always landed.
I always sold khat in the government areas but Islamists conducted guerrilla warfare almost every day in this place and Ethiopian troops kept on fighting these Islamists. Many women died in buses and in the streets after Islamists targeted them with roadside bombs.
The worst moment was when a masked man hurled a grenade at us in the K5 area where hundreds of women sell khat. Five people including women and street boys died on the spot and a dozen others were injured. The masked man escaped. I could not eat food for two days.
I always remembered how their flesh was scattered in front of me, but we did not stop business because we did not have any other source of income.
The government grew weaker. Al-Shabaab took most of the country save small portions of the capital Mogadishu and most of central Somalia. There is no life in the areas under Al-Shabaab control -- women have been banned from working.
Today, khat from Kenya is sold in Mogadishu and central Somalia.
The problem with khat is that you cannot avoid fighting men. We buy khat on credit and sell on credit. What else can you do? There isn't much employment. Only a few people work for the government.
Most customers wait for the couple of hundred dollars their relatives in the diaspora send at the end each month. We get by by putting our jewellery down as a deposit.
Then you know what follows. We look for customers who hide because they are unable to clear their debts. We cling on them and drag them in the streets -- that's the only time we get money back from the relatives.
The good thing about Somali culture is that it's taboo for men to fight women. You drag him like a cat until his next of kin tells you, 'Just leave him and tell me how much he owes you.” You get the cash on the spot or a promise that you'll be paid after a few days.
What shame for the khat-eaters but life goes on like that. A woman who sells khat never shies away from collecting her profits. Those are the pros and cons of khat.
The problem is when the one who owes you money joins Al-Shabaab. It's happened to me. All wanted people -- murderers, thieves and those limping with debts -- join Al-Shabaab. There's no other option. You have to give up hope of being paid.
Big men in Nairobi who hire planes to transport khat are today millionaires. They buy buildings in Nairobi and send their children abroad.
For us, we are struggling with life. I sell 15-20 kilos a day and earn $40 dollars a day. I have employed a man at $150 and a woman at $200 a month. I have also employed two young street boys at $30 each a month. All these people help me sell khat, collect money and serve customers.
Men smoke cigarettes too much when they chew khat. They also buy flasks of tea. Women do not chew at all in Somalia. I heard about two or three women who furtively chew but I have never witnessed it.
When khat is banned the whole economy is destroyed because businesses and people depend on the income from khat. Five of my kids are now in secondary school. I pay their fees from khat.
You cannot talk about love when you come home tired at 10pm from working all day. You only have some minutes to ask the husband if he fed the children and washed them, then you throw yourself onto the bed like a log.
We rarely see our husbands. We struggle most of our time to generate income for food, clothes and school fee. Selling khat is a tedious task. I would do other work if we had peace and effective central government.
Khat-eaters are the losers. I remember men who lost their villas because of eating too much khat on credit. We never give khat on credit to someone who has no property. If he fails to pay, you auction his property.
I once took the car of a customer who failed to pay $2,000. I pray for my children always, so that they do not eat khat in the future.
As told to Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu. Photo by Omar Faruk
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