The Miraa menace in North Eastern Kenya

For many, it is peer pressure, others curiosity. While for some it is addiction resulting from hereditary. The Miraa, also known as Khat, menace in Northern Kenya is causing marriage crisis.

Catha Edulis – known in popular lingo as khat – is an evergreen shrub grown and chewed in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, a fact that explains the traditional use of the substance among people from these areas. Khat leaves and stems contain dopamine and cathinone which induce euphoria, stimulation and dispel fatigue.

Dashes (Marfash)

Arguably, Miraa is the bane of the Somali community, a label that exactly fits because of the community’s immense partake in Miraa consumption. In Garissa alone the wild narcotic is sold and consumed in over hundred temporary built shades commonly known as Dashes. It’s in these Dashes that the chewers gather and make stories while they wait for it. The sight of it being brought to the Dashes from the transporting vehicles makes them cheer wildly while tossing their hands in the air in merriment. It’s a scene of exuberance and pandemonium!

The evergreen shrub is used by both young and old men alike and even – women – though not as many as their opposite sex. Men of different age groups spend most part of their nights chewing Miraa at social gatherings  – a fact that raises an eye brow among their wives.

These men are known for staying up late till three or four in the morning thus not meeting their wives’ desire for intimacy and sexual needs.

Raha, 39, explains how her husband is taken away by the Miraa menace. She says it’s her hard work and tolerance that the family is getting their daily bread. Her husband is not making an effort of providing the family with daily needs. She says the family lives in a rented house and it’s her relatives abroad who pay her the rent. “You will see him roaming in the compound late night after he finishes chewing. At a time when everyone is sleeping and I always warn him of possible attacks by thieves but he heeds not my warnings,” Raha laments.

According to Raha, her husband doesn’t care whether the children eat or sleep hungry, a fact that makes her worried of her children’s future. “He is no longer interested in me or the children. I think the Khat is his wife and kids,” she adds in a rather angry tone. He sleeps throughout the day and wakes up at around dusk to start all over again.

Bulging cheeks

Adan Hussein, a 26 year old Miraa addict, is happy and feels good about it. He has been chewing since age 16 and still enjoys it though he knows the effects. At that relatively young age, his once full and white incisors and canines are replaced by glaring black spots dotting his gums.

He says he is aware of how his teeth changed and that will not stop him from chewing. I could see a discolouration along his receding gum line and in between his teeth clearly as he was responding to a question I posed to him. His bulging cheek couldn’t go unnoticed, either. Adan chews the poisonous honey, as he calls it, with his friends, most of who are divorced. He is not yet married and to him it is not a big deal as long as he enjoys life as a great Miraa chewer. He says Miraa can take the place of a wife in his life and he will not bother looking for a suitable spouse. “Why would I waste time in the name of looking for a spouse while the Miraa will reduce all the stress?” he asks rhetorically.

Adan chews the wild narcotic daily and he says he never misses money to buy it. When his pocket is empty his friends take the responsibility of buying for him. “Once you are a chewer, the question of where will I get Miraa today shouldn’t disturb you because you will never miss a friend who is willing to buy for you,” he says happily. Some also buy it on credit as they are known to and are long-term customers of Miraa traders.

The trend is not new in other parts of Northern Kenya. Men in other towns like Mandera and Wajir enjoy the habit too.  Interestingly, men in Garissa who chew Miraa know their counterparts in other towns and even enjoy it together when they visit these towns. You will not to see a Miraa chewer in Garissa who doesn’t know another chewer. “Right now if I go to Wajir or even Mandera, I will not miss a friend to chew with. I can even get accommodation and everything,” Adan says. “I have many chewing partners in these cities” he adds.

Family Break-ups

Miraa consumption is known to cause both health and marital woes at equal measures. Many Somali family break-ups results from Miraa addiction by husbands. Hundreds of family break-ups are as a result of this menace.

The Garissa Kadhi (judge) alone hears and settles 25 to 35 of family dispute cases resulting from Miraa per week. Victims of such brawls, mainly women, flock to the Kadhi’s chamber to seek divorce and free themselves from the nightmare. “We handle quite a good number, roughly 25 to 35 and most complaints raised in court by women are mainly on lack of maintenance which is caused by men spending all their earnings on Miraa,” says Garissa law courts Kadhi, Mr. Juma Ali Abdalla.

Mr. Juma says a marriage will be dissolved if the woman proves beyond reasonable doubt that the father of the children spends all his money on Miraa and doesn’t provide the basic needs for his family. “My verdicts are based on the Islamic law guided by the civil procedure rules. I normally grant the complaint her prayers if she proves her case beyond reasonable doubt and if not, I dismiss the case”, he says. According to Mr. Juma, most defendants who chew Miraa are hostile by nature. He says he takes as a responsibility to inform such persons that they’re in court and violent acts amount to creating disturbances in a court of law which might lead somebody being jailed or fined.

The Kadhi says he is intending to sensitize the community on the effects of Miraa and other drugs that lead to divorce through the local FM stations. He also says he discussed the issue with local sheikhs. “I have discussed the issue with the local sheikhs and we agreed that everybody takes the responsibility of sensitizing the community through Friday summons and mosque lectures.” He adds: “The most important thing to note is that we should all take a collective responsibility as a community and this shouldn’t be left to the Kadhi or sheikhs alone.”

Children remain the main victims of such family break-ups as they are left with one parent to raise them in a financially difficult situation. In North Eastern Kenya, it is normal to see a Somali child staying with relatives because his/her parents divorced and was left without the custody of any.

Health hazards

Besides the social woes, Miraa is known to pose a threat to one’s health. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the shrub as drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence, albeit less than tobacco and alcohol.

Miraa consumption may cause insomnia, nightmares and even tremors. Diseases like lungs and heart cancer are also associated with the shrub. Because of its simulative effect on the body mechanism, Miraa causes increase in blood pressure, body temperature and rate of respiration. Among female dependants, especially expectant mothers, Miraa adds health hazards to their unborn babies.

Miraa has seriously damaged the health, finance and relationships of Somali families in Kenya and needs to be addressed seriously, beyond community leaders. There is a need to raise awareness on the effects of Miraa, both on personal and social levels. Kenya has recently introduced strong measures to control the abuse of alcohol and strictly implements these measures and new laws. Similar legislation is required to control the abuse of Miraa and project families from its extensive damages.

By Mohamed Abdi.