August 15, 2008


For those pharmacopiacally savvy, miraa is more commonly known in Somalia and Ethiopia as 'qat.' Miraa is a plant with the effect of a mild narcotic. You chew the leaves for a long time in order to relax with friends. Its use is very popular and has a long lineage in Somali culture. It reportedly reduces appetite and heightens alertness. Although banned in many countries (U.A.E., Saudia Arabia, and Oman to my knowledge) miraa is widely available and completely legal in Mombasa. However its use carries certain social stigma (as I was to find out in my attempts to 'score' some) and its use is restricted in many public places like parks and nightclubs.
But first some background. Qat/miraa is illegal in the United States, but in D.C. its available, depending on who you know. I recall walking to a club with some Ethiopian friends and trying it for the first time. The overwhelmingly feeling I had was of chewing bitter, dried leaves. Which is why I had trouble understanding the fuss at one of our monthly ANC meetings when several neighbors stood up to give vehement denunciations of its use and supposed effects. You would have thought we were talking about crack cocaine from the way they described it. (Then again, we are talking about a particular group of DC residents whose tolerance for instant coffee, unleashed dogs, untended lawns, and loud noise is about zero, and whose idea of a good time is remaking the entire neighborhood over with latte-shops, dog-parks, and as few poor, black, or Latino residents as possible.)
Anyway, I went to a pan shop here in Mombasa to inquire about miraa and the guy directed me vaguely in the direction of the shop next-door. With some misgiving, I entered a pharmacy and observed the man behind the counter who looked Somali in appearance and whose wife and children were with him in the shop. My sixth sense should have taken over at this point and induced me to leave the shop, but I foolishly pressed on, asking him if he sold miraa. "Come again?" he said, as if he couldn't believe his ears. "Unauza miraa?" I repeated my question growing more sure that this was a bad idea. The man became visibly upset, "What! Man, use logic! This is a pharmacy, why would I sell miraa?!" As I stumbled for the right words, he continued, "Maybe you want some brown sugar too, huh, some heroin?!" I left the shop rather embarrassed.
My next foray was more successful. For 100 Ksh, I bought a bunch from an official miraa shop up near the bus stations. (Bus drivers reportedly utilize it for their long cross-country and overnight trips). Popping the leaves in my mouth (which were much fresher than the miraa I tryed in DC), I walked as I chewed. The leaves initially numb your mouth and are quite bitter. After two hours, I felt a bit lightheaded but that was all. (I did lack an appetite, but that was more likely due to the HUGE lunch I had at the Gujarati-owned New Chetna all vegetarian restaraunt.)
Overall, the leaf did not induce any Aldous Huxley, "Doors-of-Perception" type experience, and I felt like an idiot.


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