By Jihan Anwar
Mohammed, barely 15 years old, sells water at the Rowaishan roundabouts. His right cheek is slightly swollen from qat leaves. “It gives me energy,” he says “so that I don’t get tired and can sell more bottles, and I don’t feel hungry.”
Although the qat plant was known for centuries, Yemenis dealings with this narcotic tree underwent a drastic change in the past 50 years, to the point that children who chew are not an uncommon sight anymore.
“The scene was frightening,” says Ayman alSaghir, council member of the Eradah Foundation for a Qat Free Nation, “There were two children in the street and their mother begging next to them. The two kids, instead of being at school or engaging in games, were not only selling qat, but they themselves were chewing it.”
Qat went from being an unknown and rarely cultivated leaf, to invading multiple aspects of the lives of Yemenis as the ‘social drug’ per excellence. What has surfaced as a troubling custom is the fact that children as young as 8 to 10 years old chew in a more or less regular fashion, usually encouraged by their families. Despite the fact that in the past, qat chewing was seen as shameful for women and forbidden to kids, a report by the World Food Program estimated that 15 to 20 percent of children below 12 years of age chew qat on a daily basis. Moreover, the WFP reported that as much as 73 percent of Yemeni women have taken to chewing qat.
According to a bulletin by the World Health Organization, in the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 only, the area devoted to qat cultivation went from 8.000 to 103.000 hectares in the country. Mansour alGaradi, manager of Wujoh organization, comments “Our father used to tell us that qat wasn’t the pivot of people’s lives during their time. The opposite, it was a marginalized and secondary plant.”
Half a century ago, only a minority of old people used to chew qat, and even then, it was only for a maximum of two hours per day. “People in the south used to chew qat only on Thursdays and Fridays now they chew it every day sometimes multiple times a day. Also, qat used to be sold in few markets and during certain times of the day only, while now it’s sold everywhere and some places sell it 24/7” says Tofeek Mohamed, managing director at Bayview Motor Club, LLC. The easy access to qat, the presence of different types of qat leaves that targets diverse income levels and status of the Yemeni population, the cultivation of the plant year round, and its narcotic properties have contributed to its wide spreading.
Sumood Najjar, office manager at the National Cancer Control Foundation, herself not a qat chewer, observes “Before, qat wasn’t treated with toxic pesticides and fertilizers which are currently considered as one of the major cancer reasons in Yemen. Enhanced by toxic fertilizers and chemicals, qat grows speedily and is required little care, therefore farmers harvest it six times a year, compared to the one or biannual qat harvest of half a century ago.”
Waleed alSa’afani, a member of the Eradah Foundation, recounts of how, at about 9 years, he started chewing with his father to then become a qat seller for most of his adult life. “People cultivate qat because it is a lucrative plant. Some fathers may not buy food or clothes to their kids but they will pay thousands to purchase a bag of qat,” alSa’afani adds.
10 million people in Yemen were estimated to be food insecure by the WFP in 2012. Studies by UNICEF and Save the Children found that also in several families of middle-upper income, children were malnourished. “The financial resources of the family are being used for lower priority items such as qat, thus children are left without adequate nutritional needs or with imbalanced dietary intakes which causes them to be undernourished or malnourished,” explains Majed AlSharjabi, social marketing project director at Yamaan Foundation for Health and Social Development. Yemenis may spend daily from 300 Yemeni Riyals to 5000 YER to buy qat, this could be 15 to 20 percent of the salary of a high income family or as much as half of the income of a poor person.
WFP estimated that 15 million person-hours a day are spent chewing qat in Yemen. “A social disaster that we haven’t really paid enough attention to is that the public work force has come to become ‘a chewing working force’” noted AlGaradi. Though many say they chew so that they can gain focus and energy, the sedentary, mostly idle and passive type of lifestyle that is encouraged by qat sessions is a problem in and of itself. AlSharjabi, observes that qat chewing is often accompanied by habits such the use of energy drinks, shisha or hookah smoking or even psycho drugs such as Valium.
From a direct health perspective, “qat has an obvious effect on the cells of a mature person, starting from gum and prostate cancer, to kidneys failure,” pointed out AlGaradi; this is believed to be not so much because of the plant itself as for the pesticides that are sprayed upon it.
In addition to that, in adults, qat is reported as being a cause for tooth decay, constipation, high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, staining of teeth, inflammation of the gums, hallucinations and depression, to mention some. If we consider that children’s immune system and constitution is weaker than that of mature people, a worrisome portrait of the future average Yemeni population is depicted, if kids are allowed to chew qat since their childhood.
“Having children chewing qat often implies that children are among adults, vulnerable to be sexually or verbally harassed as well as be offered, or come in contact, with drugs or tobacco. There is also the possibility of children picking up several types of corrupting behavior that could lead them to commit crimes, become bullies or, in general, not be a contributing member of the society,”commented Mansour alGaradi.
Mohammed AlGomaei, a university student, admits of chewing qat every time he has a chance, a habit he says he can’t stop “until it’s replaced by something else”. AlGomaei adds that Yemen people who are not employed, find nothing better to do apart from attending chewing session and they are encouraged to stay at home “instead of going out to flirt with the other gender”.
Parents encourage their children to stay at home and study, ‘bribing’ them with qat as they are more quite and more inclined to obey while chewing.
Tofeeq Mohamed stressed that lack of education lead parents to believe that chewing is a good habit, especially for boys, and that some parents feel that qat is a symbol of manhood and transmit that perception to their kids.
AlSharjabi points out that, psychologically, seeing adults considered role models engaged in qat sessions leads children to think that maturity and social relations is linked with qat chewing and that not chewing brings with it some type of ‘social exclusion’.
Though qat chewing has spread among the youth, it’s also true that anti-qat organizations headed mostly by youth are directing their efforts at creating awareness about qat’s negative effects to the rest of the society.
“As I became more aware of the destructive effects of qat, I decided that I needed to change something. The 2011 revolution made people more optimistic about the possibility of changing the situation in Yemen,”says alSaafani, who, after stopping to sell qat about two years ago, has taken to study in the morning and works as cashier at al-Modeesh Restaurant. “Willpower was all that was needed to break the negative habit and change my life around, this is why I called my newborn daughter ‘Eradah’(the Arabic word for ‘will’), also in honor of the foundation,” stated alSa’afani.
Hind Aleryani, co-founder of Eradah foundation spoke of a protest that took place on Wednesday, 8th May in front of the House of Representatives to solicit the government to take into consideration a new law on qat. The law has been drafted and prepared by the council of health and population headed by MP Dr. Najeeb Ghanem. As the spreading of qat has been a progressive phenomenon, the petitioned law aims at implementing a progressive uprooting of the plant. Aleryani reported that “the law and its implementation is planned so as to have a qat free nation in the next 20 years, it’s designed in way that no side is negatively affected and includes gradual uprooting of the qat as well as compensations and incentives for farmers to stop cultivating qat trees”. Moreover, Aleryani explained that among the strategies of the law is that the government should provide entertainment and development places for youth as well as to provide with medical help people who want to stop chewing qat.
“We target the next generation in particular. Our purpose is to have a generation that is free from qat,”says Ayman AlSaghir, “Even those that presently make use of qat and believe that it’s impossible for them to stop, at the very least they should not encourage the younger ones to chew. We hope they will be the last ones in their family to chew.”