Book Review by Dr. Steven W. Thomas / go back to Issue 5 

Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia, edited by Ezekiel Gebissa, Red Sea Press, 2010

Leaf of Allah: Khat and Agricultural Transformation in Harerge, Ethiopia, 1875—1991, by Ezekiel Gebissa, Ohio University Press, James Currey, Btec, and Addis Ababa University Press, 2004

Before I visited Oromia this summer, I had never given a second thought to khat. Admittedly, I only started learning about Oromo politics and culture a few years ago, and mostly I have focused my attention on the issues you might expect, such as the political struggle for liberation, the Gada system, religious diversity, etc. And of course I was very familiar with Ethiopia’s world-famous coffee as well as the new global “fair trade” movements such as Equal Exchange that Ogina presented in its very first issue [here]. But travelling around the country, especially when I visited Harar, I was profoundly struck by the amount of khat everywhere, and I even wrote about my initial impressions on my blog shortly after I got back to the United States [here]. As I began to read more about it, I soon discovered that I should have been more aware of the khat trade even before my travels for four different reasons – the first economic, the second political, the third cultural, and the fourth personal.

First, khat is now Ethiopia’s second largest export after coffee, bringing millions of dollars (billions of birr) into the country every year—especially to the Oromia region, where it has significantly improved the livelihoods of small farmers. Second is that several governments, led by the United States, have tried to criminalize the international khat trade and have even made specious claims linking it to terrorism; at the same time, inside Ethiopia, many have loudly argued that khat is the root cause for all sorts of social, economic, and medical maladies. Third, khat has been an important part of Oromo culture in the Hararge region for more than a century. Fourth, speaking about my own academic interests, my Ph.D. dissertation was about such cash crops as tobacco and sugar in the eighteenth century—cash crops that were the subject of extensive and highly emotional debates in the eighteenth century in much the same way that khat and coffee are today. My own interest in the commodity culture of the eighteenth century began with my desire to better understand the political institution (the democratic nation state) and economic system (global capitalism) that emerged out of that particular historical moment and still dominate the world today.

Ezekiel Gebissa shares many of the same concerns as I do. His impressive first book Leaf of Allah—published in 2004 by academic presses in four different countries, England, the United States, Ethiopia, and Somalia—was thoroughly researched and lucidly composed in the tradition of the classic studies of important commodities by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians such as Sydney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), T. H. Breen’s Tobacco Culture (1985), Mark Curlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), and Judith Ann Carney’s Black Rice: The African Origin of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2002). His interest in khat goes far beyond the simplistic and moralistic debates about its effect on health. By focusing on the most lucrative cash crop produced in Oromia, his argument has important implications not only for how we understand khat, but for how we understand Ethiopia’s current system of agriculture, its relationship to the global market, and the future of the political and cultural identities of the millions of people who struggle day by day to make a living. And I feel that I cannot stress this point strongly enough, that (like the early works of Mintz and Breen) Gebissa’s two books are not only about khat; they also asks us to rethink how we understand everything about Oromo politics and culture—indeed, how we understand the world we live in, no matter who we are and no matter where and how we are living.

The central question that guides Gebissa’s first book is a fundamental one: why and how small farmers make the decisions they make as they struggle to earn a living. In answering this question, Gebissa has interviewed hundreds of farmers and others involved in the khat trade, analyzed government documents, and read widely in order to understand how the cultures of production, distribution, and consumption interact. His thesis is somewhat surprising but convincingly argued—that the economic policies of Ethiopia’s government actually encouraged the khat trade despite its intentions. In other words, alongside the official economy regulated and promoted by the government, there emerged an unofficial “parallel market” that was neither legal nor illegal.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century during the expansion of Ethiopia’s empire, land was allocated to state officials and soldiers resulting in a scarcity of land for local farmers. At the same time, the building of the railroad and roads created faster means of transportation which expanded and intensified trade networks. Farmers responded to land scarcity and made use of the new infrastructure by supplementing their income through the khat trade. Khat had already been used by farmers as a stimulant; farmers would typically begin the work day by coming together, chewing khat, and discussing practical issues. At the same time, for the urban elite in Harar and other predominantly Muslim cities around the Red Sea, khat was used in Islamic rituals.

Later, after World War II, the khat trade expanded greatly as roads and airports were built. It was even promoted by Haile Sellasie’s government as part of its program for economic development. Khat became especially important when the global price of coffee dropped, so pound-for-pound, khat was simply more profitable than coffee even though coffee was supported by government investment. However, a number of factors encouraged a “parallel market” to develop; the government’s attempt to control the market were ineffectual, and independent traders wanted to avoid high taxes; in addition, conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia and other political problems encouraged a black market to develop. In the 1970s, after the Derg (the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991) gave more control of the land to local cooperatives rather than absent landlords, farmers often decided to supplement their incomes with khat. In addition, the consumption of khat increased when the Derg sent young college students around the country to educate and organize the people. However, as before, the Derg’s efforts to control the khat trade were ineffectual, as farmers could find much better prices through parallel markets.

I’m afraid my brief summary of Gebissa’s book does not do justice to the complexity of his analysis and the long history of agricultural transformation in the Hararge region. He concludes that the “parallel market” for khat is an essential part of the overall economy, providing employment and income for millions of people. However, it is not a sustainable solution to the problem of land scarcity and poverty. Even though it has given some farmers income that they can either reinvest into more productive farming methods or find alternative forms of employment, it has not led to a structural change in Hararge’s economy. For that, Gebissa recommends that the Ethiopian government listen more attentively to what the farmers have been saying all along—that the region has to shift to nonfarm economies.

My one criticism of the book is that there appears to be a tension. On the one hand, the hero of the book is the free-trading, innovative, and entrepreneurial small farmer who makes practical decisions that respond to real market conditions, and the bad guy in the book is the bumbling, misguided state. On the other hand, Gebissa also argues that it is precisely the state’s development of infrastructure (roads, trains, airports, etc.) that contributed to the khat trade’s expansion, and he acknowledges that the more “free” parallel market is not the solution to the region’s economic problems. But my minor criticism only draws attention to what Gebissa’s book makes abundantly clear—that the reality on the ground is far more complex, volatile, and contradictory than politicians tend to acknowledge.

Gebissa’s second book, Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia, broadens the scope of his first book and includes essays by other scholars including Hussein Ahmed, Daniel Mains, Degol Hailu, Habtemariam Kassa, Tesfaye Lemma Tefera, Daniel Start, and Christopher Clapham. The book is divided into three sections: (1) consumption, (2) production and trade, and (3) policy.

The consumption of khat has shifted from its traditional rituals and culture to a more generalized form. Today, khat is consumed by men and women from various socio-economic locations throughout the entire country. Debates about the medical or social problems claimed to be caused by khat rarely attend to the very different ways it is consumed. Farmers chew khat the same way we might have a cup of coffee in the morning, while wealthy urbanites mix alcohol and khat. Unemployed young people chew khat not only as a means of coping with economic despair, but also as a means of social networking as they seek opportunities of employment. These analyses are important for drawing attention to the long history of khat’s use. Much of the popular debate on khat lacks nuance, complexity, and sufficient evidence. Gebissa’s book is a refreshing and important contribution that focuses attention on the reality of the situation.

My only two criticisms of the essays in the book are these. First, there sometimes seems to be a nostalgic sense of the traditional “good” consumption versus the new forms of “bad” consumption. I’m not sure that dichotomy is ultimately helpful considering the way the world has changed whether we like it or not, though I readily concede Gebissa’s main point that traditional khat consumption was regulated by custom and put to productive use in contrast to the new propensity for overconsumption and abuse, where alcohol is often consumed to counteract the effects of the high. Second, in analyzing the role of khat in modern social life, the book doesn’t speculate about other forms of socializing and networking. For instance, a runners club, religious organization, or civic-minded group seems a far better use of one’s time than chewing khat. I wonder what a more holistic analysis of youth culture in Ethiopia might teach us if we analyze the use of khat alongside other forms of social activity. This might be an interesting topic for future research.

In terms of production and trade, much of this section repeats the argument made in Gebissa’s earlier book. However, the analysis is now both updated and expanded to address other regions of Ethiopia. In other words, Gebissa’s first book traces the history of khat production from 1875 to 1991, and the new book focuses on what has happened since 1991. All the authors agree that the khat trade has contributed to the development of infrastructure because of tax revenue. It has also helped farmers both diversify their economic base, which helps them overcome economic hardships due to drought or fluctuations in the global market. It has also enabled them to invest in more productive farming. Consequently, because of the success of the khat market and the increase in its popularity, almost all of the other regions of Ethiopia have also begun growing khat, much to the chagrin of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church whose traditional bias against anything associated with Islam is well known.

The main question of the book is whether khat production is not merely displacing coffee production but also food production. In other words, will Ethiopia starve itself because farmers are choosing to invest in the more profitable cash crop? The answer is no. Farmers tend to prefer to diversify, so the khat trade has not led to monoculture. Also, the profits from khat enable farmers to develop more productive and efficient farming of food. However, although a diversified agriculture certainly provides food security for the small farmer in the face of increasing land scarcity, that fact doesn’t necessarily translate into food security for the whole country. Therefore, I believe further study is warranted to investigate Oromia’s overall economy, in which khat is just one part.

Gebissa’s two excellent books provide the basis for future research and will certainly continue to be discussed and debated. In fact, a recent book, The Khat Controversy, co-authored by David Anderson, Susan Beckerleg, Degol Hailu, and Axel Klein in 2007, cites Gebissa’s Leaf of Allah in its introduction as the foundational work on the subject.

I have two specific suggestions for future research projects. First, since the late 1990s, theorists from a range of academic disciplines have critically engaged with a phenomenon called (for lack of a better word) globalization. The khat market seems to me a perfect case for anyone interested in the vicissitudes of globalization, and indeed, the globalization of the khat trade is exactly what The Khat Controversy is about. But that book does not take into account the diverse theoretical innovations by intellectuals such as Antonio Negri, Fredric Jameson, and Joseph Stiglitz which might provide further insight into the khat market. Joseph Stiglitz, a winner of the Nobel prize for economics and former chief economist of the World Bank, argues in his book Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) that the market flux produced by rapid capital investment and capital flight can be particularly traumatizing to developing countries and to the world’s poor who lack access to important market information and to centers of power such as the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi’s seminal Cultures of Globalization (1998) also focuses on power disparities in his analysis of the complex dialectic between the global and the local—a dialect which in effect homogenizes global culture (a process popularly known as McDonaldization) at the same time that the subordination of local cultures to that market exacerbates local tensions and intensifies some local traditions rather than others. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s important books Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004) are also critical of the sort of globalization promoted by Wall Street and the IMF, but they are more hopeful than Jameson; they speculate about the new underground, rhizomatic social networks that might empower marginalized peoples and bring together diverse groups in resistance to multinational corporations. Khat trade networks might be a perfect test case for these and other theories, and I suspect that Gebissa’s work will rightly challenge those globalization theorists to better attend to how small farmers think about their situation.

Second, since the 1960s, gender has become an important critical concept in the academic analysis of culture. Several times in both of Gebissa’s books it is noted in passing that the khat market has empowered women by providing alternative means of employment. It is also noted in passing that the social networks within which men and women chew khat are sometimes the same and sometimes different. However, these observations are limited to only a sentence in one chapter, another sentence in another chapter, and other offhand remarks here and there. Neither book offers any serious or sustained investigation into the effects of the khat trade on gender roles in Oromo society. I would suggest that scholars could benefit from feminist theory in their analysis of khat, and at the same time, I think feminist theory has a lot to learn from Gebissa’s observations about the important role of women in the khat market.

More than a century and a half ago, after his travels in Eastern Africa and his long stay in Harar, the English traveler Richard Burton wrote that khat was “food for the pious” whose properties were “enlivening the imagination, clearing the ideas, cheering the heart, diminishing sleep, and taking the place of food.” I assume the title for Gebissa’s second book comes from Burton’s observation. It also clearly focuses attention on the controversy over (and the anxiety about) the increases in khat production. Likewise, one of the men in Hararge that Gebissa interviewed observed that khat is the “Leaf of Allah” and therefore cannot be controlled by man. And if we cannot control it, what might we imagine is the future of khat as our world becomes increasingly (for better or worse) globalized?


Dr. Steven W. Thomas is a professor of English at The College of St. Benedict|St. John’s University in Minnesota. His article “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory” was published last year in the journal CineAction, and his article  “Taxing Tobacco and the Metonymies of Virtue” is forthcoming in a collection of essays entitled Global Economies, Cultural Currencies of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Michael Schwartz for AMS Press.