Aidan Hartley Aidan Hartley

Ode to a leaf

A great white hunter takes aim at a few sacred cows in contemporary Africa


According to an imminent Home Office decree, I am on drugs, I cultivate drugs and I intend to push drugs. I thought Blair’s government was moving to decriminalise narcotics such as marijuana. Instead it wants to burden the police and customs further by banning the vegetable stimulant Catha edulis. Otherwise known as miraa, qat, or khat, this plant is grown in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, and millions chew it. Countless thousands of perfectly respectable immigrants in Britain consume miraa daily.

I have always chewed the leaf. It’s my new little cash-crop project on our farm. The privet-like shrubs will grow into trees and they clearly thrive in our highland tropical conditions with plenty of sun and watering. I love my miraa plants. I often stroke them and talk to them, as would Prince Charles. I sit in my chair and gaze rapt at their emerald leaves and reddish branches. My Samburu neighbours, who also like a good chew, have apparently nicknamed me ‘nyamiraa’ or ‘miraa scoffer’.

Miraa does this to people. Arabic and Abyssinian poetry, volumes of it, honours the leaf. On his journey to the holy Muslim city of Harar, Sir Richard Burton theorised that miraa was the lotus plant which caused Ulysses’ crew to lose all desire to return home after the wars in Troy. Ethiopian monks dubbed it the ‘food of the pious’ because it banished sleep, hunger and — when chewed enough — sexual appetite.

The Home Office apparently fears miraa makes Somali immigrants idle, robs households of dole money, and causes heart attacks, schizophrenia and tongue cancer. Like anything, of course, it depends on how much you imbibe. The leaf is surely not the reason why only 12 per cent of Somali immigrants are in employment.

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