The women of miraa: Soldiering on despite societal backlash

In Garissa, the trade is scorned and admired in equal measure.

It is 5:45am and as the sunlight colours the sky with a pinkish hue ushering a new day, about 30 women hurl up at a corner of the Garissa town market ready to receive pickup trucks which travelled overnight from Meru with their merchandise.

The goods in question is khat (miraa) which are packed in gunny bags clearly labelled with each of the women’s names to avoid confusion over who ordered what.

Unlike the other women in the market, Sareye Budul Shafat does not appear bothered by the hustle to get the goods. She sits comfortably with her fingers clasped, three gold rings visible from a far as she nonchalantly looks on as her employee does the heavy lifting.

Her ten sacks are quickly opened up and repackaged into smaller sacks that will then be sent out to various distributors in Garissa town, Dadaab refugee camp and even Somalia.

By 10am, the distribution is done and the 50-year-old mother of ten is ready to run some errands in town before she goes back home and tends to her family.

Shafat, who has been in the miraa business since 1997, says she got into the business out of desperation. Her husband was diagnosed with glaucoma and could not work as much as he used to, leaving her with the heavy burden of fending for their family.

“His illness left very little option for me, I sold clothes at the market and I would go days without selling a single item. I saw that the miraa ladies were making a lot of money and that attracted me to the business,” she says.

Despite the fact that the business has had great financial impact on her family, Shafat says it has not been easy to sell miraa in a county that is predominantly Muslim.

This is because miraa is a narcotic that yields a jittery high and feelings of invincibility that results into a lethargic stupor and although alcohol and other drugs are considered haram, there is grey area when it comes to miraa.

The sun-blasted streets of Garissa are dotted with miraa stalls, indicative of just how successful a business venture this is, but majority of people remain unhappy with women like Shafat.

She buys her miraa from Meru County and she and her chama have also bought pick-up trucks to transport the merchandise on their own. Her miraa comes from farmers such as Jennifer Kathure in Maua where miraa is deemed as a precious commodity.

Kathure’s two-acre farm features not only miraa, but also other crops that provide food, forage and other household products. After inheriting the land from her brother, she decided to go into miraa farming because she had seen the success of it from her father.

“My brother inherited three acres, which already had miraa and I thought it best to follow suit and start miraa farming as well. I have been able to educate my children,” says the 47-year-old.

Unlike in Garissa, miraa in Meru is a crop that is loved and its trees dot school and church compounds. Here, it is a celebrated form of agriculture and no, the idea of calling it a drug does not augur well with the community.

The government also believes in the potential of miraa as a cash crop with President Uhuru Kenyatta announcing the creation of a Sh1 billion fund to assist farmers affected by the UK ban in April, 2016.

Kathure agrees with the opinion that miraa is just like coffee and those who condemn its farming are simply jealous, and not aware of what they are talking about.

She is not just a farmer. Kathure has previously vied for an elective post and although she was not elected as a member of county assembly, she says she would not have been able to vie for the position had she not attained success in miraa farming.

Paul Goldsmith an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for decades, however, argues miraa is stronger than coffee, and this is especially true depending on the crop variety.

“Miraa is stronger than coffee, and considerably so in the case of certain varieties. Its highly variable stimulatory effects are one of the more complicated differences between drinking the bean and eating the trees,” he says in ones of his articles.

While many may think negatively of miraa, it is considered a form of bonding among friends in places such as Pangani shopping centre where the parking is full of cars with open doors full of men who sit and chew leisurely every weekend.

Yusuf Khalif is one such individual who makes time, at least one day every weekend, to sit and catch up with his childhood friends from Moyale.

“We went to high school with most of these guys and I see no harm in sitting while drinking tea and chewing miraa as we catch up and even go over business ideas,” he says.

While the men chew freely in the open, women are more private about it and can be found a few blocks away at the Asmara club where they meet up in an enclosed space.

Kheirra Jamal and her friends are apprehensive about opening up on their lifestyle given that it is frowned upon for women to take miraa and she says she prefers doing it at home.

“I meet with my friends on some evenings, especially Friday, and we chat just like the men do but it is such a big deal to be more open about it although I see no harm,” she says.

Rose Kajuju who is also a miraa farmer in Meru says it is wrong for people to think of a plant that has given great economic returns as a drug. The 35-year-old says that making the cash crop illegal would hurt families like hers.

“It cannot be compared to tobacco or marijuana because those destroy families. This is a recreational product like tea or coffee, which creates an environment for people to sit and discuss issues,” she says.

The two women make money from the crop; with quality and type of product as the deciding factor on pricing of the crop says Kathure.

“The price of miraa has gone up. On my two-acre farm, for example, I can sell the miraa for around Sh200, 000 per season and sometimes the season comes twice a month,” she says.

Her only issue is that women should not climb trees to pick the miraa because that would be culturally wrong. Aside from that, there is nothing wrong save for the occasional thieves who break in.

“One of us was paid for the season in advance and before they could pluck, thieves came in at night and stole everything which meant returning the money and considering that season a loss,” says Kathure.

Back in Garissa, the trade is scorned and admired in equal measure, Halima Haji a 53-year-old mother of six says that women like Shafat who sell and distribute miraa are making a living from ruining the lives of men and boys and would like to see it banned.

“They are hurting other families and they do not care as long as they get their money. It is wrong to chew miraa and the religion does not allow it. Our young boys are missing out on prayers as they waste their days chewing this thing,” she says.

Shafat, however, believes it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure their children do not fall in the trap of consuming alcohol and drugs like miraa.

“I have five boys and none of them have taken it, if anything it is the business that has made it possible to offer my children this lifestyle,” she says.

Khadija Dabar, a mother of ten who also sells miraa alongside Shafat says that her conscience eats her up despite all the money she makes from the business.

“I had a farming business that fell through and I did not have a fall back plan so I decided to try this as a way of making money. I still wish I did not have to do it because my husband used to chew miraa and I know the havoc it can wreck on a family,” says the 52-year-old.

Despite her reservations it is evident that she, like Shafat makes a lot of money from the business. Unlike the female farmers in Meru, the women in Garissa are apprehensive about mentioning how much they make in a month.

The two are part of the ten-member Al-Amin Women’s Group who pay Sh200,000 each to join and pay a monthly contribution of Sh10,000.

Shafat says she makes about Sh20, 000 from selling miraa. This is a modest figure based on the opulent lifestyle they lead. She has a big house and two other businesses on the side, which she started with other miraa-selling women. They have also bought a pickup truck to transport their miraa rather than rely on hired transportation.

Both have several employees working under them and their women’s group has afforded them the luxury of buying four pick-up trucks that deliver miraa from Meru every day.

Shafat says she orders ten sacks that weigh 50kg each and that miraa prices range from Sh200 to Sh1,200 per kilo depending on the quality.

“I order about 70 kilos of Alele miraa, which costs Sh1,200 per kilo, while the rest of my stock costs much less,” she says.

Shafat and Dabar are the breadwinners of their families, a situation that is out of the norm in this region. Dabar’s husband, a diabetic, is a driver of one of their vehicles that ferry miraa.

“He needed something to do given his illness,” she responds when asked if she is her husband’s boss.

The situation is no different for Shafat whose husband does not have a job. During a visit to her home, we find him sitting outside on a mat and half way through the interview he mentions that he is stepping out to get a haircut.

One of their sons comes in to get money from Shafat before he and the dad leave for the barbershop.

The role that Shafat and the rest of the women at the market play in the sale of miraa is crucial. Even though they have gotten used to the backlash for their choice of business that does not seem to bother them as much as the threat from Al-shabaab who threaten to stop them by any means possible.

“We used to have the deliveries done in Somalia but now we just send them to the border and have our clients pick it from there,” says Dabar.

Despite the backlash they continue to receive, it is clear that selling miraa has had great impacts on their families and even if they wanted to get out of the trade, these women have invested a lot of time and money in the business to simply walk away from it.

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