Qat is a daily part of existence of many (most?) Somalis, and those in Somaliland were no different. A mildly narcotic leaf that you spend all afternoon chewing, it typically leads to heightened conversations and more intense reactions. Done in moderation, it’s no different that a bunch of people sitting around having a few beers, or maybe a lot of caffeinated and sugary tea (which also happens here). Done not so much in moderation, and it can lead to serious side-effects and dependency, as any drug – be it alcohol, cotton candy, or something harder, can have.
In any case, while preparing for an eight-day trip to Somaliland, I figured I would have a qat interaction at some point – avoiding it completely would likely just cut me out from a large segment of society, and a key cultural routine. Many a afternoons are spent chewing the leaf, while hanging out with friends either at home or a qat “den.”
One early afternoon, I met up with a contact, who introduced me to two young lawyers from one of Somaliland’s largest law firms. We had a lunch of camel soup, camel meat, and camel milk – all camel all the time – which was another typical Somali aspect I had to partake in (it was actually all quite good).
I had no other meetings scheduled until 5:30pm that day (given the heat, little occurs from 1 to 5pm most afternoons, especially during the summer), so they asked if I wanted to join them back at their law firm. I said sure, I’ll check it out, as never in my life have I been in a law firm in Somaliland. So another crucial item to check off the bucket list.
On our way back to the law firm we made a pit stop. I wasn’t exactly sure why at first, but when I saw my contact returning with many a long stem of green leaves in clear plastic bags, I figured it out – it was qat time.
We arrived at their law firm, which was really a large house converted into an office, as many stand-alone offices are in this part of the world. Upon entering there was a small room with a desk and chair – a typical area for a receptionist. After that, however, was the living room. Instead of being a place of cubicles and desks as I would have expected of one of Somaliland’s largest law firms, it was a place of mats and little else. This was clearly a qat den.
There were probably about 15 individual spots set up along the walls of the room. Each had their own trash can, mats, and pillows – this was no amateur set up. Clearly this room was utilized for this purpose on a regular basis, just as you would expect of your top-notch lawyers.
There is an entire ritual, or procedure perhaps I should say, associated with chewing qat. First of all, the well dressed lawyers I had lunch with had changed their attire, eschewing their button-down shirts in favor of their undershirts, and removing their pants for a long cloth wrapped around their waist, more akin to a skirt.
Not having the appropriate attire, I instead chose my place next to my contact, and stretched my legs out, laying quite comfortably up against the cushion on the wall (I considered taking off my pants, but thought that’s too cruel to do to anyone, ever). Next to me was my trashcan, a litre of water, and an entire thermos of sweet, sweet, very sweet tea – all essentials of the qat chewing experience. The leaves themselves were washed and then placed standing up in the wastebasket itself, to dry. Afterwards they would be put back in the plastic bags next to each person, and the wastebasket would then become a normal wastebasket for refuge, like the long stems of the plant.
The session began with about five or us, but more people kept filtering in an out (including a very charismatic but conservative imam at one point, who spoke perfect English and went around making fun of everyone for chewing qat while urging us replace that with prayer instead. He disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and with no apparent converts – though given his charisma, if he had stayed another five minutes or for three more qat chews, I probably would’ve been had). In any case the men (it was and typically is only men) all sat around, chewing their leaves, and discussing the day’s topics, which often involved politics and current events. The conversation went in and out of Somali, so I was only privy to certain sections, usually when an inquisitive newcomer was curious about the obvious foreigner in the room.
This continued for about 2 hours, until around 4pm. At that time, people slowly began to set up small plastic trays next to their spots, and break out their laptops. Ostensibly to work, as even I was given the Internet code, but every time I looked at my neighbor, there was a combination of soccer highlights or Facebook pages on his screen.
I asked them if they did this every afternoon – they said no, but in a manner that implied yes. We had arrived a little before 2, and I stayed until 5 – with more people still cycling in and the qat session going strong when I left.
Having gotten my cultural experience out of the way, I thanked them and departed for my next meeting. But I was left pondering the whole experience. I suppose its no different than a bunch of lawyers getting together for a few drinks for happy hour after work – that is, if the law firm had its own bar as soon as you walked in, and the happy hour began everyday after lunch. In some law firms perhaps!
But I was left a little judgmental, especially given how professional and put together the two lawyers had seemed during our lunch meeting. Nothing changed during the qat session, but I realized the extent to which this ritual pervades Somali culture, given that even these guys were partaking in this activity near daily, and their law firm had an entire room and set up dedicated to it. It may affect productivity in some way given that it seems the real work all gets done before lunch, but there could be other positive effects in terms of office bonding and current events information-sharing I suppose. For better or worse, it’s an indelible part of the culture, so next time you are in desperate need of a lawyer in Somaliland during the afternoon, you better be ready for some qat too!