Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Khat: A Psychologist's Field Trip

Looking for a chew in London.
I ran across a great story by Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks, about his stroll around London, looking for khat, the East African stimulant plant that is chewed much like coca leaves.

 Research psychologist Vaughan Bell is not your average armchair academician. Currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, Bell is well known online for his contributions to the Mind Hacks blog, which covers unusual and intriguing findings in neuroscience and psychology. He recently taught clinical psychiatry at Hospital Universitario San Vicente de Paúl and the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia, where he remains an honorary professor. He has also worked for Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) as a mental health coordinator for Colombia. (See my interview with Bell last year).

Reprinted with permission:

Finding myself at a loose end yesterday I decided I’d try and track down one of London’s mafrishes – a type of cafe where people from the capital’s Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni community chew the psychoactive plant khat.

I’d heard about a Somali cafe on Lewisham Way and thought that was as good a place as any to try. The cafe owner first looked a bit baffled when I walked in and asked about khat but he sat me down, gave me tea, and went out back to ask his associates.

“Sorry, there’s no khat in Lewishman. We have internet?” he suggested while gesturing towards the empty computers at the back. I kindly declined but in reply he suggested I go to Streatham. “There are lots of restaurants there,” he assured me.

Streatham is huge, so I arrived at one of the rail stations and just decided to walk south. Slowly I became aware that there were more Somali-looking faces around but there were no cafes to be seen.
Just through chance I noticed some Somali cafes off a side street and walked into the first one I saw. “There’s none here, but next door”, I was told. The people in the next cafe said the same, as did the next, and the next, until I came to an unmarked door.

“Just go in,” a cafe owner called to me from across the street, so I walked in.

The place was little dark but quite spacious. My fantasies of an East African cafe translocated to London quickly faded as my eyes adjusted to the trucker’s cafe decor. Inside, there were four guys watching the news on a wall-mounted TV.

The cafe owner greeted me as I entered. I asked my usual question about khat and he looked at me, a little puzzled.

“You know, khat, to chew?” I ventured. A furrowed brow. Thinking. “Oh, chat. Yes, we have bundles for three pounds and bundles for seven. Which do you want?”

“Give me one for seven” I said. “No problem” he replied cheerily. “Have a seat”.

This wasn’t the first time I had tried khat. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the Midlands, I discovered khat in an alternative shop. It was sold as a natural curative soul lifting wonder plant from the fields of Africa.

I bought some, didn’t really know what to do with it, and just began to ‘gently chew’, as the leaflet advised, while walking through the streets of Nottingham.

So when my bundle of khat arrived, I just picked out some stems and began chomping on one end. “Wait, wait, stop!” they shouted in unison. “We’ll help you” said one and I was joined by the cafe owner and a friend. “Anyway, he said”, “you’re not allowed chew alone, it’s a social thing.”
I was given a bin to put beside my table, was shown how to strip off the stems and pick out the soft parts, and how to chew slowly. I was provided tea and water on the house and told to keep drinking fluids. Apparently, it can be a little strong on the stomach and the plant makes you go to the toilet a lot as, I was told, ‘it speeds up the body’.

I had the company of the cafe owner, a Somali Muslim, and his friend, an Ethiopian Christian.
Over the next two hours we chewed and talked. Ethiopian politics, football, living in another country, khat in Somalia, Haile Selassie, religion, languages, Mo Farah, stereotypes of Africa and family life in London.

People strolled in an out of the cafe. Some in jeans and t-shirt, others looking like they’d just walked in from the Somali desert. Everyone shook my hand. Some bought khat and left, others joined us, all the while chewing gently and drinking sweet tea. At one point I asked the Christian guy why he wore an Islamic cap. He whipped off his hat. “I’m bald” he said “and it’s the only cap you can wear inside” which sent me into fits of laughter.

Khat itself has a very tannin taste and it is exactly like you’d imagine how chewing on an indigestible bush would be. It’s bitty and it fills your mouth with green gunk. The sweet tea is there for a reason.
The effect of the khat came on gently but slowly intensified. It’s stimulating like coffee but is slightly more pleasurable. There’s no jitteriness.

It reminded me of the coca plant from South America both in its ‘mouth full of tree’ chewing experience and its persistent background stimulation. But while coca gave me caffeine-like focus that always turned into a feeling of anxiety, khat was gently euphoric.

My companions told me that it lifts the spirits and makes you talkative. They had a word, which for the life of me I can’t remember, which describes the point at which it ‘opens your mind’ to new ideas and debate.

The active ingredient in khat is cathinone which has become infamous as the basis of ‘bath salts’ legal highs which chemists have learnt to create synthetically and modify. But like coca, from which cocaine is made, the plant is not mental nitroglycerine. It has noticeable effects but they don’t dominate the psyche. It’s a lift rather than a launch.

The guys in the cafe were not unaware of its downsides though. “Don’t chew too often” they told me “it can become a habit for some”. I was also told it can have idiosyncratic effects on sexual performance. Some find it helps, others not so much.

Not everyone was there for khat. Some guys chewed regularly, some not at all, some had given up, some only on special occasions. Some just came to hang out, drink tea and watch the box.

Towards the end when I felt we had got to know each other a bit better I asked why the cafe was unmarked. The owner told me that while khat is legal they were aware of the scare stories and were worried about the backlash from less enlightened members of the community. ‘Immigrants sell foreign drug’ shifts more papers, it seems, than ‘guys chew leaves and watch football’.

Eventually, I said my goodbyes and decided I could use my buzz to go for a walk. I made London Bridge in a couple of hours. But I think my newfound energy came as much from the welcome as it did from the khat.

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