This is chat.
It’s the drug of choice for many people in Ethiopia (and by drug I mean any substance that affects your body, from coffee to LSD). A couple of my new found friends in Addis Ababa had offered to take me to try it if I was interested (i.e. to chew)… I hadn’t yet taken them up on the offer. But one day I was in a cafe, and a girl approached me (she had heard me speaking English to a friend who had since left) and asked me where I was from. I tell her, and it turns out she was born in Ethiopia, but had moved to California when she was 5… so she effectively grew up in Santa Cruz (for those of you unfamiliar with California geography, Santa Cruz is a hippy/university/beach town on the coast about an hour south of San Francisco). We got to shooting the shit, and then she mentioned she was going to meet two friends from San Diego (other born in Ethiopia but grew up in America folks) at a chat house nearby, and would I like to come? Well… yeah… of course.
So, first off, chat houses are illegal in Addis Ababa, but the law enforcement of them is even looser than the San Francisco Police Department’s enforcement of marijuana laws. My new found friend even told me a story about the time she (naively not knowing they were illegal) asked a policeman where a certain chat house was… the guy gave her directions, and even told her that there was a much better one just a couple of blocks over if she wanted to know… so there you go. We walk along a wide dirt road (many of the road here are unpaved) and come to a small roadside stand (picture a smaller version of the “store” at a little league field) and buy a bundle of chat (it’s not illegal to sell it, only to operate a place where people go to specifically chew chat). Next to the stand is a gate that we knock on… someone comes to answer the door and let’s us in (again, this is not unusual as almost every home that is not in the slums has a gate and a guard). There’s a small outdoor courtyard and around it are three buildings… we’re shown to the one in the back. At the entrance is a shelf full of shoes, so we take off our shoes and walk inside. We enter a plain, rectangular room about 20 feet by 35 feet… so pretty big. Around the walls of the room are seat cushions and pillows, and about 20 to 25 people are sitting around in groups talking. Each group of people has a bundle of chat laid out in front of them… and most people are busy picking leaves and chewing (the bare stems are just tossed on the floor toward the middle of the room). We sit down and pay the guy running the place (you “rent” the seat for the time you’re there). Everyone is friendly, and we even speak with a couple of people in English (my new friend is fluent in Amharic, so she also speaks to a couple of people that way). There’s tea service and shisha, so we get both and settle in to chew.
So onto the drugs. Chat is chewed… it’s as easy as picking the leaves of the stem (for some reason nobody touches the very biggest of leaves), putting them in your mouth, masticating (yeah 10 cent word) and then packing the remnants into the spot between your gums and your cheeks (similar to chewing tobacco, but more to the side as you get more leaf volume than you do with tobacco). I was told that it’s okay to swallow your spit, but to try not to swallow too much of the leafy stuff (although you can’t help but swallow a little bit). Cool… so we chew, we converse, we smoke shisha and have some tea. The two friends from San Diego show up and it’s more of the same (all very cool people).
So the thing with chat is that it takes about three hours to do correctly… and that’s a lot of leaf chewing (as far as tastes go, it tastes like you would imagine it would… like leaves… some people find it bitter and chew with sugar, or peanuts, but it wasn’t too bad at all for me… but I like my coffee black, so interpret as you will). It’s a very social setting, and everyone just kind of hangs out… which is what we did. As far as the effects of chat, it was my first time, so I thought the effects would be somewhat subdued as whatever the chemical is has not yet built up in my system… so, for me, chat had the effect of giving me energy (not in the jittery coffee kind of way, but in a slow burn kind of way) and making my focus sharper. For all of you out there that have tried adderall to study… chat produced similar effects for me… just after three hours of chewing leaves instead of taking a tiny pill. Not deleterious to motor skills or anything, I felt fine once we left and afterwards, but I did not feel tired at all (and in fact stayed up until 3:30 AM or so), but there was nothing else. So that’s chat… lots of people over here chew it and are addicted. I have no idea what the long-term effects of prolonged chat use are (maybe other alcohol or substance abuse because most people either drink or smoke weed to cancel out the upper effects), but I doubt I’ll be doing it on a regular basis (three hours of just chewing on leaves… no thanks), so no real need to worry about the long-term effects here. It’s available everywhere in the market areas here in Addis, and I have heard it’s a very lucrative cash crop for the growers. I’ve also heard that the chat house is where some major business deals go down… similar to country clubs in the US (no one appeared to be conducting any kind of business where I was). The folks I spoke with that chew regularly noted that I experienced the main effects (maybe just less so than someone who regularly chews), and that nothing else much happens. So there you go my dear readers… I’m sure you will all now rush out and get your hands on this stuff… enjoy.