I had heard about qat (a narcotic leaf) before coming to Somaliland, and even tried it myself in Yemen but I was not prepared for what came next when I decided to do a small side-story on the epidemic in the country.
The abuse of qat has always been widespread in the tiny Defacto State of Somaliland from what I’m told, however, a new type of qat introduced just before the begining of the year is quickly taking anti-qat activists as well as the local qat ensthusiasts by storm.
Haleemo Farah who heads the local branch of Save The Adults (SA), an international NGO, has been very vocal in her opposition to this new brand of qat and sums up her feelings by stating “This must stop. The government must act rapidly. This is only adding to the high rate of psychosis and psychological disorders in this country. All because so one man can make millions of dollars per day in profits and the government can generate tax revenue on this poison.”
This new form of qad is not a stronger strain enhanced by a different cultivation technique, it is freshly delivered qat which as a result carries twice the normal dose of cathine and cathinone. This essentially provides twice the ‘high’ as normal qat does but boggles the mind is the cavalier method by which it is delivered to this poverty-stricken nation.
I had assumed the daily helicopter that flew in from the hills to the south-east belonged to the military of this self-declared republic, only to later discover that this daily flight just after the afternoon call to prayer carries not troops and soldiers, but a new form of qat called Helicopter.
Mohamed Adow, a local, states that “before Helicopter I used to chew either Fujis or Chibis because they provided the best high. I would sometimes start early in the morning but as you can see most of the qat stalls are empty at the moment because we are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Helicopter.”
Mohamed is not making a grammatical error there, it takes the helicopter an hour and a half flight from Hawaday Ethiopia compared to the six hour land-journey that qat usually travels before reaching Hargeisa.
I tried to find out the people behind this new form of transportation for qat, at first I thought it was the government, only to find out that this new import method is conducted by a private businessman known only as Igal Sheydal. My various attempts at obtaining an interview with him went unanswered, but at the airport, I found that some of his staff were more than eager to provide me with more information and details on their operation.
I was informed that the helicopter is a Russian Mi-8 leased from an Ukrainian company operating out of a UAE FTZ.
A Somali crew member laughed when I asked if he was a part of the government and replied “most foreigners think that, so don’t feel bad. The only helicopter that used to fly over Somaliland airspace before we started to use them to import qat was the rare delegation from Djibouti that came once every 3 years. If you go to the neighbourhoods of the city you will see the children’s excitement when the helicopter flies overhead on its approach to the airport. They run and chase it and even after three months since our operation it is still a spectacle that even the older folks are intrigued by.”
Remembering how difficult it was to book a flight to Hargeisa, it frustrates me that there is a weekly helicopter flights for qat. On the second day after my arrival, when I saw a helicopter approaching the airport, I was intrigued by the fact that they are openly used to transport what is considered a Class A drug in most of the remaining countries in the world.
These friendly importers are no Colombian drug cartels, but Somalis like Haleemo Farah claim that “They are not even Somali and all of the money is leaving Somaliland through them. They might as well be selling harder grade drugs because it is having the exact same effect on the local population.”
I was lucky enough to be invited by a gentleman called Raggy Omar to watch the helicopter on it’s arrival to the international airport. It’s cleared to land in a small corner which is also occoupied by two old MIG craft from the Somali civil-war. I found it interesting that Russian hardware remained the number one choice for conducting questoinable activities.
The unloading and transport of Helicopter is serious business and done at the speed with which a Formula 1 team changes its tires. Before I was able to ask any questions, the helicopter had landed, unloaded it’s cargo into 7 waiting tinted station-wagons and we were off speeding to the city centre without going through customs.
On arriving at the Helicopter qat stalls there was a huge crowd waiting and cars lined up like a drive-through. The most interesting thing I noticed during all the hustle and bustle that ensued, is that in a country where almost all if not all of the population live below the poverty line, hundreds of people forking over 150,000 Somaliland Shilling which is approximately the equivalent of US $25 at today’s market rate for a bushel of Helicopter.
Joe Omar later informed me that “It’s mainly the people from the Diaspora who have been fueling this demand and it later caught on with the locals and now we sell out all of our Helicopter within minutes of it arriving at the stalls. We’re currently working on how to arrange another flight so that we can meet the heavy demand for Helicopter here and expand to other cities like Borama and Burao.”
In a country that has been shaken by poverty and is currently in the midst of a drought and possible famine, the same supply and demand principals that drive the economies of the West are at play here, and for one particular businessman, his ability to meet that demand in a new way has translated into a very lucrative business.
I went to go see Haleemo Farah later on that day who was disappointed that I had went to go meet with the importers of Helicopter. She invited me to join her for an anti-Helicopter Conference being held by Save the Adults in two days, but unfortunately my plane leaves tomorrow.
“Tell the people for us then. Make sure they all know.” She said in her usual feverous tone.
“Spread awareness and shame the government for accepting such a small tax revenue in return for a problem that costs Somaliland’s society as a whole ten-fold more.”
Stuck between the sincerity of her plea, and my admiration of the business ingenuity of the importers of Helicopter, I flew out the next day just before the days Helicopter had arrived.
Sloof Lirpa is a freelance journalist working with the Ikihara Press, based in Japan.
Somali-Interpreter: Mohamud-Aar (Mo Hussein)
This story is hoax, Mohamud Aar just wanted to see your reactions. The reaction has been amazing some of you calling for the downing of the helicopter that does not exist. Happy April Fools guys! There is no such thing as Ikihara Press and the “reporter” Sloof Lirpa is actually April Fools written backwards.