A Kenyan miraa trader displays the produce at a market in Laale in Igembe North. Photo Credit: Merudaily.

Juba’s open-air miraa pubs defy ban

[rt_dropcap_style dropcap_letter=”F” dropcap_content=”EW crops divide cross-border opinion like khat, the leafy shrub known for its stimulant effect. Going by different local names — miraa, Mugoka or Marungi — it is considered an illegal stimulant substance in South Sudan, is legal in Uganda and a cash crop in Kenya.”]

Despite its blacklising in South Sudan, you will find it being sold in an openair market in Kakuma, a suburb of the capital next to United Nation Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) headquarters.

We bump onto Akec Wol, a 16-year-old boy, wearing a black pair of oversized jeans with big pockets, running up and down trying to sweet-talk prospective clients about the quality and quantity of the bundles of khat twigs in his hands. He says that Kakuma is just one of the several open-air markets for the stimulant in Juba.

“We have selling spots in Nyakuron, Atla Bara and almost all suburbs of Juba,” Akec says as he keeps his gaze from side to side in search of more clients. The open-air market is thronged by foreigners and South Sudanese alike who enjoy khat. According to scientists, its leaves or twigs have a stimulant effect when chewed. Elizabeth Hartney, a phycologist and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada, says people who use khat typically chew fresh leaves because the active components of the plant break down quickly as they dry out.

Dried leaves are sometimes used as a tea, although the effects are less potent. “Khat leaves are usually green or greenbrown. When fresh, the leaves have a glossy appearance. As they dry, they turn leathery yellow-brown. Given its appearance, it can easily be mistaken for Marijuana. The leaves of the khat plant are often packed together in a bundle

and wrapped in banana leaves,” says Hartney. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the effects of khat consumption are similar to those of strong coffee. In South Sudan, it is a source of livelihood for many people, including single mothers, as well. A few kilometres to the east of the Kakuma lies the Juba suburb of AtlaBara A where another open-air market is in the middle of the neighbourhood.

A young well-dressed lady in her early 30s is seated on two plastic chairs stacked together to support her weight. Like you would find at a tea selling joint in Juba, plastic chairs and small plastic tables are neatly arranged behind her. Some of the seats are already occupied by customers chewing away in groups of two or three.

When we ask the lady for five minutes of her time, she readily obliges perhaps thinking we are new clients. She introduces herself in fluent classical Arabic as Beatrice Osa, the owner of this particular khat selling outlet “I am a mother of two, my husband abandoned me and my kids three years ago.

I tried doing a lot of jobs to fend for my children until I got introduced to this khat business by my friend seven months ago,” she says while pointing to a woman selling her khat 15 metres away. Khat is smuggled from Uganda on a daily basis and occasionally from Kenya, About 700 metres to the west of Nimule’s Customs Office, police officers stand on guard to prevent people illegally crossing the border.

But we learn that it’s from here that khat destined for sale within Nimule, Magwi, Torit and finally Juba is smuggled, packed and distributed using vans that bear temporary plate numbers and motorcycles at dawn before daybreak from Elegu in Uganda where the trade in khat is legal. The transporters of khat, according to residents of Nimule, are mysterious — they are only referred to as Team No Sleep (TNS).

One of the local dealers who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal says that in Nimule, the getting khat is as easy as walking into a restaurant for a meal.

“In the past, security organs have tried to stop them but they always find themselves either outsmarted by the smugglers or swallowed in by the huge chunks of the smuggling pounds,” he says. Another dealer says all you need to join the khat business is to be introduced by someone who is already in the TNS system.

He refers to TNS as a company which offers to them protection from external threat at the crossing point, distribute the goods to Juba and other towns for a fee. “Our duty is to cross the crocodileinfested river to Uganda, buy the products and cross back to Nimule. We then count the number of rolls to the company that will now handle the later processes,” says the dealer. At another open-air market in Juba’s Gudele suburb, Ashraf Andama, a local dealer from Uganda’s West Nile region, is busy haggling over the price with a seemingly stubborn client.

Andama tries to explain that a police raid at one of the distribution points necessitated the hike in price, but the client would hear none of it. The client, fondly referred to as Yaba which literally means an elderly man, loudly questions the wisdom of the police raiding the distribution point. “How do you stop the sale and consumption of a product whose selling points are equaling the number of pubs in Juba?” Yaba poses.

He further accuses those against Khat of double standards because Khat is never grown in Juba. “Let them go and stop it from entering it into the country but not us the consumers,” he says. Many people in Juba, including parents and teachers tend to agree with Yaba, putting the security operatives on the spot.

“This is a fight that we have lost years ago, we should just legalise it like alcohol and focus on treating its health and social impact to our society,” says Andrew Sebit, a resident of Atla Bara. However, with the continued silence and lack of strong pronouncements from the authorities, the community is not sure of what role to take. For TNS and the likes of Akec and Osa, it is business as usual.

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