Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Need for Speed: Contrasting Timeframes in the Social Life of Kenyan Miraa

  • Neil Carrier


This article contrasts two very different timeframes in the ‘social life’ of the plant stimulant miraa – known elsewhere as khat – in Kenya and beyond. One timeframe is connected with the old miraa trees growing in the Nyambene Hills District of central Kenya: these are known as mbaine, and are greatly respected for their age and link to the past. The miraa from these trees is put to much ceremonial use by the Meru inhabitants of the Nyambenes. The other timeframe is the very different one of the harvested stems. These stems are highly perishable and so must reach the consumer quickly, leading to urgency in their trade and transportation: the ‘need for speed’. The globalization of the miraa trade has intensified this urgency further: the stems are now desired as far away as North America. Miraa trees have not escaped this ‘commercial’ timeframe, and some farmers experiment with chemical sprays to speed up the production rate. The article concludes by arguing that such attempts to speed up the timeframes of the trees are met with resistance, and have not diluted the cultural significance of ancient mbaine trees and their ancestral links.

Cet article met en contraste deux cadres temporels très différents de la ≫vie sociale≪ du miraa, plante stimulante également appelée khat dans d'autres régions, au Kenya et au-delà. Un de ces cadres temporels est lié aux vieux arbres à miraa qui poussent dans le district de Nyambene, dans la région centrale du Kenya: ces arbres, appelés mbaine, sont très respectés pour leur âge et leur lien avec le passé. Les Meru du district de Nyambene se servent beaucoup du miraa extrait de ces arbres à des fins cérémoniales. L'autre cadre temporel, très différent, est celui des tiges récoltées. Très périssables, ces tiges doivent atteindre le consommateur rapidement, amenant à traiter leur commerce et leur transport dans l'urgence. La mondialisation du commerce du miraa est venue intensifier cette urgence: on convoite désormais ces tiges jusqu'en Amérique du Nord. Les arbres à miraa n'ont pas échappé à ce cadre temporel ≫commercial≪ et certains cultivateurs désireux d'améliorer leurs taux de production commencent à les pulvériser de produits chimiques. L'article conclut en indiquant que ces tentatives d'accélérer les cadres temporels des arbres se heurtent à une résistance et n'ont pas affaibli la dimension culturelle des vieux mbaine ni leurs liens ancestraux.



Hide All
Ahmed, A.and Salib, E.. 1998. ‘The khat users: a study of khat chewing in Liverpool's Somali men’, Medicine, Science and the Law 38 (2): 165–69.
Ameen, J. R. M.and Naji, J.A.. 2001. ‘Causal models for road accident fatalities in Yemen’, Accident Analysis and Prevention 33: 547–61.
Balint, G. A.and Balint, E.E.. 1994. ‘On the Medico-Social Aspects of Khat (Catha edulis) Chewing Habit’, Human Psychopharmacology 9: 125–28.
Bernard, F. E. 1972. East of Mount Kenya: Meru agriculture in transition. Munich: Weltforum Verlag.
Carrier, N. 2003. ‘The Social Life of Miraa: farming, trade and consumption of a plant stimulant in Kenya.’ Ph.D. thesis. University of St Andrews.
Cassanelli, L. V. 1986. ‘Qat: changes in the production and consumption of a quasilegal commodity in northeast Africa’ in Appadurai, A. (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
El-Solh, C. F. 1991. ‘Somalis in London s East End: a community striving for Recognition’, New Community 17 (4): 539–52.
Gebissa, E. 2003. Leaf of Allah: khat and agricultural transformation in Harerghe, Ethiopia 1875–1991. Oxford: James Currey.
Getahun, A.and Krikorian, A. D.. 1973. ‘Chat: coffee's rival from Harar, Ethiopia. 1. Botany, Cultivation and Use’, Economic Botany 27: 353–77.
Githongo, J. 1999. The East African, 814 September.
Goldsmith, P. 1994. ‘Symbiosis and Transformation in Kenya s Meru District. Ph.D. thesis. University of Florida.
Goldsmith, P. 1999. ‘The political economy of miraa’, East African Alternatives, 1519.
Griffiths, P., Gossop, M., Wickenden, S., Dunworth, J., Harris, K.and Lloyd, C.. 1997. ‘A transcultural pattern of drug use: qat (khat) in the UK’, British Journal of Psychiatry 170: 281–84.
Grignon, F. 1999. ‘«Touche pas à mon khat!»: rivalités Meru-Somali autour d'un commerce en pleine expansion’, Politique Africaine 73: 177–85.
Guantai, A.and Maitai, C.. 1982. ‘Relative Distribution of Cathinone and D-norpseudoephedrine in catha edulis (miraa) growing in Kenya’, East African Medical Journal 59: 394–98.
Hjort, A. 1974. ‘Trading miraa: from school-leaver to shop-owner in Kenya', Ethnos 39: 2743.
Hugh-Jones, S. 1995. ‘Coca, beer, cigars andyagé: meals and anti-meals in an amerindian community’ in Goodman, J., Lovejoy, P. E. and Sherratt, A. (eds), Consuming Habits: Drugs in history and anthropology. London and New York: Routledge.
Kennedy, J. G. 1987. The Flower of Paradise: the institutionalized use of the drug qat in Yemen. Dordrecht and Lancaster: Reidel.
Kopytoff, I. 1986. ‘The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’ in Appadurai, A. (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mohamed, A. 2003. The Daily Nation, 23 June.
Nabuzoka, D.and Badhadhe, F.A.. 2000. ‘Use and perceptions ofkhat among young Somalis in a UK city’, Addiction Research 8 (1): 526.
Nencini, P., Grassi, M. C., Botan, A. A., Asseyr, A. F.and Paroli, E.. 1989. ‘Khat chewing spread to the Somali community in Rome’, Drug and Alcohol Dependence 23: 255–58.
Nyaga, D. 1997. Customs and Traditions of the Meru.Nairobi:East Africa Educational Publishers.
Peatrik, A. 1999. La vie à pas contés. Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie.
Rival, L. 1998. ‘Trees, from symbols of life and regeneration to political artefacts’ in Rival, L. (ed.), The Social Life of Trees: anthropological perspectives on tree symbolism.Oxford: Berg.
Rizzo, M. 2002. ‘Being taken for a ride: privatisation of the Dar es Salaam transport system 1983–1998’, Journal of Modern African Studies 40 (1): 133–57.
Stevenson, M., Fitzgerald, Jand Banwell, C.. 1996. ‘Chewing as a social act: cultural displacement and khat consumption in the East African communities of Melbourne, Drug and Alcohol Review 15: 7382.
Sztompka, P. 1999. Trust: a sociological theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Weir, S. 1985. Qat in Yemen: consumption and social change. London: British Museum Press.
Zaghloul, A., Abdalla, A., Gammal, H. Eland Moselhy, H.. 2003. ‘The consequences of Khat use: a review of literature’, European Journal of Psychiatry 17: 7786.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed