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

  • Neil Carrier

Abstract

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.

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