Skip to main content Accessibility help




Efforts to institute a system for the control and prohibition of khat in Kenya are examined in this article. Prohibition was introduced in the 1940s after an advocacy campaign led by prominent colonial officials. The legislation imposed a racialized view of the effect of khat, seeking to protect an allegedly ‘vulnerable’ community in the north of the country while allowing khat to be consumed and traded in other areas, including Meru where ‘traditional’ production and consumption was permitted. Colonial policy took little account of African opinion, although African agency was evident in the failure and ultimate collapse of the prohibition in the face of widespread smuggling and general infringement. Trade in khat became ever more lucrative, and in the final years of colonial rule economic arguments overcame the prohibition lobby. The imposition of prohibition and control indicates the extent to which colonial attitudes towards and beliefs about cultural behaviour among Africans shaped policies, but the story also illustrates the fundamental weakness of the colonial state in its failure to uphold the legislation.



Hide All

1 See Lee Cassanelli, ‘Qat: a quasilegal commodity’, in A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986), emphasizing that economic and political concerns influence how discourse about medical harm is mobilized.

2 Neil Carrier, Kenyan Khat: The Social Life of a Stimulant (Leiden, 2007); Paul Goldsmith, ‘The production and marketing of miraa in Kenya’, in Robin Cohen (ed.), Satisfying Africa's Food Needs (London, 1988); and idem, ‘Symbiosis and transformation in Kenya's Meru District’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Florida, 1994).

3 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, A Century of International Drug Control (Vienna, 2009).

4 J. H. Mills, Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade, and Prohibition (Oxford, 2003).

5 For wider discussion, see W. McAllister, Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (London, 2000), 159–60.

6 The Laws of the Somaliland Protectorate (London, 1923), 291–2.

7 Cassanelli, ‘Qat’, 253–4; WHO, ‘Report on the medical aspects of the problem of khat’ (Geneva, April 1964), surveys such action ‘by international organizations and governments’.

8 E. Gebissa, Leaf of Allah: Khat and Agricultural Transformation in Hararge, Ethiopia 1875–1991 (Oxford, 2004), 54–5.

9 In Aden, the ban was replaced by a licensing system in July 1958: WHO, ‘The Question of Khat’, 27 July 1959, KNA BY/14/20. In 2009, khat's legal status remains deeply ambiguous: it is banned in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Tanzania, but is an important commercial crop in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya. The USA, Sweden, and Canada are among other countries that have prohibited khat imports. See D. M. Anderson, S. Beckerleg, D. Hailu, and A. Klein, The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Drugs Debate (Oxford, 2007).

10 The following summary is drawn from Anderson et al., Khat Controversy, ch. 1; Carrier, Kenyan Khat, introduction; and D. M. Anderson and N. Carrier, ‘“Flowers of paradise” or “polluting the nation”?: contested narratives of khat consumption’, in J. Brewer and F. Trentmann (eds.), Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford, 2006), 146–9.

11 Goldsmith, ‘Symbiosis’; Gebissa, Leaf of Allah; S. Weir, Qat in Yemen: Consumption and Social Change (London, 1985); J. Kennedy, The Flower of Paradise: The Institutionalized Use of the Drug Qat in North Yemen (Dordrecht, 1987).

12 Kennedy, Flower of Paradise, 181.

13 Graziani, M., Milella, M. S. and Nencini, P., ‘Khat chewing from a pharmacological point of view: an update’, Substance Use and Misuse, 43 (2008), 763; Zaghloul, A., Abdalla, H., El-Gammal, , and Moselhy, H., ‘The consequences of khat use: a review of literature’, European Journal of Psychiatry, 17 (2003), 80.

14 See N. Carrier, ‘The need for speed: contrasting timeframes in the social life of Kenyan miraa’, Africa, 75 (2005), 539–58.

15 Carrier, Kenyan Khat, ch. 6; Anderson et al., Khat Controversy, passim.

16 Kennedy, Flower of Paradise, 214.

17 Ibid. 231.

18 Graziani et al., ‘Khat chewing’, 772–3.

19 Alem, A. and Shibre, T., ‘Khat induced psychosis and its medico-legal implication: a case report’, Ethiopian Medical Journal, 35 (1997), 137–41; Critchlow, S., ‘Khat-induced paranoid psychosis’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 150 (1987), 247–9; Graziani et al., ‘Khat chewing’, 772; Warfa, N., Klein, A., Bhui, K., Leavey, G., Craig, T., Stansfield, S., and Ajab, A., ‘Associations between khat use and mental disorders: an emerging paradigm’, Social Science and Medicine, 65 (2007), 309–18.

20 E. Gebissa, ‘Scourge of life or an economic lifeline? Public discourses on khat (Catha edulis)’; N. Carrier, ‘Is miraa a drug? Categorizing Kenyan khat’, Substance Use and Misuse 43 (2008), 784–818.

21 Carrier, Kenyan Khat, ch. 7; Anderson et al., Khat Controversy, passim.

22 A. Neumann, Elephant Hunting in East Equatorial Africa (Bulawayo, 1982, 1st edn 1898), 33.

23 W. A. Chanler, Through Jungle and Desert: Travels in Eastern Africa (London, 1896), 190.

24 Carrier, Kenyan Khat, passim.

25 Goldsmith, ‘Symbiosis’, 26.

26 F. E. Bernard, East of Mount Kenya: Meru Agriculture in Transition (Munich, 1972), ch. 1.

27 Annual Report (AR) Meru District, 1912, KNA DC/MRU/1(m).

28 District Commissioner (DC)/Meru, ‘Aide memoire on Miraa’, 30 March 1950, KNA VQ/11/4.

29 DC/Fort Hall to Provincial Commissioner (PC)/Central Province, 6 April 1935, KNA VQ/11/4.

30 Gerald Hopkins, ‘Memorandum on miraa in Meru District, circa 1950’, KNA VQ/11/4.

31 AR Meru District, 1912, KNA DC/MRU/1(m).

32 For discussion of expansion, see KNA BY/14/20, including the statement by the Director of Medical Services (DMS), 16 January 1935.

33 A. Hjort, Savanna Town: Rural Ties and Urban Opportunities in Northern Kenya (Stockholm, 1979); Carrier, Kenyan Khat, ch. 5.

34 WHO, ‘Report on the medical aspects’, 2.

35 AR Meru District, 1934, 8, KNA DC/MRU/2(m).

36 A.-M. Peatrik, La vie à pas contés (Nanterre, 1999), 429ff.; idem, ‘Old System, New Conflicts: Age, Generation and Discord among the Meru, Kenya’, in W. James and D. Mills (eds.), The Qualities of Time: Anthropological Approaches (Oxford, 2005), 285–300.

37 Peatrik, La vie, 455ff.; Charles Ambler, ‘The renovation of custom in colonial Kenya: the 1932 generation succession ceremonies in Embu’, Journal of African History 30 (1989), 139–56.

38 ‘Precis for PCs’ Meeting', 29 March 1935, KNA BY/14/20.

39 AR Meru 1939, 40, KNA DC/MRU/3(m).

40 East African Standard (EAS), 31 January 1941.

41 A. P. Baker, ‘Reece, Sir Gerald (1897–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

42 Reece to DC/Isiolo, 7 November 1941, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

43 Alys Reece, To My Wife: 50 Camels (London, 1963), 100–1.

44 Malcolm Clark to Gerald Reece, 12 May 1939, KNA BY/14/20.

45 O'Hagan (DC/Isiolo) to Reece, 12 August 1940, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

46 Reece to PC/Central Province, 11 September 1940, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

47 Reece to Colonial Secretary, 27 September 1940, KNA BY/14/20.

48 KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26 reports numerous arrests during the Second World War for importing khat into the NFD.

49 DC/Isiolo to Reece, 15 November 1940, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

50 DC/Isiolo to Reece, 14 November 1941, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

51 DC/Wajir to Reece, 12 April 1942, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

52 District Medical Officer (DMO) to Reece, 1 February 1941, KNA BY/14/20.

53 East African Medical Journal, 22:1 (January 1945).

54 Bally to Reece, 5 October 1942, KNA BY/14/20.

55 East African Medical Journal, 22:1 (1945), 1.

56 Ibid. 2.

57 J. C. Carothers, The Psychology of Mau Mau (Nairobi, 1954).

58 J. C. Carothers, ‘Miraa as a cause of insanity’, East African Medical Journal, 22:1 (1945), 4–6.

59 R. B. Heisch, ‘A case of poisoning by Catha edulis’, East African Medical Journal, 22:1 (1945), 7–9.

60 Editor, East African Medical Journal, 22:1 (1945), 9–10.

61 McKeag (DC/Meru) to PC/Central Province, 14 March 1945, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

62 Shah (MO/Meru) to DMS/Nairobi, 15 February 1945, KNA BY/14/20.

63 Reece (Officer-in-Charge/NFD) to DC/Isiolo, 7 March 1945, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

64 Ali bin Khamis, letter in EAS, 4 January 1946.

65 Legislative Council Debates (LegCo), cols. 671 and 799–800, 9 and 11 January 1946.

66 DC/Meru, Report of Meeting held on 20 April 1946, KNA VQ/11/4.

67 LegCo, col. 146, 14 November 1946.

68 LegCo, col. 751c, 6 December 1946.

69 AR Isiolo District, 1947, 7, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/3(m).

70 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 14 March 1945, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

71 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 18 February 1947, KNA VQ/11/4.

72 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 17 April 1947, KNA VQ/11/4.

73 DC/Kitui to PC/Central Province, 18 September 1947, KNA VQ/11/4.

74 For example, DC/Nairobi to PC/Central Province, 16 June 1947, and Acting PC/Central Province to DC/Nairobi, 20 June 1947, both KNA VQ/11/4.

75 Simon M'Raria s/o M'Marete, Festus M'Nabea s/o M'Muthura, and Solomon M'Ndethio M'Mugambi to Chief Native Commissioner, 25 April 1947, KNA VQ/11/4.

76 DC/Meru to Acting PC/Central Province, 3 November 1948, KNA VQ/11/4.

77 AR Isiolo District, 1947, 7, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/3(m).

78 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 27 February 1948, KNA VQ/11/4.

79 C. M. Johnston, AR Meru District, 1948, 14, KNA DC/MRU/3(m).

80 AR Isiolo District, 1949, 4, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/3(m).

81 Minute 28/48, ‘Control of Miraa ordinance’, PCs Meeting, 28 April 1948; PC/Central Province to PC/Northern Province, 2 June 1948, KNA VQ/11/4.

82 Minute 21/49, ‘Meeting concerning control of miraa’, PCs Meeting, 7–9 February 1949, KNA VQ/11/4.

83 EAS, 13 August 1949.

84 Meeting of Meru elders, ‘Ideas of the Meru African District Council on miraa’, 23 March 1950, KNA BY/14/20.

85 Hopkins, ‘Memorandum on miraa’.

86 All quotes from ‘Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Miraa Control (Amend) Bill’, 15 August 1950, KNA VQ/11/4.

87 Ibid.

88 Kenya Gazette, 29 September 1951.

89 AR Isiolo District, 1951, 5, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/4(m).

90 AR Meru District, 1951, 11, KNA DC/MRU/5.

91 AR Isiolo District, 1952, 6, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/4(m); DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 15 January 1953, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

92 AR Isiolo District, 1953, 18, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/4.

93 Interview with M'Naituli, Mbiriata, Meru District, August 2001.

94 DC/Isiolo to DC/Wajir, 18 August 1953, KNA DC/ISO/3/7/26.

95 CS to PC/Central Province, 28 April 1954, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

96 CC/54 8 June 1955, 2nd Class Magistrate, Isiolo, Appeal 123/1955, 30 June 1955; and Acting PC/Northern Province to DC/Isiolo, 9 August 1955, both in KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

97 AR Isiolo District, 1956, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/4(m).

98 Minute 2, ‘Meeting on miraa ordinance’, 1 March 1956, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

99 AR Isiolo District, 1956, 2, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/4(m).

100 Kenya Gazette, 27 June 1957.

101 PC/Northern Province to DC/Wajir, 11 July 1961, KNA BB/PC/EST/6/12.

102 AR Isiolo District, 1960, 14, KNA PC/NFD 1/4/5(m).

103 Meru District ARs for 1912, 1934, and 1939, KNA DC/MRU/1–3(m).

104 AR Meru District, 1947, 14, KNA DC/MRU/8.

105 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 7 July 1951, KNA VQ/11/4.

106 F. D. Duncan (Marketing Officer, Meru) to Haller (Produce Control), 26 July 1955, KNA VQ/11/4.

107 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 20 October 1955, KNA VQ/11/4.

108 Registrar of Co-operatives to Secretary for African Affairs, 9 November 1955, KNA VQ/11/4.

109 AR Meru District, 1955, KNA DC/MRU/9(m).

110 AR Meru District, 1956, KNA DC/MRU/10(m).

111 Glen (Provincial Marketing Officer (PMO)), ‘Additional memorandum on miraa’, 4 October 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

112 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 1 August 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

113 Glen, ‘Memo on miraa marketing’, 28 August 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

114 PMO to Asst Director of Agriculture (DoA), 11 August 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

115 Ibid., and PMO to PC/Central Province, 28 November 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

116 AR Meru District, 1960, 10, KNA DC/MRU/14(m).

117 DC/Meru to PC/Central Province, 18 February 1947, KNA VQ/11/4.

118 Duncan to Haller, 26 July 1955, KNA VQ/11/4.

119 DMS to DoA, 11 July 1955, and Secretary for African Affairs to DMS, 25 August 1955, both KNA BY/14/20.

120 DoA to DMS, 5 July 1955, KNA BY/14/20.

121 Glen to PC/Central Province, 28 November 1958, KNA VQ/11/4.

122 DoA to Local Government Minister, 29 August 1958, KNA BY/14/20.

123 Chief Medical Officer to DoA, 11 September 1959, KNA BY/14/20.

124 Halbach Trip Itinerary, 4 November 1959, WHO A2/447/K/2 Gen., ‘General information on khat – folio 1’.

125 DMS to Permanent Secretary (PS) and Minister of Agriculture, 17 December 1959, KNA BY/14/20.

126 Halbach to Green (Home Office), 5 January 1961, WHO, A2/447/K/2 Gen., ‘General information on khat – folio 1’.

127 ‘Extract from record of the 18 Session of the United Nations Narcotics Commission 1963’, KNA BY/14/20.

128 PS (Home Affairs) to PS (Justice and Constitutional Affairs), 25 July 1963, KNA BY/14/20.

129 DMS to PSs, 19 November 1963, KNA BY/14/20.

130 WHO ‘Medical aspects of the habitual chewing of khat leaves’, 8 January 1964, KNA BY/14/20.

131 UN Economic and Social Council, ‘Resolutions adopted by the Economic and Social Council’, 11 August 1964, KNA BY/14/20.

132 Peeler, 11 January 1965, WHO A2/447/K/2 Gen., ‘General information on khat – folio 1’.

133 The khat ordinance was annulled by presidential decree in 1977: EAS, 24 January 1977.

134 This insight is from M. Jennings, ‘Building better people: modernity and utopia in late colonial Tanganyika’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 3 (2009), 94–111. For the Kenyan evidence, see McWilliam, ‘The managed economy: agricultural change, development and finance in Kenya, 1945–63’, in D. A. Low and A. Smith (eds.), Oxford History of East Africa (Oxford, 1976), III, 251–89.

* The research reported here was funded by an award from the ESRC. James Brennan and Chuck Ambler provided helpful comments on an earlier draft. The article is primarily based on sources from the Kenya National Archive (KNA) in Nairobi, including microfilmed KNA files consulted at Rhodes House, Oxford, distinguished ‘(m)’. Further material was gathered from the World Health Organization Archive (WHO), Geneva.



Altmetric attention score

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