Afgoye, Somalia – The mood is tense. A group of young men, some in soldier’s uniforms, gather near empty market stalls in this small town 30km west of Mogadishu, the capital. Standing silently, their eyes stare blankly into the distance.
Not far away, a large group of women in colourful hijabs stand in the scorching sun. Both groups are waiting for the daily delivery of khat. Also known as qat, the plant is a mild stimulant, chewed mainly by men and sold by women in Somalia.
A few minutes later, a minibus appears far off in the distance. The tense atmosphere changes to one of excitement. The women rush back and forth, wet woolen sacks in their hands. Smiles replace the looks of concern on their faces.
The women, known as khat ladies, sell the bitter-tasting leaves to anyone willing to pay $18 for a kilogram. In Afgoye, there are plenty of takers.
The arrival of the minibus means the men of the town will have khat to chew and the women will get paid. There are more than 200 khat ladies in this small riverside town alone, and most of the men here spend their evenings chewing the green leaves, which were imported by plane from Kenya.
As the minibus comes to a stop, some of the young men become overeager, firing gunshots in the air. This doesn’t perturb the women, who are busy filling sacks with the fresh green leaves. Some push the skinny armed men out of the way so they can more easily fill their sacks.
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Locals regard this as controlled chaos – the delivery of khat to Afgoye comes every day at exactly 1pm.
But for four years, when the rebel group al-Shabab controlled Afgoye, the consumption and selling of khat was banned. The khat ladies were forced to go underground, selling from their homes or the back of cars, only to customers they knew well. If they were caught, the consequences were severe, ranging from having their product burnt to public floggings.
Under pressure from Somali government and African Union soldiers, al-Shabab retreated from Afgoye seven months ago. With al-Shabab gone, the khat ladies are back in business. But al-Shabab sleeper cells are still active in the town, and many of the khat ladies prefer to cover their faces with veils to hide their identity.
Most have large families to support, and many are divorcees. Thirty-five-year-old mother of five Farhia Ali is happy to see al-Shabab gone. “My family live on the proceeds from khat sales, and my children depend on the money from khat for their school fees,” she said.
“Al-Shabab stopped us from making a living for four years. To me it is a choice between my children’s survival and al-Shabab, and I know which I will choose,” she added. Jobs are far and few between in this town. Drought, famine and the decades-long civil war have left many of the area’s farms in ruins.
Farhia’s husband used to be a farmer, but has been jobless for a year. She is now the sole provider for her family. “Before the war, there were many commercial farms that employed many people, including me, in Afgoye. Now that’s no longer the case,” said Ali Ahmed, Farhia’s husband.
The road where the khat ladies have set up their stalls is the busiest in the whole town. Tea shops, shoe stores, restaurants and second-hand clothing stalls have popped up to serve the flock of men who come to chew at the khat stalls.
Fatuma Noor has just opened a tea shop not far from Farhia’s stall selling extra-sweet black Somali tea to Farhia’s customers. “I’m happy the khat ladies are back. I won’t have opened my teashop if they weren’t here,” she said while making tea on a charcoal stove.
‘All the bad boys’
But some say the return of the khat ladies has attracted armed young men to the area. “All the bad boys of the town come to chew in this area now. The khat ladies are not good for the security of our area,” said Sheikh Mohamed, who lives few blocks from the khat stalls. “When al-Shabab were here, this area was very safe – but not anymore.”
The khat ladies see it differently. “All these young men with guns sitting at my stall chewing khat – if they were not here chewing khat, they will be out there causing trouble for the town,” said Sahro Hussein, a single mother of five. Her comments drew heavy laughter from the men at her stall.
Though the security situation in the town is not perfect, the area police chief admits, he says the khat ladies are not responsible.
“Security is currently 65 percent of what we will like it to be. It is getting better and has nothing to do with the men chewing khat. It is al-Shabab and thugs who are responsible for any insecurity in this town,” said General Ibrahim Diini.
As for Farhia, she is grateful that she able to sell khat again. “I have paid all my debts and my children are going to school for the first time in four years – thanks to khat.”