Culture, The People

How Merus discovered and started chewing Miraa

khat miraa farm

It’s official. Khat (miraa) has officially dethroned weed as the most misunderstood plant in the world. All hail the shrub!

But why all the hullabaloo over this seemingly harmless shrub? Is it really as dangerous as it has in recent times been branded and perhaps more importantly, where did it come from?

Remember the story of Kamankura? If you didn’t, go read it here, then come back. We’ll wait – because this is related 🙂

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Even as the rain fell hard and fast across Meru land following Kamankura’s return, it turned out that the soil had been so badly scorched by the drought that nothing sprouted from it. To make matters worse the famine had been so severe that the people had consumed nearly all the grain reserves that were usually stored for planting during the rainy season. The joy that that usually accompanied the coming of the rains soon turned into despair, which arose from the fact that the damaged earth could not be cultivated for food for the people nor for their livestock in form of pasture. The much awaited rains had come but they had not brought the food and sustenance that the people really needed at the time.

In classic human nature, the people started complaining, much like the biblical Isralites complained to Moses during the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land. Had Murungu sent them rains only to starve them to death with the barren fields? What sort of mystical sadism was this?

Miraa starts sprouting

In an unprecedented turn of events, a strange phenomenon took place across slopes of the land. Strange shoots started sprouting over the barren earth; shoots that only a handful of old village merchants claimed to have seen among their Cushitic and arab trading counterparts from the north during their trade activities way back in the day. To the rest of the community these were alien plants that seemed to have sprouted out of nowhere overnight.

They called them ‘Miraa’ a term derived from the kimeru word ‘raa’ which means to blossom or shoot.

khat miraa farm
Miraa plants | Pic: Frank Mwenda

Apprehensive about this strange shoot, the people were reluctant to try it out although the herders could do little to restrain the cattle from munching on the green shrub with bright red shoots. The goats in particular seemed to enjoy the strange shrubs. The Njuri Ncheke strongly cautioned the people against consuming plant, threatening with dire consequences anyone that was caught consuming the plant. The words ‘evil’, ‘poisonous’, ‘enemy black magic’ and ‘curse’ were thrown around in reference to the strange plants as the shrub continued to cover the once barren slopes in immaculate green and red foliage that completely transformed the landscape.

Some villagers, particularly the poor who had been hardest hit by the famine to the extent of experiencing death from starvation within their immediate families questioned the council’s directive especially since it became apparent that the animals seemed to thrive from consuming the plant while the people- at least the wretches at the bottom of the social-economic pyramid at the time- continued to starve having depleted the little reserves of food they had.

Within no time, a sort of cold rebellion began to develop between the two factions that had emerged over the issue: the rich (who owned vast pieces of land, grain reserves in their granaries and large heads of cattle) supporting the council of elders and the poor (led by the peasant farmers owning small tracks of land, fast depleting heads of cattle and empty granaries) questioning the elders’ authority to dictate what they could or could not consume in light of the fact that the governing class did not provide any sort of assistance or aid to the starving peasants. The peasants agitated for the freedom to choose their ‘deaths’ if indeed the shrubs were poisonous to humans.

Kamankura’s Take – Eat Miraa or not?

This tag and pull soon found its way to Kamankura and Ciari’s doorstep. Since his triumphant return from his perilous journey barely a month back, the people, especially the disenfranchised class viewed him as their unofficial ‘chief’, which went directly against the prevalent unwritten rules of the Ameru, much to the chagrin of the Njuri. The tradition and culture of the Ameru not only forbid but also condemned the elevation of an individual member of the society to chief or king under any circumstances. Instead, the Ameru lived under the leadership of and wise counsel of the respective clan patriarchs who in turn formed the council of elders or Njuri whose mandate traversed the legislative (law making), judicial (dispute settling), executive (center of power) and religious facets of the community.

On his part, Kamankura had no intentions nor desire whatsoever to be leader in any way shape of form. He had made this clear by relinquishing his previous position as leader of the warrior facet of the community, which regarded him as a general. He had chosen instead to retreat to a quiet family life with his newly wed wife Ciari on a small piece of land in the outskirts of the village.

It took Ciari’s, herself an offspring of the peasant class, intervention and her unwavering faith in him to persuade him to hear out his fellow kinsmen’s plights and open his doors to them for advice and counsel in light of his encounter with Mugwe himself. Kamankura informed the dissenters that Mugwe had said that Murungu had no intention of destroying his people provided they obeyed his laws, did good and led a peaceful co-existence with each other and that faith would be the defining factor in the relationship.

In return he would provide sustenance for his people until the end of time.

“So should we then indulge in the forbidden shrub?”

“Are the proponents of abstinence going out of their way to share their food reserves with the starving lot of you?

“No.”

“Then what gives them the right to dictate what to or not to consume from the land Murungu gave us? Will you watch your children and cattle die for fear of upsetting the people you entrusted with your well-being as a society?”

The people needed no further prompting. Screw the elders and their directives.

And just like that, Kamankura earned himself the title of “enemy number one” of the rich class and the Njuri.

chewing miraa
Chewing miraa | Pic: Daily Nation

The herders were the first to try out the slightly bitter shoots. They let the cattle out to graze. The strange shoots when chewed and their juice ingested not only relieved thirst but increased alertness, elevated dispositions and alleviated hunger pangs. The shrub sustained them as well as their animals until planting and harvesting was done and they resulted back to their food crop cultivation in place of the shrubs christened ‘the shrubs of Mugwe’.

A few people had however cultivated the shrub for their own domestic use and later on these brave rebels would go on to become the present day entrepreneurs in the extremely lucrative miraa trade synonymous with the County of Meru, particularly the Igembe and Tigania.

Legalize it

Fast forward to today and khat has officially dethroned weed as the most controversial plant in present day social-economic circles.

khat miraa farm

The United Kingdom’s decision to ban miraa (against expert advice) in July 2014 caused ripples across the country more so in the Meru County region of Nyambene where ‘miraa’ is the predominant cash crop employing tens of thousands directly and indirectly and exporting 2000 tons of the product to the UK annually.

The controversy surrounding miraa has always been kind of hush hush but picked momentum in 2013 all the way to 2014 before exploding into the international limelight when the Netherlands — considered one of the most liberal nations in the world- banned khat. When the UK quickly followed suit a few months later, the quiet furor surrounding this ever-green shrub suddenly became hard to ignore.

Editor’s Note

This article was republished with a few changes with permission from Peter Mwenda’s Medium page.

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