AT SOKO YA Nadhif market in Garissa, Kenya, the ones who come to buy the drugs are men. They arrive early in the morning, sometimes before dawn, waiting in the hot dark air for a good deal. New white Land Cruisers pull into the market, kicking up clouds of red dust behind them. The ones who rush to offload the cargo are men, too. They toss heavy bags of leaves over their shoulders before sorting them into sections: Sareye, Khadija, Fatuma. Each bag is marked with a woman's name. Because although almost everyone who comes to Soko ya Nadhif market is a man, the ones who sell the drugs are women.
Sareye Budul Shafat, 52, is a soft-spoken mother of 10 who favors neon technicolor hijabs. While she calls herself a businesswoman, her gold jewelry and poker face hint at something more illicit.
Shafat is the founder of the Al-Amin Women's Group, a collective organization of 10 women--mostly single mothers and grandmothers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s--who dominate Garissa's khat industry. Attacks on the industry come from all sides, so women in the khat business are evasive about how much money they make. Shafat claims to bring in 20,000 Kenyan shillings (about $193) per month. But her shoes, her accessories, and the size of her house, as well as the number of men and women who call her "boss," suggest much higher earnings.
Khat--a stimulant leaf from the Catha edulis plant that is criminalized in the United States and most of Europe but wildly popular in East Africa--has somehow become women's work. Khat leaves are usually chewed, sometimes with bubble gum or peanuts to mask the herbal taste. Although the vast majority of khat users are men, women play an unmistakably dominant role in its production and sale. The Al-Amin Women's Group dominates the Garissa market, but women's influence in the khat (also called miraa) industry has deep roots throughout the region. In Somaliland, a self-declared breakaway state in the Horn of Africa, an estimated 72 percent of khat vendors are women. In Ethiopia, one of the country's richest people, Suhura Ismail, turned a roadside miraa stand into an international business empire with its own fleet of charter planes that transport the drug between Jijiga, a city in the Somali Regional State of eastern Ethiopia, and Somalia itself. (Like aboss, Suhura named the airline after herself.)
In Kenya, the economic power of khat is so huge that in 2016, when Somalia banned imports of the drug for a single week, it cost Kenyan farmers millions of dollars. Today, the khat trade brings the latter country an estimated $400,000 every day.
Shafat got into the business for the same reasons any other good entrepreneur does: instinct and need. In 1997, her husband, a former truck driver, was left unable to work by advancing glaucoma, the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. Desperate to support their children, Shafat tried selling secondhand clothes. But business wasn't good, and Shafat couldn't even make enough to pay back her family's 5,000 shillings ($48) in debt.
"I might stay in the [clothes] emporium and not sell anything for three days," Shafat recalled. "I decided I would rather have a quick loss or profit than wait three, five, seven days for nothing."
During the months she languished...