Taita Taveta County made national news when Governor Granton Samboja’s ordered crackdown on the sale of muguka.
“I have ordered for revocation of licenses of businesses selling the plant with immediate effect. Those who waste time chewing muguka should now find a productive thing to do. Parents have raised concerns of their sons turning into zombies, untidy and unproductive,” said the governor.
Taita Taveta is the second county in Kenya to attempt a ban on the sale of muguka. In August 2018, the county government of Mombasa announced a ban on muguka, but the ban has so far not been effectively enforced. Traders protested, accusing the Mombasa county government of threatening their livelihoods.
What exactly is muguka? Muguka consists of buds and leaves from the same tree that produces miraa. Both miraa and muguka stimulate a mild high that some say is comparable to drinking strong coffee. These stimulant properties give chewers the ability to stay active and awake for long periods of time.
According to the World Agroforestry Centre, the tree species that produces muguka and miraa is scientifically known as Catha Edulis. The common name for the tree in the Horn of Africa and Yemen is Khat or Qat. Muguka is a variety of Khat that grows mostly in the dry lowland areas of Embu. Muguka users chew the freshly-plucked buds and soft leaves. In contrast, the variety of khat grown in Meru is known there as miraa and it requires more rainfall. Miraa users chew the twig rather than the leaves.
The World Health Organization says that the chewing of leaves and twigs from Catha Edulis releases chemicals structurally related to amphetamines, a type of drug that evokes feelings of confidence, increased wakefulness and feeling energetic. However, there are long term negative effects from amphetamines. These include addiction, muscle breakdown, delusions, loss of appetite and damage to the teeth.
The chewing of Khat leaves and twigs is popular throughout the Horn of Africa and in Yemen which lies across the Red Sea. However, khat is banned in most countries of the world including neighboring Tanzania where Kenyans have often found themselves getting into trouble with the police for carrying miraa and muguka.
In Taita Taveta county, there have been complaints that muguka is breeding a generation of men and women whose only ambition is to sit somewhere in the shade chewing the stimulant instead of doing productive work. However, the youth could argue that the reason why they are idle is because there is no work for them. Jobs are hard to come by and subsistence agriculture simply isn’t working anymore due to climate change and low prices for farm produce.
The growth in muguka consumption should therefore be a wake-up call that county and national governments should address youth unemployment. Chewing muguka is not the cause of idleness but a symptom. The best course of action that should be taken right now is for the national government to release money to the counties for implementation of projects. Without funds, county governments have no money to implement projects that create jobs.
County governments should think of grass root-driven initiatives that create business opportunities for the many unemployed people. It is not only the youth that need opportunities; the middle aged and the elderly also need incomes. It is better to support initiatives that have already been started by communities. Bottom-up initiatives are cheaper to implement and eventually more sustainable than top-down projects designed in government offices. This means that counties as well as the national government programs should invest in projects that the people have initiated, instead of starting new ventures that lack support structures on the ground.
As the Mombasa county government found out a year ago, it will take national efforts for the crackdown on muguka to succeed. All county governments need to lobby the national government to control the trade just as our neighbors in Tanzania succeeded in doing. It will not be possible for one or two county governments to succeed in banning muguka by themselves.
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