Jake Lyell
Video Production | Still Photography

Visual Storyteller

Essay: Inside the City Walls

Idle chat in vintage Harar, Ethiopia

Harar’s meandering old town is other-worldly, a step back in time along the caravan routes of the middle ages. Indeed, if it weren’t for Coca Cola’s presence inside the city walls it may sometimes be difficult to decipher into which decade, or even century, you had wandered and lost your way.

The green leafy substance seen in this essay is known as chat, or khat, a highly addictive stimulant originating from Ethiopia. It appears to be both the boon and bane of Harar. Many farmers make a decent living cultivating it. Many women support their families by selling it on the streets. Many people, mostly men, spend far too much time idly chewing it in a hypnotic daze.   Though its use is illegal in many nations, Ethiopia is not one of them, and the country brings in a great deal of revenue every year in exporting the plant to places like Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti.  Chat does not come cheap. A lesser-quality bag begins at 100 Ethiopian Birr, or about $6, which is about three times as much as the average Ethiopian earns in a day. Consequently Harar’s alleyways are lined with addicts who are broke and sleeping on the street, sometimes begging in hopes of scrounging up money for the next fix.