BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — Her life revolves around a psychotropic leaf.
Yeshmebet Asmamaw, 25, has made chewing the drug a ritual, repeated several times a day: She carefully lays papyrus grass on the floor of her home, brews coffee and burns fragrant frankincense to set the mood.
Then she pinches some Khat leaves, plucked from a potent shrub native to this part of Africa, into a tight ball and places them in one side of her mouth.
“I love it!” she said, bringing her fingers to her lips with a smack.
She even chews on the job, on the Khat farm where she picks the delicate, shiny leaves off the shrubs. Emerging from a day’s work, she looked slightly wild-eyed, the amphetamine like effects of the stimulant showing on her face as the sounds of prayer echoed from an Orthodox Christian church close by.
Ethiopians have long chewed Khat, but the practice tended to be limited to predominantly Muslim areas, where worshipers chew the leaves to help them pray for long periods, especially during the fasting times of Ramadan.
But in recent years, officials and researchers say, Khat cultivation and consumption have spread to new populations and regions like Amhara, which is mostly Orthodox Christian, and to the countryside, where young people munch without their parents’ knowledge, speaking in code to avoid detection.
“If you’re a chewer in these parts, you’re a dead, dead man,” said Abhi, 30, who asked that his last name not is used because his family “will no longer consider me as their son.”
Most alarming, the Ethiopian authorities say, is the number of young people in this predominantly young nation now consuming Khat. About half of Ethiopia’s youth are thought to chew it. Officials consider the problem an epidemic in all but name.
The country’s government, which rules the economy with a tight grip, is worried that the habit could derail its plans to transform Ethiopia into a middle-income country in less than a decade ― a national undertaking that will require an army of young, capable workers, it says.