DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — Every day, shortly after noon, hundreds of cars and mopeds shatter the calm of this port city as they race each other in from the airport, horns blaring.
For the next hour or so, they tear along the city's main roads and down its narrow, dusty side streets, distributing thousands of parcels of bright green leaf to screaming street traders in a burst of manic activity.
Government offices and private businesses shut down and men make one last, vital purchase before heading home or simply finding a tree to sit under. Then the city goes dramatically quiet for the rest of the day. It is time to chew "qat."
The leaf, which comes from a plant of the same name, is a natural stimulant with the qualities of a mild amphetamine and chewing it is a daily ritual for almost all men in this tiny Muslim nation at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Sheltered from the afternoon sun and a hot wind that blows across the city like a blast from a furnace, they sit in small groups, methodically stripping the leaves from the stalks and chewing them into a wad that bulges inside the cheek.
Chewers take the edge off qat's bitter taste with sweet tea, water or soda as they chat and joke through long afternoons. After an early surge of euphoria and energy, many later feel lethargic and sleep badly, waking up with a "hangover."
But they see chewing qat as central to their lives, the best way of maintaining friendships and keeping track of the goings-on in their neighborhoods.
"We don't drink alcohol but this is like our beer. It is our way of relaxing, of talking to each other," said Abdi Said, 47, a father of four who chews for three or four hours most days.
Said sits on a reed mat, leaning against a rundown building in one of downtown Djibouti's oldest neighborhoods. Four friends sit around him in a rough semicircle near a street corner where eight women have set up small stalls, all of them selling qat.
As the qat begins to kick in, the five men become more animated, trading jokes and boisterous claims about the positive effect of the leaf on their sexual prowess. The consensus was that it boosts libido for a while, but then lethargy takes over and sleep seems like a much better idea than sex.
Qat is also wildly popular in Yemen and Somalia and pockets of Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt. Everywhere it is chewed, it tends to dominate life.
Once restricted to the affluent, it is now chewed by men of all social classes. More and more women have started chewing in recent years but most family budgets are barely able to sustain one qat habit, let alone two.
"We can't afford to let our women take qat," said Omar, a government worker who has not been paid in five months but still manages to scrape together enough cash to chew most days. "It can only be for men. If we all chew, what will we eat?"
Advocates describe qat as one of the most social, and least harmful, of drugs, but critics say it creates a psychological dependency and has a devastating effect on family incomes.
In Djibouti, chewers typically spend $5 to $10 a day on their qat habit. It is by far the most important consumer item in the country, accounting for 25% to 40% of household spending.
And the leaf is not even produced in Djibouti--it is all imported from Ethiopia, a further drain on the resources of a country of only 600,000 people that has virtually no agriculture or industry and lives off its port and service industries.
"Qat is a disease," said one man who is among the small minority who does not chew and who says he is ostracized because of it. "It takes money away from health and education. No one works in the afternoons so the economy cannot grow."
Government officials admit qat hits productivity but only a brave man would call for a campaign against it. Even Djibouti's economy minister, who does not chew, uses dubious logic to say it helps people work longer hours.
"Qat is our beer, we use it for socializing. It is embedded in our urban habits," Yacin Elmi Booh told Reuters. "It does have some bad effects on health but at the same time it helps people who need to work long hours to keep up with the pace."
Although qat brings life to a virtual standstill, the industry that surrounds it is a model of drive and efficiency. For best effect, the leaf is chewed within 24 hours of being picked, so dozens of light planes fly it out of Ethiopia and Kenya into Djibouti and Somalia every morning.
Once it hits the ground at Djibouti City's airport, taxis, private cars, jeeps and mopeds move it at breakneck speed to every corner of the city. For the towns of Tadjourah and Obock to the north, the qat lands in the capital and is sent up the coast by speedboat.
Those who move fastest make the most money--a powerful incentive in a country with heavy unemployment and a cost of living much higher than anywhere else in the Horn of Africa.
"You have to be a fast driver and race through town," said Ali, a driver waiting to pick up 130 pounds of qat at Djibouti's airport. "The faster I can get the qat to downtown, the better chance I have of selling it."