‘You Will Build Castles’

‘What does this stuff do?’ we ask our driver.

‘It gives you energy. When you chew this thing, you will build castles.’

That was our introduction to miraa, the small shoots and leaves that are chewed throughout the Mt Kenya area and Muslim parts of the country.

Some of the best miraa in the world is grown around Meru. Much of the demand is from Somalia and, since miraa’s potency is diminished 48 hours after picking, massively overladen pick-up trucks race at breakneck speed to Wilson Airport in Nairobi for the next flight to Mogadishu – get out of their way if you see them coming.

Chewing miraa pre-dates coffee drinking and is deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of some societies, especially in Muslim countries. It’s usually chewed in company to encourage confidence, contentment and a flow of ideas. The active ingredient, cathinone, is closely related to amphetamine, and the euphoric effects can last for up to 24 hours, depending on how much is chewed.

Chewing too much can be habit-forming and has serious consequences, known as ‘khat syndrome’. Aggressive behaviour, nightmares and hallucinations are common mental side effects, while reduced appetite, malnourishment, constipation and brown teeth are common physical consequences.

Meru is a good place for curious travellers to give miraa a go. It’s bitter and gives a brief high, followed by a long come-down. Note that miraa is illegal in neighbouring Tanzania (and, more recently, the UK, which decreed it a Class C drug in 2014), so best leave it out of the suitcase if you’re heading that way.