By Jack Kimball
DJIBOUTI, Aug 27 (Reuters) - In a dusty room filled with pillows, eight men sit beside small piles of plant stems and cigarette packets, munching mouthfuls of green narcotic leaves.
Pinching off more emerald foliage and stuffing it into his mouth, Isaac Abdel says khat is a way of life in east Africa.
"This khat has become the petrol of east Africa," the jobless 42-year-old says, showing his green teeth and holding up the plant he chews every day.
Illegal in many Western nations, the leaf gives the chewer a mild amphetamine-like high.
It is a shrub typically grown in Ethiopia and Kenya and chewed by people throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In Djibouti, it is endemic.
Flights from neighbouring Ethiopia arrive every day carrying the plant that is then sold in small shops across the country.
The tiny Red Sea state imports 11 tonnes of khat daily, spending $170 million a year, the United Nations says.
Taking a sip of water to wash out a mouthful of the bitter-tasting leaves, one chewer says it takes about an hour to chew through one kilo of khat, or $5 worth.
Occasionally glancing up to watch a nature show on television, transit worker Jama Hassan says khat keeps people in this mainly Muslim nation from drinking and fighting.
"It is part of culture. It is a heritage from our ancestors. We use it everyday to keep us together. We don’t have to go to bad places like to bars," the 42-year-old says.
Every day, crowds of Djiboutian men flock to houses and cafes across the country to chew quietly with friends. In the afternoon when the chewing begins, the city’s streets are empty.
"There’s a high in your body. When we’re not working, we’re chatting and chewing," says Ethiopian Ragi Absalam, 28, another transit worker.
But like alcohol and drugs in the West, khat is addictive and has taken a social toll.
It is afternoon in the tiny port city and men in green taxis with white stripes mill around nervously waiting for today’s khat delivery. The shipment is late, and people are edgy.
But in a nation where 60 percent of the 820,000 population is unemployed, many chew away as much as 10 percent to 20 percent of their salary, and residents complain that fathers abandon homes and children for half the day, every day.
Despite this, Djibouti managed a 4.8 percent GDP growth in 2006 mainly due to increased port activity. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says khat chewing is hurting labour productivity as most activities stop in the afternoon.
Finally, the truck arrives, but any nervousness is quickly replaced by a frantic rush to the drop-off point.
Men in neon vests toss a seemingly endless supply of khat bags down to expecting sellers, who then speed off to town to resell the white bags to khat vendors.
Analysts say Djibouti’s unemployment estimates could be lower if the informal sector — including the orbit of workers around the use and sale of khat — were factored in.
Taxi driver Jama Hassan says running shipments of khat to the city is the only job he could find.
"We get 5,000 francs ($28) a day but almost all is taken in gas. I take home about 2,000," the 60-year-old says. "This car isn’t even mine. I took this job, because I was jobless," the father of eight children says. (Additional reporting by Omar Hassan Awale)