Efforts to institute a system for the control and prohibition of khat in Kenya are examined in this article. Prohibition was introduced in the 1940s after an advocacy campaign led by prominent colonial officials. The legislation imposed a racialized view of the effect of khat, seeking to protect an allegedly ‘vulnerable’ community in the north of the country while allowing khat to be consumed and traded in other areas, including Meru where ‘traditional’ production and consumption was permitted. Colonial policy took little account of African opinion, although African agency was evident in the failure and ultimate collapse of the prohibition in the face of widespread smuggling and general infringement. Trade in khat became ever more lucrative, and in the final years of colonial rule economic arguments overcame the prohibition lobby. The imposition of prohibition and control indicates the extent to which colonial attitudes towards and beliefs about cultural behaviour among Africans shaped policies, but the story also illustrates the fundamental weakness of the colonial state in its failure to uphold the legislation.
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