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Kenya's Heroin Problem Exposed - Brown Sugar, Smack and Syringes

Photo: Reuben Githinji
Containers of illicit brew in Embu, Kenya (file photo).

The Kenyan Coast has long been a sunny paradise with a slower pace of life, but a darker underside is emerging - one where heroin addicts do anything to score their next hit. Health, government and community officials debate the solution, but on the ground the problem continues to grow By Jill Craig

Just minutes from the glistening, white powder sands of Diani beach is a lush mango grove overlooking a football pitch where young men gather every evening to practice their game and socialise with friends. But this forest is no ordinary one; it is inhabited by about 30 female sex workers between the ages of 16 and 31 and their male clients. Coming from different towns and cities across Kenya, a number of the women are former models and beauty pageant winners, and many have children. But what they all have in common is their addiction to heroin, also known as smack, the hard drug of choice at the coast.

If the women are not undergoing withdrawal symptoms, they will sell their bodies for KSH 50 - or perhaps a bit more on a good day - to the men venturing into the forest for a quickie. These are men who construct houses, push handcarts containing water-filled jerry cans, sell fruit on the streets and wooden carvings on the beach, and who solicit passengers from the side doors of matatus. Others wear nice suits, detouring through the forest on their way to or from the office or perhaps stopping by on their lunch breaks.

Sometimes the men may pay even less. When a woman is experiencing heroin withdrawal, for example, she might accept as little as KSH 20. Since a sachet, or hit, of heroin in Mombasa costs about KSH 300 and injecting users shoot an average of three to six sachets per day, these women often have sex with at least 20 men daily to support their heroin addiction. And as Teens Watch Treatment Centre Programme Manager Cosmus Maina says, "If they can sell their bodies for 20 shillings, what can't they do?"

Heroin - The Scourge of the Coast:

Miriam Bashir Hussein Ali, aka Mama Kukukali, is the coordinator of the Defence Drugs Women community-based organisation. She organises various support groups for community residents affected by drug use - one group for women who contracted HIV from their drug injecting husbands, another for women whose children are drug addicts, and one to educate village elders on the subject of drug abuse.

She says that the drug problem in Mombasa is particularly bad because it is a port city, and as such the supply comes right off the boat. Distributors and suppliers abound. Drugs come from the East and land in Mombasa as they make their way to Europe and beyond. Mama Kukukali says that she started seeing heroin crop up in Mombasa around 1999, and by 2005 it was a big problem. Now it seems to be spiralling out of control.

Why Do They Start?

Unemployment, boredom, idleness, curiosity, and stress relief seem to be the primary motivators for a young person to try heroin. On the coast, there's no particular tendency when it comes to users, there are locals and people who have moved there from upcountry. Like drug abusers around the world, many simply started after watching their friends do it. Peer pressure is a strong force.

Many injecting drug users, commonly known as IDUs, say they tried alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana in primary school. These so-called gateway drugs opened the door to heroin use. Sporting aviator sunglasses and a Chicago Bulls cap, 33-year-old recovering addict Alex* says that after experimenting with these drugs he started smoking a heroin cocktail (street name, Brown Sugar), which is a mix of heroin, marijuana and tobacco. Sheer economics made him switch to injecting; Alex says one cocktail joint costs KSH 250, but he would need to smoke about 10 of them a day to get the same effect as three hits of heroin. This was a difference of KSH 2,500 versus KSH 900. For him, the choice was clear.

A five-minute taxi ride from the Diani beaches where Kenyan and foreign tourists splash in the ocean with their children, sip cocktails from the cocoons of their beachfront hotels, and decide whether to get a massage, take a camel ride, or learn how to kite surf, is the Teens Watch Treatment Centre, where Maina serves as programme manager for the IDUs who come for counselling, HIV testing and free condoms. The centre is located at the show grounds in Ukunda, right down the road from Nakumatt. It's a bit hidden away, so you'd likely not even notice it as you zipped by on your way to the beach. But it is here that IDUs know they can come for some support from a man who knows firsthand their difficulties.

A heavyset man in his mid-forties and reminiscent of a jovial high school basketball coach, Maina is also a recovering addict, which he says gives him the necessary patience for helping the IDUs who come to his treatment centre. He started smoking marijuana in primary school; by high school, he was taking alcohol and miraa. After graduation, he opened a discotheque in Malindi and started dating an Italian woman who provided him a seemingly limitless supply of marijuana, alcohol, miraa and heroin. He continued injecting heroin for the next four years before going to rehab - he's now been clean for 15 years.

Twenty-eight-year-old Alexis* is one of the women who works in the mango grove. She wears a tattered red tank top, dilapidated red Bata flip-flops and a threadbare corduroy skirt to cover the skimpy shorts she wears in the forest to attract men. She doesn't own much else. Alexis began sex work eight years ago when she saw her friends doing it and making good money. Her parents begged her not to start, saying that although the family was poor, they could share what they had. Ignoring their pleas, Alexis became a sex worker and started injecting heroin with her friends to cope with the stress of her new lifestyle.

Life as a Heroin Addict:

Most IDUs are quite thin because they spend almost all of their income on heroin, to the detriment of their own and their family's needs, including school fees, rent and food. They have an almost vacuous look in their eyes. They can talk about family, shooting up, or being sex trafficked with the emotion we would use when ordering a hamburgerat McDonald's. Only when they ask you for money do they perk up a bit.

Alexis speaks openly when she describes the things she and her colleagues are willing to do to get the next sachet of heroin. She claims that other sex workers at the coast look down upon the addicts because they wear torn, dirty clothing, they rarely bathe, and they don't take care of themselves. The customers also treat them with disdain, often they know that if one woman won't agree, another certainly will. According to Alexis, it is common for men to beat them, engage in brutal sexual acts, leave without paying and refuse to use condoms. And the women usually accept whatever is demanded in their quest to get some fast cash before withdrawal symptoms set in.

Heroin withdrawal is a miserable experience, although usually not life-threatening, and can start as soon as five to six hours after the last hit. Symptoms include abdominal pains, vomiting, diarrhoea, chills, joint pains, gooseflesh, dilated pupils and dry mouth. Once the person injects, these symptoms disappear. So the IDU becomes obsessed with getting that next hit as quickly as possible.

As a result, petty theft is common. When a heroin addict is in such a state, he or she will steal, sell, or do whatever it takes to get the drug. Joseph* is a 28-year-old addict who has been using heroin for the last six years. He wears denim shorts and a white Billabong t-shirt that exposes track marks on his arms from many years of heroin injection. He says he has previously stolen three mobile phones and a radio from his friends to pay for heroin. He makes money driving a boat to take tourists to the coral reefs, but he doesn't steal from them. The reason, he says, is that, "If I steal from them, they won't come again. That's why I steal from my friends."

Alex used to snatch gold necklaces from ladies' necks to sell to local black market dealers. He was caught twice, which he says was a (temporarily) sobering experience. According to Alex, "In the beginning, I found it [the drug use] interesting and attractive but later on, I didn't because it was so disgusting. At the end of the day, you're not satisfied. The more you use, the more you end up with nothing. It's risky and it's scary. You wake up the next morning, and are teetering, so you find someone else's needle, you rinse it with water, and you use it. So that was not good."

"Kenya's heroin problem exposed: Brown Sugar, Smack & Syringes" continues tomorrow...

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Jill Craig.

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