Increasing drug abuse in Kenya

John Mwangi loves the Nairobi Central Business District. The 21-year-old street “boy” loves the place because he does not have to go to the residential estates to get his daily needs. Up to that point, Mwangi is right because Nairobi, like all cities, needs to be self sufficient in order to cater for its residents. The only difference is that the daily needs Mwangi has access to without going to the residential estates are mainly alcohol, inhalants, drugs and other substances that he abuses and is perpetually inebriated as he goes about his chores of rummaging through heaps of waste in Kirinyaga, Kijabe and River roads.

Just five years ago, Mwangi would have been forced to walk up to either Muthurwa Railways quarters, Ziwani, Shauri Moyo, Landi Mawe or any other adjacent estate to get his daily dose. The suppliers, recognising the needs of those who abuse their wares and in order to lure more, decided to move closer. Thus, one can now have access to chang'aa right in the middle of the city. The suppliers of smokable drugs and inhalants have also moved closer to their customers, and in the process, have just become another link in the chain that has made drugs easily accessible to young Kenyans.

“We buy whatever we need right here,” says Mwangi, as he stands on a heap of waste paper on an open field overlooking Ngara Girls and River Bank Primary, a plastic bottle half full of glue dangling from his lips. “We are self sufficient.”

Across the river, as one approaches the city centre from downtown, chang'aa vendors make their way through the crowd of mechanics, food vendors, scavengers, occasionally stopping to serve customers who need a drink in order to face the day.
If others are walking around, there are those who are huddled in corners awaiting customers, too, as they break off from their duties to have a drink, then go back.

In this part of Nairobi, people are perpetually high as inhalants and other drugs for those who do not drink are easily available. But, generally, those using different kinds of stimulants simultaneously are the rule, and it is not uncommon to see a street child put his bottle of industrial glue aside to down a drink, then pick up the bottle and continue sniffing with abandon.

“We cannot afford what they sell in those bars up there,” says Mwangi, as he drags on a roll of Sh5 bhang he removed from the pockets of his greasy pair of trousers. “We need an alternative which is low priced.”

To cater for their low income customers who care for a joint, the vendors are bending backwards to supply slimmer joints of bhang which they sell at Sh5, which is lower than for the “normal” size.

“They understand our needs and that is why they roll up smaller joints,” says Man Karis. “Even the measures for the drinks are smaller and cheaper than in the estates.”

The 16-year-old dead eyed zombie who, like the rest of his colleagues who scavenge on the heap of waste paper next to Kijabe Street, uses all kinds of substances that would make him inebriated, admits that access to the drugs has become easy over the past two years. “It was a little bit difficult getting most of what we now get around here,” he says. “But now, I can get a joint without leaving this heap.”

To free themselves from walking the lanes selling their wares, some dealers have formed “joint” ventures with the street children, who they give the substances to sell on their behalf. Other street children who have made their bones have themselves become vendors and buy from the suppliers, for onward retailing to colleagues and other customers who find their way to these backstreets. If that be the life downtown when it comes to drugs, up town, it is no different either, and there is equally easy access, and no dearth of young users.

While the street children may drown their sorrows with chang'aa, the sons and daughters of salaried Kenyans are finding alternatives also in the form of cheaper drinks in sachets. These drinks are sold in the supermarkets and are also available in wines and spirits shops that dot Nairobi estates and street corners.

But Mr Joseph Kaguthi, the National Co-ordinator for the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada), says the use of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and mandrax has increased in the country. “Matters have been worsened by the failure of the Ministry of Health to put up rehabilitation centres as stipulated by Section 52 of the Drugs and Substances Abuse Act of 1994.”

According to a survey, Youth in Peril: Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Kenya, contrary to common assumption, substance abuse is widespread and cuts across all social groups of the youth. The survey, which was the first-ever national baseline survey on substance abuse among the youth aged between 10 and 24 years, was commissioned by Nacada. The survey, whose results were released on Friday, traces the rapid spread of substance abuse to the breakdown of indigenous society and to the introduction of foreign influences that have made a variety of substances available on a large scale.

Ultimately, substance use by the youth implies a breakdown of family values earlier evident in the indigenous society and, as a result, several parents have lost control over their children. Freed from parental control, some of these children have succumbed to substance abuse.

Even though evidence shows that a number of non-students engage in substance abuse, the majority of students who abuse drugs are in secondary schools and universities. Most come mainly from middle class families and entertain the falsehood that substance use enables a student to study for long hours.

The frequency, as well as the type of substance abuse, varies from province to province. When it comes to alcohol, the prevalence among students is highest in Western (43.3 per cent), followed by Nairobi (40.9 per cent), Nyanza (26.8 per cent), Central (26.3 per cent), Rift valley (21.9 per cent), Coast, Eastern and North Eastern at 21.3, 17.2 and 1.6 per cent respectively.
Prevalence is high even among non-students in Western at 90.1 per cent, followed again by Nairobi at 89.9 per cent, then Rift Valley, Central, Nyanza, Eastern, Coast and North Eastern at 86.1, 84.1, 81.5, 73.4, 73.1 and 15.6 per cent respectively.
The prevalence of bhang use among non-students aged between 10 and 24 is highest in Nyanza followed by Nairobi, Coast, Eastern, Western, Rift Valley, Central and North Eastern in that order while, among students, bhang use is highest in Coast and lowest in North Eastern with Nairobi being second highest followed by Central, Eastern, Western, Nyanza and Rift Valley.

Nairobi leads again when it comes to inhalants, thanks to street children, among both students and non-students. Inhalants use among non-students is lowest in Coast Province and among students it is lowest in North Eastern.

Nairobi also leads in tobacco use among students, followed by Central, Coast, Eastern, Western, Rift Valley, Nyanza and North Eastern. Among non-students, tobacco use is highest in Eastern, Coast, Rift Valley, Central, Nairobi, North Eastern, North Eastern, Western and Nyanza.

As is expected, the use of miraa is highest in Eastern among non-students followed by North Eastern and lowest in Nyanza. Among students, its use is highest in Nairobi followed by Eastern and lowest in North Eastern.

Over and above the five most commonly abused substances, the youth abuse psychotropic as well as narcotic drugs such as amphetamines, harbiturates, cocaine, codaine, Ecstacy, Heroin, LSD, Mandrax, Pethidine, Rohypnol and Valium.

Psychotropic drugs are introduced to 37 per cent of the youth aged between 10 and 14 years and nearly 75 per cent of the youth aged below 19 years.

The survey reveals that while substance abuse by the youth ranges mostly from the increasing use of illegal and “hard” drugs to legal and “soft” substances, the youth mostly abuse four substances: Alcohol, tobacco, bhang and inhalants.

On the whole, it reveals, substance use usually begins at a very young age. For instance, for students it starts when they are in primary school, secondary school or university.

Moreover, those who use miraa are not aware of its harmful effects because the government has more or less legalised its use.

But it is increasingly becoming common knowledge that substance abuse among the youth is turning out to be a major problem because they begin to consume substances in early adolescence; abuse a wide range of legal and illegal substances and mainly use alcohol, miraa and tobacco among legal substances and bhang, cocaine and heroin among the illegal ones.

The problem of abuse is associated with the introduction of foreign ways of life that have been undermining cultures of the indigenous society which restricted the use of some substances such as alcohol to senior age groups and to special occasions. But times have changed and alcohol consumption is not restricted to senior age groups or special occasions. It is readily available to adults and to youth between 10 and 24 years, though the law prohibits its sale to and use by those under the legal age of consent.

By Clay Muganda
1 April 2004


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