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Drug addiction in Africa

By Farai Sevenzo
Posted on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 08:23

I have mine, she has hers and she gladly shares.

She’s heading 142km away to her village near Mtepatepa, Mashonaland Central, to get away from Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and the chronic addiction to crack and cocaine she’s developed, which has nearly collapsed her nose.

It is doubtful that there’ll be rehab facilities anywhere near the village, but putting such distance between her and her demons should keep the cravings down.

Instead of her dealer, there’ll be a grandmother and the familiarity of her childhood.

Awash with drugs

There isn’t an African city I’ve visited in the past decade in which ‘class A’ drugs have not arrived: whether it’s tik – crystal methamphetamine – headlining in Cape Town; seizures of cocaine in Accra; or heroin in Stone Town and Bujumbura.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is not exact about the level of drug use on the continent, but notes in a 2014 report: “While there is no conclusive evidence with respect to cocaine use in Africa, expert opinion indicates there may be pockets of use […] related to the rise in trafficking through Africa and increased affluence.”

If the increase in the numbers of rehab centres across South Africa is any indication, those pockets of use are expanding.

And as anyone who has seen the havoc wrought by tik in the Western Cape can attest, affluence has nothing to do with it.

Communities in the Cape have been under the fog of crystal meth since the beginning of the millennium, with families brought to their knees by the often violent and unpredictable behaviour of addicts.

Empathy for those affected extends to the courts, as in the case of Ellen Pakkies, the mother of a 21-year-old tik addict, who in 2008 slipped a rope around his neck while he was sleeping and strangled him.

She was acquitted of murder charges and became the subject of a theatre piece on the dilemma facing the families of addicts.

Drugs are far from being a solely South African problem.

Drugs across Africa

The UNODC reports an increase in heroin seizures at Kenyan ports from 2012 to the end of 2014, a seizure of 2.2tn of cocaine in Cabo Verde in 2013 and the forging of new partnerships between South American and African drug traffickers in efforts to meet demand in Europe and North America.

Just a few years back, Guinea-Bissau was being called ‘the world’s first narco-state’. South American dealers flew in planeloads of cocaine and speedboats landed on this tiny country’s 400-mile coastline with the collusion of the country’s leadership.

Coup after coup ensued, not for power or some hidden democratic yearning but to control the drug money coming in from across the Atlantic.

In 2013, Guinea-Bissau’s former navy chief José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto was arrested in a sting operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

Yet, one arrest of a big fish must be weighed against the thousands of crack addicts left in Bissau’s streets.

At last count, Bissau had one rehab centre for thousands of addicts.

Meanwhile, there is no discernible African Union policy on the drug crisis.

The South African government’s “blueprint for preventing and reducing alcohol and substance abuse”, its National Drug Master Plan, is perhaps the most comprehensive drugs policy on the continent.

But, as with the onset of the AIDS pandemic, families affected by drug addiction are in deep denial and stigma abounds across class, race and culture.

The harrowing tales of tik addiction coming out of the Western Cape show that the drug does not discriminate: young, old, professional and unskilled – all have been affected.

Head up to Soweto or Eldorado Park in Johannesburg, and a drug known as nyaope – a potentially lethal mix of reefer and anything from rat poison to anti-retroviral drugs – is on the scene.

There are currently seven state-run treatment centres to service South Africa’s three major cities, all woefully underfunded and in need of professional staff.

The grass is greener in the private sector, which boasts 48 rehab centres registered with South Africa’s social development ministry and more than 70 outpatient centres.

Recovery is expensive

But families face fees of up to $7,000 to treat addicts in such upmarket facilities.

At the House on Cedar rehab facility for addicts in Northcliff, I met patients from as far afield as Trinidad and New York, from Botswana’s Francistown mining community, from Durban and from Harare.

The journey of recovery is expensive. A new phenomenon – the ‘rehab safari’ – has seen addicts from all over the world take advantage of the South African rand’s weakness to check in to Johannesburg’s rehab centres.

But a 12-week rehab and cleaning up is inaccessible for many local addicts.

Inequality – hasn’t that always been the problem? So much so that the idea of going cold turkey in your grandmother’s village far away from the madness doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Farai Sevenzo, Filmmaker and broadcaster

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