Apollo Mwangi* was only 18 years old when he began using drugs. He was grappling with newfound freedom, as he had just moved out of his parents home for the first time. Naturally, he indulged to the fullest. He worked his way from mild drugs like cigarettes and alcohol to the more elusive weed and even shisha. Eventually, he discovered another brand of drugs, one that was infinitely cheaper and, more importantly, readily available.
He first tried painkillers at home, after hearing about it from friends. From here, it was a short trip to stronger brands like OxyContin, Valium and Betapyn.
“It was more out of curiosity than anything else,” he explains. “I had heard that prescription drugs gave you a different kind of high and I was eager to try it.”
That was the same case with Emmanuel Juma, a recovering drug addict from Kisauni in Mombasa.
“Drugs are the order of the day in Mombasa. I was exposed to it early, while I was still in school. Heroin, weed, Kuber, and a synthetic tablet called ‘bugizzi’, are all easily accessible in the streets,” he says.
This is a trend that is emerging among the youth. While the debate about the legalisation of marijuana slowly slips into our borders, the youth are finding increasingly inventive alternatives to traditional drugs. Curbing the weed menace is a massive headache, but dealing with the new wave of drugs promises to be an even greater challenge.
The National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) lists Vicodin, Concerta, Adderall and Xanax as some of the drugs that can be obtained over the counter, some without prescriptions. These drugs are useful when taken under a doctor’s instructions, but when taken in excess, they bring about a change in the state of the body that is perceived by these youth as a ‘high’.
According to Diana Achieng’, there are so many things around the home that can be used to get high.
“I once left apple juice to ferment for a few days, and when I finally drank it, it was almost like alcohol,” she says.
According to her, traditional drugs like alcohol and miraa, while still popular among the youth, have fallen out of favour because there are cheaper and stronger alternatives that are also readily available. A lot of the young people we spoke to mentioned black tar heroin, a new drug that has found its way into the Kenyan market.
“It is very cheap. A hit goes for around Sh200 in Dandora. It is mixed with crazy chemicals, so it isn’t pure. But when you take it, it can knock you out for days,” one of the users told The Nairobian.
It is alarming to think that young people can get these drugs so easily. It is even more alarming to know that they do this under the noses of their parents, guardians and even teachers.
According to Dr Catherine Mutisya, a psychiatrist and founder of the Nairobi Parenting Clinic, an organisation that coaches parents and provides counselling services, most parents rarely spend time with their children, so it would be impossible to know if they are on drugs.
“A lot of the patients we treat are usually brought to us by schools,” she explains. “They call in and inform us that they have discovered one of their students is using drugs, and we then notify their parents. It almost always comes as a surprise to the parents,” he adds.
“In today’s world, everyone is busy. Parents leave the house in the morning to go to work, and when they return, there is very little time to spend with their kids. If they are teenagers, especially, it is even harder to stay connected to them. Because of this, a parent would not know if their son or daughter was abusing drugs.
“The signs are always there. Drugs are defined as substances that alter the normal state, so any behaviour that feels out of character can be flagged immediately. Your child could suddenly become untidy, or change the way they dress or even their eating habits. It would take an engaged parent to pick out these small signs and act on them,” she says.
Brian Mugo, the secretary general of Youth against Alcohol Drugs and Substance Abuse (YAADSA) in Kenya, notes that it all comes down to parental involvement.
“Not many young people feel free enough with their parents to talk about drugs with them. It could be that they are too strict, or they do not have an open enough relationship with them. In this case, what happens in the child’s life can easily go unnoticed by a parent. Sometimes, something as simple as a gut feeling can alert a parent to their child’s drug use,” says Mugo.
Through his organisation, Mugo has dealt with several cases of drug use. The one recurring theme is that it is too easy for young people to deceive their parents, or keep their habits a secret.