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TANZANIA: Focus on drug abuse

Dar es Salaam, 20 January 2004 (IRIN) - His eyes bloodshot, wearing torn and dirty clothes, Abdullah, 30, is perched on a stool in the shade of a tree in one of the dilapidated suburbs of the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. His speech is painfully slow, as he struggles to recall the last 15 years of his life.

He repeated each question several times, closed his eyes and thought for several minutes before recalling the nightmare that his life had turned after he got hooked onto heroin.

However, Abdullah, who declined to give IRIN his full name, said he was now as happy as he had been for quite a while. He stopped taking heroin four months ago and was gradually being accepted again by friends and family who had rejected him.

"I first smoked heroin when I was 15. I was young and I wanted to be like the older boys," he said. At the time, Abdullah was at school, but said he had conditioned himself first to go to school, and then taking the heroin only after getting home in the evenings.

"But before long, I couldn't study, so I became a fisherman. Then, after a few more years of smoking, I got into the trade, shipping drugs from Tanzania to Mozambique. To start with it was good money, but I was robbed several times and lost shipments, so I then moved to Kenya, where I worked as a taster for dealers," he added.

From the time he became a taster to determine the quality of the drug, life became a blur, until, after returning to Dar es Salaam in mid-2003, he came across a grass-roots organisation known as Christ Compassion in Action (CCA), which works with drug addicts in Tanzania.

CCA, which educates users and helps them to find treatment, has supported Abdullah's efforts to end his addiction, but its director, Mamu Yasou, says not enough is being done to tackle drug abuse in general.

"It is a very dangerous problem and I see it getting worse as younger children get involved," he said. "People are resorting to drugs because they are frustrated with life in Dar. Unemployment, lack of education and, especially among the young children, peer pressure are factors that are dragging them down."

Yasou said the 700 addicts whom his organisation worked with - in a community of 50,000 people - represented merely one-fifth of the regular drug abusers in his part of the city. And, he said, the numbers were increasing.

He said young people with unrealised dreams, living a state of confusion, were taking up heroin. Unable to fund the habit, which on average costs 3,000 shillings (US $3) a day, many were taking to crime and trafficking.

"For many young people on the streets of Dar es Salaam, becoming a smuggler - a venture that could bring in 12 million shillings' worth of heroin from Pakistan in one trip - is a more realistic dream than even trying to get a good job. They are role models for some young children," another social worker said.

GROWING CHALLENGE

The government's Inter-ministerial Anti-Drug Commission (IADC) has no statistics on users, but social workers estimate that Dar es Salaam, with a population of 2.5 million, may have between 200,000 and 250,000 drug abusers.

Observers said the figures were high because of the estimated 800,000 young people who make a living as petty traders on city streets.

A substance abuse manager at Save the Children UK in Tanzania, Jane Calder, said the problem was getting worse. When it came to hard drugs, she said, Tanzania was moving from being a transit to a consumer society. She added that while it was almost impossible to be precise with figures, consumption of hard drugs in the country was on the increase.

With its long, porous borders and a history of trade and smuggling, it is unsurprising that some of the heroin leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan for Europe passes through Tanzania.

"There has also been a change in the use of bhang [cannabis sativa]," Calder said. "This drug has been smoked by elders for hundreds of years, but people are concerned at how it is being used differently by children these days. It is grown here, readily available and is being used to build confidence and can lead to infringements of the law."

The impact of drug abuse in Tanzania is similar to that of other countries. Addicts looking for money to buy drugs commit crimes, abusers become unable to work and, although the injection of heroin is still limited, such users are usually unaware of the dangers of contracting HIV/AIDS.

GOVERNMENT ACTION

The director of the police's criminal investigations in the country, Adadi Rajabu, told IRIN that he had noted an increase in the availability of drugs, mostly because Tanzania's borders were so porous, but he stressed that the police had stepped up checks and collaboration with neighbouring countries and the problem was "not too serious".

Legislation in 1995 established the IADC, the police force had received modern equipment and training, and regular meetings with countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was helping the sharing of information between countries, he said.

According to police and IADC figures, in 2001 and 2002, more than 360,000 kg of cannabis was destroyed across the country and heroin seizures at airports and seaports publicised in the media, but observers and social workers remain concerned that the government could be tackling the drug problem incorrectly.

"The police are arresting the small-time smugglers and cannabis producers, but this is easy. There are big people involved in this business and they [the police] are not touching anyone of significance - those with influence and are involved in smuggling heroin," a social worker, who requested anonymity, told IRIN.

Similarly, many believe that the problem lies with the attitude towards young people. Critics say the authorities, who are disassociated from the youth, tend to be punitive and moralistic, and this was not helping to solve the problem.

NEED FOR YOUTH-FRIENDLY APPROACH

"We are tackling it as a war, but how many of these types of wars have we won?" asks a drug outreach worker. "This method doesn't allow for rethinking and reflection. There is an inability to reconcile the elder generation with the young and the realities of what is happening on the ground."

In a country with limited resources, health-care constraints already exist, there is limited access to treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts. In fact, apart from an expensive private clinic, the only place where addicts can access treatment in Dar es Salaam is the psychiatric ward of the Muhimbili Referral Hospital.

"People there are treated as psychiatric patients, given strong sedatives, and therefore users are reluctant to go there for treatment," Calder said.

Given the circumstances and the constraints on resources, Save the Children UK is proposing a harm-prevention approach. It is looking to build on its three years experience in working with the poor and marginalised urban youth and children in an effort to tackle the problem from the grass-roots.

The NGO believes that a youth-friendly approach is the only way to deal with the issue. And its education initiatives through training peer educators, psychiatric nurses and partner organisations, as well as printing leaflets on substance abuse, the risk of HIV and self-detoxification have, so far, been well received.

However, Calder was concerned because the NGO was finding it difficult to secure funding to develop its ideas. "It's not seen as a priority area and it's also a difficult issue for people to get their heads around."

"There is a large group of heroin users that are isolated and asking for support, but they are not receiving it. It is an emerging problem, but one that will not go away, and we may regret not dealing with it now," she said.

Theme (s): Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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