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Drugs almost killed me, but I made it

By Christopher Owuor
Monday, July 6th, 2020
Drug use and abuse statistics.

Clifford Akumu @PeopleDailyKE

A dingy alley along Taita Lane in Nairobi’s downtown, popular for sneaky deals where one can find anything under the sky, served as Alice Kesiwa’s home for several years.

Kesiwa, 23, was a drug addict who had mastered the street life, usually filled with early morning honking from shuttle buses, thirsty blood-sucking mosquitoes at night and stubborn council authorities.

She used to sleep soundly with her fiancé in the alley after drowning in opioids (heroin).

Together with the man, to whom she affectionately used to call ‘Changu’ meaning ‘mine’ in Kiswahili, the last born in a family of four ran a ring of illicit vehicle parts trade, and even ended up selling drugs to survive.

Today, Kesiwa’s life has taken a different path; she occasionally goes back to that spot where she used to sleep to preach the recovery gospel.

And even losing her fiancée to depression due to drug addiction has not dampened her spirit.

“Every time I pass near the alley and see another street urchin sleeping in that spot, it reminds me of my life. I talk to them on the dangers of drug use and I am happy some of them are listening,” she says.

She is among hundreds of drug users benefiting from Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) clinic in Karuri, Kiambu county that offers opioid substitution therapy, treatment for HIV, TB, hepatitis C, wound care and mental health support.

On this day, she had arrived early at the medically assisted therapy (MAT) clinic for her daily dose of methadone.

Methadone has the same effect and feeling as heroin, but it keeps drug addicts away from having withdrawal symptoms and cravings. It slowly kills addiction.

The MAT programme is run by MSF, Ministry of Health through National Aids and STIs Control Programme (Nascop), and LVCT Health in conjunction with Kiambu government.

Under the programme, individuals such as Kesiwa, who had been injecting hard drugs such as heroin, are given daily dosage to help them fight addiction.

According to United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNODC’s) World Report 2020, some 269 million people abused drugs in 2018, a 30 per cent jump from 2009.

The report further notes that peak levels of drug use are seen among those aged 18-25 years.

A 2017 study by National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) on Status of Drugs and Substance Abuse in Kenya placed the prevalence of alcohol among those aged between 15 to 65 years at 12.2 per cent, tobacco 8.3 per cent, khat 4.1 per cent, bhang/marijuana at one per cent. 

Kesiwa, who lives in Kabuko, Limuru area with her parents, is lucky to have support from the clinic.

“I have no job, but I have to take my dosage. We are happy the clinic has come to our rescue by organising support in terms of bus fare,” she narrates. 

Without such alternatives to help her take the daily methadone dosage, she risks relapses and going back to injecting drugs to satisfy cravings.

In the light of the prevailing atmosphere of the pandemic, drug dependent persons are more acutely at risk because of their underlying health issues, social stigmatisation and the death of access to health care.

Julia Jung, the MAT clinic project coordinator for MSF in Kiambu, says, “Covid-19 has brought challenges for drug users in the programme. We have had to adjust to these hiccups to sustain access to care and treatment”.

Due to the threat of the virus, Jung says they have been forced to ensure all drug users and dens observe government regulations at the main facility and other satellite dropping centres.

Rock bottom

“At first, it was difficult to implement preventive measures in the drug dens, but together with our partners LVCT Health, we managed to provide water buckets, soaps for hand washing, distributed several masks and conducted a series of public health education session through our peer educators on the pandemic,” she adds.

As a result of hiked fares due to economic challenges caused by the pandemic, and curfew directives,she says,addicts outside Kiambaa sub-county are finding it hard to access care and treatment.

“In most vulnerable situation we support them with a stipend to enable them attend the clinic and take their daily dose of methadone,” says Jung.

She continues, “And again, together with Kiambu county government, we have donated food to the most vulnerable drug users who do not have any source of income”

But just like other stories of addiction, Kesiwa’s is full of tragedy. After receiving her dosage on this day, I pulled her aside for a chat.

She opens up in her characteristic sheng, “I had a smooth childhood growing up in Kabuku ,Limuru.

I later joined Harleys Girls in Machakos county in 2010, and while in Form Two, I started making false complains about the school.”

When no response was coming from her parents, she threatened to quit school. Her parents would then transfer her to Mutitu-ini Mixed Secondary School. And that is where it all began. 

“I joined bad company of boys from Nairobi who introduced me to drugs. I used to sneak to the toilet to smoke bhang,” she says.

“I used to think, if I smoke bhang, I was going to be good in books. That wasn’t the case. I only used to see teachers as cartoons.

And when I didn’t have money, I used to break into other students boxes to steal anything I found to get money for drugs,” she says.

Kesiwa would graduate to drug peddling in the school. She used part of her shopping money to buy drugs in Kayole, Nairobi and sneak it in via students who never used to break for half term.

“I used to buy a stone of bhang (or dimanga) at Sh200 and rolling papers (rizla) at Sh30 because it was cheaper than buying rolls.

Since I had mastered all the schools corners, sneaking drug in was so easy,” she says. Rolls of bhang were disguised and stuffed inside tissue papers. 

She sold drugs for the better part of term one. But things took a nasty turn when she sold bhang to a Form Two student who was later nabbed by the school’s principal. This student blew her cover.

“I was nabbed with 40 rolls. Teachers never believed what they saw when they opened my box during the search,” she says. She was expelled from school, and her parents cut links with her.

She became a real rebel and told the parents she was done with education, “I used to drink a lot. I totally became a rebel and a wreck,” she says.

With stigma rife in her neighbourhood, she relocated to the nearby Limuru town to start a new life and later fell in love with a student from the nearby StPaul’s University. He introduced her to hard drugs. 

“In 2015, I got addicted to heroin. We had hit rock bottom. If you are a junky, you cannot reason.

To satiate our cravings for opioids, my fiancée, an IT intern at a local supermarket, invented a way of altering the CCTV cameras to allow him steal electronics and use the money to buy drugs, “she explains.

Kesiwa, by this time fully hooked on heroin, used to sneak to Nairobi’s central business district smoke or kuchakachua heroin.

“I used to rush to town to take drugs, but come back before my fiancée was home. Sometimes, I would be given Sh200 to buy food, but used half of it on drugs,” she says.

Her fiancée was later expelled from work after the management found out. Things changed drastically. With no money to buy food, pay rent and buy drugs, they had to find other ways to survive. 

Even after stealing side mirrors to selling everything in their house except for the mattress and a few utensils, they still could not maintain their habits.  It was downhill from there. 

Dr Mercy Karanja, a psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health’s division of mental health notes that addiction is a disease that can be prevented and managed.

“Someone cannot just snap out of it; professional help is often needed. It is not a result of witchcraft. Anyone, at any age can be affected,” Dr Karanja said during a virtual live chat on the eve of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking celebrations held recently.

She notes that parents need to talk about the harmful effects of drugs to their children, especially during this period of the pandemic when we have a lot of time with them.

When drug users relapse, accept them and keep helping them, notes Karanja, adding “Same way you don’t discriminate on someone, for example, people who keeps getting asthma attack”

Redemption

However, Kesiwa and her fiance’s life from shackles of drug addiction changed in late 2016, when they met a good Samaritan. 

“We helped a passerby who had dropped about Sh200,000,” she says. The Samaritan brought a local TV station to highlight their plight and eventually, she  was taken to Githunguri Genesis Sober Community, and her fiancé to Karen Jerusalem Rehabilitation Centre. 

Sadly, after four months of rehab, her fiancé relapsed and hit the drug dens again. Due to depression, he passed on.

Kesiwa, on the other hand, after finishing her rehabilitation period was admitted at AIC Kijabe Hospital after Tuberculosis-Meningitis attack.

She later learnt of her fiance’s demise from social media. It affected her. She relapsed too and went back to the streets.

 Since I did not have any exit plan from rehab and stigma back home I decided to fall back. I knew I did not fit in that society,” she explains.

In 2017, she went back to injecting heroin, but later changed for the better when she met community outreach program officers from Drug Rehabilitation Unit, Mathari Hospital.

“I was introduced to methadone. My life has changed. I went back home to my parents. They are very supportive. I thank God that friends and parents listen to me because I now can make sense,” she notes.

For those who are slowly fighting addiction, Kesiwa has a word for them. 

“If you use any drug, the end result is either death or prison. It is better to remain sober,” she says.

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