WHILE Zimbabwe, like many other countries the world over, is concentrating on fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, an equally deadly but silent epidemic is on the prowl, causing untold suffering to families as it threatens communities and an entire generation.
NYASHA CHINGONO/BERNARD MPOFU/SAVANNA MADAMOMBE
The abuse of crystal meth and other deadly substances has become so rampant among youths across the country’s townships, driving mental illness, violence and premature deaths, among other problems.
The NewsHawks followed the illegal substances trail in Harare’s townships, where grimy drug houses known as bases (mabhesi) have become havens of dangerous narcotics like crystal meth.
Known scientifically as methamphetamine, crystal meth is a highly addictive stimulant and users love the drug for its powerful euphoric qualities. Addictive on first smoke, the drug has become a crippling vice for the country’s youths who take the illegal substance to escape from daily troubles.
Also known as mutoriro, dombo, buwe, guka makafela in street lingo, the infamous drug has destroyed lives across the country’s townships.
Inside a dark room in Chitungwiza’s St Mary’s suburb, Tamar (20) is holding a florescent pipe as her friend applies heat from a cigarette lighter.
She puffs the cloud-like smoke out of the pipe and gazes into the roof, while exhaling the toxic smoke. In ecstasy, Tamar smiles as her friend also takes a puff from the burning liquid.
Tamar, who got hooked onto drugs at the tender age of 16, has experimented with many dangerous substances, but seems stuck on crystal meth.
She can do anything for a fix and is often used by drug dealers to attract male customers. “Drug dealers use me to attract customers. They like my beauty and attractive appearance. As you see, I am a beautiful girl,” Tamar tells The NewsHawks with a chuckle.
But beneath the beauty, fair looks, and pretty smile, is a troubled soul.
Tamar was forced to stay alone after her mother remarried following their divorce with his father nearly five years ago.
Haunted by a troubled past, Tamar found solace in drugs.
“I started indulging in drugs in 2016. My mum had left my dad and remarried. I just decided to walk away so that mother could have a life of her own,” Tamar said.
“My brother is also mentally ill. This was so much pressure for me to handle and I thought life had ended when my brother was admitted to hospital.
“I started smoking weed and drinking Bronclear. I ended up experimenting with crystal meth, I took it as an adventure, but I did not know that I would end up getting addicted to this drug,” Tamar explained her ordeal with crystal meth.
Tamar blames her parents’ divorce for her drug problem as she felt unwanted.
Struggling with anxiety and depression, the only escape was drugs. The illicit substances help her forget her problems, she says.
“I blame my parents for letting me move out when I was only 16. I felt rejected and unwanted,” she said.
As consumption of illicit drugs has risen, the mental health of addicts has taken a severe battering. Six out of 10 patients admitted to mental institutions suffer drug-related issues. About 30% are hooked on drugs in Zimbabwe, according to narcotic experts.
But the destruction of young people and families has not prompted any decisive action from the government.
In Mbare, one of the country’s oldest townships, at least 10 young people die daily of drug-related illnesses, with crystal meth claiming many young lives.
Already condemned to a life of poverty due to Zimbabwe’s economic problems, youths are trapped in a growing drug problem that has caused deep-seated social problems.
Across the road is Shezby’s drug base and two teenage girls are profusely begging for a fix.
Shezby (30) is holding a cigarette lighter and a fluorescent pipe as Pelagia (19) puffs the intoxicating smoke. Taking turns to puff from the fluorescent tube with her friend Rutendo (18), the two narrate their drug problems.
Offering sexual favours for a fix is common among young girls.
Rutendo recounts her ordeal with drugs.
“I started drugs in 2015. It was an experimental urge with mbanje and Bronclear, I then moved to smoking crystal meth, the ghetto youths call it mutoriro. To get the drug, I barter trade food, clothes, or shoes because I do not have money often,” Rutendo who is also a school dropout, tells The NewsHawks.
“Sometimes I even have sexual intercourse with any of the boys in the base. I just do whatever is possible to get the drug. At home I always lie so that I can spend time at the base.”
Abuse of female users is rampant at these bases, Pelagia says.
“These bases are not safe because there are what they can gunvosters (thugs), those guys are cruel. They can take your possessions and threat to kill you. Some even demand sex,” Pelagia said.
“Girls are being abused in these bases. They are sexually assaulted but most of them do not even report for fear of victimisation.”
Girls like Rutendo and Pelagia keep Shezby’s business afloat. Shezby, a former commuter minibus tout, says the drug business is very lucrative, raking in hundreds of dollars daily.
A crystal meth addict himself, Shezby runs a drug base where dozens of youths from Chitungwiza and other townships buy illicit substances.
He has introduced several youths to the drug and preys on their addiction for profit.
A gramme of crystal meth costs US$12, an amount beyond the reach of most unemployed youths, who often engage in petty crime to fund their insatiable appetite for the drug.
Some even steal home appliances for sale, creating irreconcilable rifts between parents and their children. Visibly intoxicated, puffy eyed and drooling on the cracked floor, Shezby recounts his encounter with a crystal meth user that got him addicted.
“I started doing drugs soon after high school, when I joined the kombi business as a tout. I started abusing mbanje (marijuana), cigarettes and cough syrup. I was introduced by a friend who was coming from South Africa. He gave everyone. He told us that the drug would give us energy and then he became my supplier,” Shezby said.
Now one of the most revered drug peddlers in his community, Shezby says youths can do anything for a fix.
“Sometimes they bring clothes, phones or anything to trade so that they get a fix. Others risk trading their parents’ property just to get a fix. Others who do shoplifting bring groceries. Most of these drug addicts hustle for a living,” he said.
Girls have become his most regular customers, while boys as young as 14 have also joined the ruinous train of illicit drug abuse.
“During the first days, we used to have men only at these bases, but girls are now a permanent feature. You find all age groups at bases,” he said.
Source of the drugs and police involvement
According Shezby, the illicit drug is trafficked by enterprising truck drivers, hidden in new television sets, refrigerators, and other home appliances, through the country’s porous borders.
“These drugs are coming from South Africa, but I have never been to the border. They come stashed in TVs, refrigerators, even in flasks,” Shezby said.
Immigrations officials have been accused of being complicit in drug trafficking by allowing illegal contraband into the country.
Shezby also has become friends with several “corrupt” police officers, offering monetary favours in exchange for protection and tip offs whenever there is a blitz to catch drug peddlers.
“I have been arrested several times, but they release me. I eventually became friends with them, they always pass by getting money for drinks. They tip me off whenever there is a police officer,” Shezby said.
Although the Zimbabwean police reported that 93 drug peddlers were arrested and drugs worth ZW$8.2 million recovered, the drug problem is far from over.
The drug peddlers are often released on bail and left to operate.
The police have been accused of working in cahoots with drug peddlers, while the arrests are largely seen as a smokescreen to hoodwink the public.
The Criminal Investigation Department’s drugs and narcotics section in April launched the “No to Crystal Meth” operation following a public outcry over rampant drug use. Over 200 drug peddlers were arrested but none prosecuted.
Despite, the commendable stance to deal with the drug problem, a more wholistic approach to dealing with substance abuse is urgently needed, according to Linda Masarira, a politician and affected parent.
“What we really need is a serious effort from our ministry of Health to ensure that they set up proper rehabilitation centres. It is one thing to deal with the drug peddlers and pushers, but what will happen to the young people abusing these substances? That is one fundamental issue that needs thorough interrogation. These children need help,” Masarisa said.
The country’s porous borders remain a weak link in the fight on drug abuse in Zimbabwe.
Effects of mutoriro
Excessive use of crystal meth leads to several side effects that include increased attention, higher levels of activity, decreased appetite, reduced fatigue, a feeling of power and euphoria.
Other side effects include irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and dry mouth. Rutendo is visibly emaciated, does not eat often and has not slept for two days.
Due to excessive use of the drug, Rutendo hardly has appetite and spends most of her time at the drug base. Youths who abuse crystal meth also suffer from hallucinations and paranoia, known as “kutsomwa” or “kuteerwa” in street lingo.
“If you take an overdose of the drug, you will end up with irregular sleeping habits. You will end up behaving like a crazy person. You will start getting hallucinations and paranoia, it is not a good feeling,” Rutendo said.
Crystal meth users feel invincible and end up committing dangerous crimes, like murder.
“This drug just gives me confidence and drive to do anything, but most of the things are bad. I do not want to lie; addicts do crazy things. A man was stabbed 15 times over a straw used to smoke mutoriro,” Tamar said.
A Kuwadzana man was jailed in March after he electrocuted his friend to death. The two friends were high after smoking crystal meth.
Experts have warned that crime may increase due to drug abuse.
We need help
For 18-year-old Rutendo, life took a nasty turn after she got hooked to crystal meth. She pleads for help. Her hollow cry for help has often met no corresponding action, as her inner circle of friends is also hooked onto the drug. She often relapses into the ruinous habit due to peer pressure. Rutendo says idleness is a major driver of drug use among the youths.
“I need something to do so that I keep busy. I really want to stop this. At least if I go to work, I will come back tired, and I will not have time to go to the drug base. I also want to get an opportunity to rewrite my O Levels,” Rutendo said.
Tamar admitted that she needed help to stop the substance abuse, adding there is need to assist addicts with economic opportunities.
“I need to stop this habit of drugs and work for my own money. That is the help I require for now,” Tamar said. 16-year-old Tamuka admitted he needed help as his addiction had affected his relationship with his mother. His ill mother is due for an operation and he promised to change if the procedure is successful.
“I really want to do better in life. I desperately need help. I do not know if my mother will make it after this operation, but I promise to change. I need to go back to school and finish school,” Tamuka said.
With no prospects of employment due to unrelenting economic problems, youths in the townships have turned to drug abuse to evade daily hardships.
Zimbabwe has nearly 90% formal unemployment and youths constitute the bulk of the jobless in the country.
Years of bad governance, successive droughts and, more recently, the outbreak of Covid-19 have worsened economic situation, resulting in massive job cuts.
Drug abuse has been blamed largely on idleness and lack of economic opportunities for youths in the townships. Experts have warned that Zimbabwe risks losing a generation to substance abuse.
Mega Jani, a Zimdancehall artiste from Chitungwiza, who is also battling with crystal meth addiction, said due to a lack of economic opportunities, ghetto youths have found solace in illicit drugs and music.
“Nothing else is earning us money in the ghetto. We hustle, and some peddle drugs,” Jani said.
Jani, who was introduced to crystal meth by fellow artistes, says peer pressure is one of the major factors fueling the drug problem.
Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drugs Network Projects executive director Wilson Box said: “We need our young ones to come out in the open to say, I need assistance.”
Mental health and rehab
According to the ministry of Health, six out of 10 patients admitted to Zimbabwe’s mental health institutions have drug-related problems.
According to the latest Zimbabwe National Drug Master Plan, the government has adopted both an integrated and comprehensive approach that will address a range of drug-related issues.
These include illicit and licit drugs. Critics however doubt that most targets will be achieved.
“Currently, approximately 60% of patients admitted in mental health institutions suffer due to drug-related problems,” reads the report in part.
“Due to the socio-economic situation, Zimbabwe is facing increasing cases of depression, trauma and stress which has led to the increase in drug use. Hence as a nation there is need to have a concerted effort to address this menace. Excessive use of alcohol and drugs damage the health of users and is linked to rises in addiction and non-communicable diseases including HIV and Aids, cancer, heart diseases, psychological disorders and an increase in road traffic accidents.”
Box urged the government to build more public rehabilitation centres as the private facilities are expensive.
“Unfortunately, Zimbabwe does not have public rehabilitation centres. It has private rehabilitation centres which are expensive, beyond the reach of most of the affected people,” Box said.
Organisations like Mubatirapamwe Trust identify victims, provide counselling services and rehabilitation.
“We have 20 calls daily from affected people and parents needing help. We have been concentrating on counselling and awareness campaigns on the dangers of using the drug. We are trying to help the affected get into the hospital so that they can get a detox and places where they can be rehabilitated,” Kiri Madamombe told The NewsHawks.
As the battle against crystal meth rages on, citizens are organising action groups to raise awareness and engage the relevant authorities.
But until the battle is won, it is apparent that drug abuse is a societal cancer threatening an entire generation and requiring urgent attention.
My friend influenced me to get into drugs. I am a dancehall artist and I was introduced to the drug by my friends while we were working overnight in the studio.
This drugs helps us to keep awake at night while recording music. Nothing else is making money in the ghetto, we hustle and peddle drugs.
Facts about crystal meth:
- Crystal meth is a highly addictive, illegal stimulant drug that has a long-lasting euphoric effect
- The drug is known informally as meth, ice, or glass among the affluent users in Zimbabwe as it resembles shiny “rocks” or fragments of glass of varying sizes. It is known more formally as crystal methamphetamine
- In townships it is known as mutoriro/guka makafela/dombo (loose translation for stone)
- The drug is an odourless, colourless form of d-methamphetamine, a synthetic psychostimulant
- Light bulbs are one of the most common accessories used in the consumption of the drug. It can also be smoked in pipes, snorted, injected, swallowed, or ingested rectally
- It increases dopamine production in the brain and has similar effects to cocaine
- Long-term use can lead to verbal problems and impaired motor skills
- Crystal meth is popular among young adults at dance clubs and parties. It is taken for its euphoric effects
- Some people prefer crystal meth to other illicit drugs because the sense of euphoria it gives can last for up to 12 hours. This is a much longer duration than cocaine, a drug with similar effects
- Crystal meth can also severely affect the structure and function of brain areas linked to emotion and memory;Some brain changes that occur remain long after the user has stopped taking the drug. Some may reverse after long periods of abstinence, but this could take a year or more
Repeated use can have some psychological effects.
- anxiety, irritability and aggressive or violent behaviour;
- alertness and increased concentration;
- hyperactivity and insomnia;
- increased energy, libido, self-esteem, confidence, and sociability;
- delusions of grandeur with a sensation of power and invincibility;
- hallucinations and paranoia;
- psychomotor agitation and compulsive skin picking, leading to skin sores and repetitive and obsessive behaviours