In July 2013, during the month-long teachers’ strike, police in Nairobi arrested over 1,000 underage children from clubs in the CBD.
The house is a one-bedroom flat in a long row of whitewashed apartment blocks, the colour of the walls mirroring the whitish-grey smoke hanging in the air of the sitting room – thick and almost palpable. The smell of alcohol assails my nostrils as I take in the room. One girl with chin length hair and a nose ring sits on a maroon throw pillow on the floor. Another is curled up on the couch, asleep, with her long, curly weave curtaining her face and trailing to the carpet. There are three boys – one with an afro, faded blue jean shorts and a Manchester United football jersey is sitting next to the nose-ringed girl, their attention on the scantily clad women gyrating in the music video on the blaring television. The other boys are playing cards, and as I look at them, one – holding a cigarette between his lips – throws down his cards in defeat. Mike*, the other boy, looks up and grins awkwardly. He’s a bit surprised to see me, this is his cousin’s house and I had been knocking on the door for a few minutes before letting myself in – no one heard me through the loud music.
Stepping over an empty 750ml bottle of Blue Moon vodka lying on its belly on the carpet, I skirt around several glasses and another half full bottle as I make my way to the couch. Mike fishes around in the breast pocket of his jacket, taking out two sticks of bhang as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I have met Mike once before, last year at his 16th birthday in his parents’ home in Kitusuru. “Would you like to see how to get purified smoke from a joint?” Not waiting for my response, he picks up the plastic bottle lying on the floor next to his feet and, after lighting the joint, sticks the end of it in a small hole that he’d created on the side. He opens the bottle’s top, sucks out the air and let’s smoke start filling it. “Weed in its purest form,” he says, before inhaling the smoke and passing the bottle to his poker pal.
Everyone in this room, other than me, is a teenager in high school. And none are sober. Alcohol and drug abuse amongst Kenya’s teenagers, especially those from the middle and upper classes, is spiraling out of control. In Kenya, it is estimated that 400,000 students in high school are drug addicts, of which the overwhelming majority are boys. Over 150,000 Kenyan children under the age of 14 years have begun drinking alcohol and the number of those using narcotics in Kenya is also on the rise as the measures that have been put in place to curb the habit seem to have hit a dead end.
A Well-Kept Secret
The boy in the photo on the wall above the TV set looks nothing like the 16-year-old sitting next to his mother (even though the photo was taken only a year ago). In the picture, with chubby cheeks and bright eyes, Derrick’s* grin depicts a carefree boy. The Derrick in front of me today, however, is grim, his face clearly showing distaste for the situation that’s been forced upon him, as if he’d rather be anywhere else than here. Atop his big hair sits a cap in black, yellow, red and green, and on his skinny torso is a tight black T-shirt. Piped blue jeans and beige Sahara boots complete his ensemble. Tabitha, Derrick’s mother, was summoned to his school in June this year after he got into a brawl with a boy in form one, a class lower than his.
Teens, especially those whose parents work extensive hours, often spend their allowances on drugs and alcohol in night clubs.
“Derrick said the boy had provoked him, so I went to the school hoping that I could convince his teacher to let him sit for his exams before schools closed,” Tabitha says. But when she got to the school, she was presented with an entirely different version of the events; one that had her wishing her son had been in the fight instead. “The school’s boarding master found him and a few of his classmates smoking bhang behind their dormitory,” she tells me, as Derrick darts wary eyes at his mother and scoots further into the corner of the couch.
He had been the second best performing pupil in his primary school, but when he got to high school, Tabitha says, he changed. He became aloof, withdrawn. “It is cool and most of my friends do it,” Derrick replies when I ask why he was smoking pot, shrugging lazily from the corner. He and his friends began using drugs when they joined form two, and when they were caught, they were all expelled from school. As the school term began in September, Tabitha was looking for another school for her son, trying to put the incident behind him. However, while Derrick’s apparent chastisement suggests that he hasn’t had an easy time of being caught; Tabitha would rather tell people that he had been in a fight. As she says, the truth “would look like I had failed as a parent.”
Twenty two percent (1.1 million) of the high school students in Kenya use drugs, with bhang being the most accessible. While teens have been drinking and doing drugs for generations, the prevalence is on the rise. Mike smokes, sniffs and drinks in the confines of his bedroom when his mother is on her business trips, but when she is in town he’ll either go to Jamie’s house or his friends’ houses where no one knows him so that he can indulge freely. “The problem of drugs and alcohol has become a major issue, particularly among the young people. Teenagers as young as 14 years are engaging in alcohol consumption,” says the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) Ceo William Okedi. Also, 1.14 million (22.7 percent) children in primary school are drinking alcohol. And the new craze in town is smoking shisha. “What happens is that, whereas it is tobacco, this shisha is laced with some other hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, and it is a major cause for worry as it’s what our teenagers are doing,” shares Okedi.
An Addicted Generation
It’s Saturday evening when I bump into Mike again. I am at a club in downtown Nairobi that’s said to have teenage patrons. The bouncer at the door pats down the guys as the female guard by his side rummages through my handbag. It is barely 9 o’clock and slow music fills the air in the dimly lit club. The dance floor near the DJ’s booth is empty. I notice Mike and his friends among the patrons sprawled on the black and red couches in the farthest corner from the entrance and take a seat on the opposite side. As the night wears on, the DJ shifts to more upbeat music and Mike, who has been nursing a bottle of water for the past hour, calls the waitress over. Moments after scribbling down what he’s ordered, she comes back with shisha. When she’s gone, he removes a joint from his jacket pocket, unwraps it, lifts the aluminium foil at the top of the hookah and spreads it over the burning coal, covering it up quickly.
Since it’s flavoured, the sweet scent of shisha overpowers that of pot and can’t be detected easily. Mike takes a puff, and then passes the pipe to the rest of his friends. When it’s finished, I hurry to catch Mike at the entrance as the group starts leaving. “We are going to try out the shisha bar next door,” he says. For Mike and his ‘crew’, as he calls his friends, getting into clubs is a breeze –though at times they have to grease the palms of the bouncers at the entrance. Of course, the more popular options are those that don’t necessarily ask for identification, and, as they’re day scholars, they frequent those over the weekends. Living with a single mother whom he rarely sees, as she’s usually out of town on business, Mike has basically raised himself. A few days after his 16th birthday, he got a tattoo on his chest of a naked angel whose one arm is carelessly thrown over her chest, barely covering her breasts, while the other is delicately placed at the juncture between her thighs.
It was months before his mother even realised he had the tattoo. “I get everything – well, almost everything – I ask for,” he smirks. “And I think I get more attention from our maid than I do my mother, who is always travelling.” The weekly allowance he gets is equivalent to some people’s monthly salary, which he mostly spends on alcohol and pot. “My mum leaves me KSH 1,000 a day. At times I think I get so much money because she feels guilty for not being around so much, but I love the freedom.” Mike has been smoking bhang for the past two years. He’s partial to cocaine but has taken ecstasy a few times, which is his favourite party substance as it takes him to a “high like no other drug.” He and his friends, at 17, are still at an age where their brains are developing. However, one of the effects of smoking pot at their age is that it blocks formation of memory which, as they grow older, can cause cognitive deficiency. “It is the last weekend before we go back to school so we plan to make it a memorable one,” he says before hurrying off to catch his friends.
In July, during the month-long teachers’ strike, police in Nairobi arrested over 1,000 school-going children from clubs in the CBD. “Some had been drinking alcohol, smoking bhang and cigarettes,” says Central Police boss Patrick Oduma. But, even after the stern warning issued by Oduma to the pubs and clubs, underage patrons like Mike and his friends who are from well-off families can easily bribe bouncers to get into clubs or pay extra dough if necessary to get a joint. “How do you know whether someone is underage or not?” I ask the bouncer at the door at one of the clubs. He’s a bit taken aback by the question but reluctantly replies, “We can tell by looking.” I press further and ask how they deal with teenagers who dress to look older than their years. “Kama wanatuletea pesa mbona wasiingie? (Why shouldn’t we let them in if they bring us money?),” he answers a bit sarcastically. Many clubs in Nairobi are more likely to kick someone out for sleeping on their couches than for being underage.
“The bars playing reggae are the most notorious and are the ones entertaining these kids. We will continue with the operation until these young children stop coming into town for this purpose,” admonishes Oduma. They might have been forced out of the CBD after the round up but more and more teenagers now party in clubs within the estates.
Of course, parents can’t breathe easy simply because their children have gone back to school. When I ask how he gets access to alcohol in school, Duke* says, “Ethanol from the chemistry lab.” Duke, whose shaved head gleams in the sun, is in form three in a prestigious boarding school in Nairobi. “We usually sneak it out after chemistry lessons and drink it when we get to the dorm.” The lab assistant rarely notices the missing chemical. Drugs and alcohol are also being snuck into schools without detection. “Joints or cigarettes are easy to get, especially if you know someone who can bring it to you at school,” Duke continues, adding that, “We usually place them inside cards, like success cards or Valentine’s cards, and then flatten them.” It’s even easier sneaking in alcohol, which is mixed with juice and repackaged.
As a high school boarding master, Frank Osusu has seen his share of antics from students in his school.“We’ve had cases of students draining ethanol droppers...one time a dorm captain was found draining one of the beakers containing the chemical.” And during an impromptu dormitory inspection, Osusu found a large plastic bucket in one of the dormitories with fermenting liquor, which got the responsible student expelled. “I think society, beginning with family, is breaking down. Children used to belong to society – you saw a kid smoking, loitering, you dealt with them first, after which you’d ask whose son it was.” Parents have become so busy that children who have been left to their own devices are raising themselves. By the time their parents realise that the teens are hooked on alcohol or drugs; it’s often left a profound mark on their lives. When I ask how he gets access to alcohol in school, Duke says, “Ethanol from the chemistry lab.
A Lost Battle
Whatever John had indulged in the previous night is making a swift retreat into the atmosphere through his pores in a combination of sweat and scents that stings my eyes and, as I breathe, settles on the tip of my tongue. At 18, he looks like a man in his late 20s. His bloodshot eyes have sunk deep into their sockets, giving him a beady look. He has a dark scar high on his right cheek, his lips are dry and cracked, and the skin between his fingers, which he keeps rubbing at, is dry and ashy white.
Kenyan teenagers are easily able to get into local clubs, even though the legal drinking age is 18. When actually asked for ID, they can typically bribe the bouncers.
John began smoking cigarettes at the age of 14 while in primary school. At 15, he started drinking to become part of the ‘it crowd’ in form one. But things changed fast. In form two, he started to love the buzz that came with drinking alcohol and discovered Kuber, a cheaper, faster way of getting high. “Whenever we went for midterm or school holidays, we would stock up on Kuber,” says John, whose slurred speech makes him seem like he’s struggling to dislodge his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
Kuber is neatly packaged in small, glossy foil sachets which, at first glance, you’d think are tea leaf pouches. It is chewing tobacco, containing up to 25 percent nicotine, and has a nice minty scent. Kuber is taken by sucking the juice from the tobacco, which is tucked between the gum and lower lip. This way, the juice slowly seeps its way into the bloodstream.
John has tried everything – bhang, ecstasy, alcohol, cocaine – as long as it gets him high and ensures he remains in that state the whole day. “I have gone to rehab twice. Both times for a few weeks but each time I came out, the craving to get high was stronger than before I went in,” he says in a defeated voice. Out of school and with no job, John had to find a way to support his habit. With a wide variety of drugs in his system, he became violent to the point where he started threatening his family. “I have been to jail a few times for being drunk and disorderly,” he admits. His father would call the police to have him arrested and kept in jail for a few days, just so that the drugs and alcohol could leave his system and hopefully to shock some sense into him. “He never pressed charges,” John says.
As he became more dependent on the drugs, John began stealing from his family. At first it was things that they wouldn’t notice like clothes and shoes his sisters rarely wore. But, after he sold an iron box and the DVD player, his parents realised that things were going missing from the house. Growing up, John never wanted for anything, but his addiction caused a rift between him and his family. When they couldn’t stand it anymore his parents gave him an ultimatum – clean up or ship out. He made his choice and hasn’t spoken with his family in the past year. “There is no slum in Nairobi that I haven’t called home,” John says, averting his gaze. Kenya is potentially losing some of the best and brightest from this generation to alcohol and drug abuse. The country’s potential, in terms of economic development and innovation, would obviously suffer with it. “In Eastern Province, where khat is a major challenge to young people, we have reduced enrolment in schools because young people go into cultivating khat and selling it,” states Okedi.
Peter has been to rehab three times and each time he’s checked himself out and disappeared for weeks on end without a word. “He is supposed to be in school now,” says Kamau Wanyoike, his father, who’d enrolled him in the University of Nairobi. Since Peter didn’t want to live in the hostels, his father rented him a quaint apartment near the university. “But all the money we gave him for food for the semester, he spent on alcohol.” After which he sold his phone and bought more alcohol. This grew into a trend until, instead of giving him money; his parents started stocking up the house themselves. But that didn’t help at all as, a few weeks later, Wanyoike received a call from the hospital with news that his son had been hospitalised with broken ribs. When he got to the hospital, Peter was unconscious and had cocaine residue in his blood stream. His ‘friends’ had beaten him after one of them accused him of stealing his smartphone – a crime he admitted to when he came to. Peter is currently at home after Wanyoike pulled him out of school. Neither he nor John feels remorse for stealing from family or friends to feed an addiction.
Okedi had been in Central Province last year when the army was recruiting. Most of the young men who’d come for the recruitment could barely stand up as they were too drunk. In Malindi, those who showed up were young men already addicted to drugs. Coast and Elgeyo Marakwet governors have declared drug abuse county disasters. The impact of drug and In Kenya, 22.7 percent of primary school students are drinking alcohol, and as they get older the numbers only grow. Alcohol abuse is already reverberating through employment sectors in Kenya and, without a concrete solution; things are only going to get worse.
After university in the UK, Andrew Muita got a job in Doha. However, he came back to Kenya at the end of his contract last year where he found a “different breed of youth” in his neighbourhood than when he’d been a teenager. He was shocked to find that using pot had become as common as smoking cigarettes when, while walking one evening, he saw two boys casually smoking bhang behind him. “It was a suffocating smell and it felt like someone was stuffing my mouth with dry sponge.” After weeks of seeing the same trend, Muita, who became a youth chairman, took it upon himself and created activities that the youth in his area could engage in when they are not in school. “We have a basketball court, a football pitch and a netball pitch where we hold tournaments on the weekends. This is good for them and helps them stay out of trouble.” But curbing drug and alcohol abuse amongst teenagers requires more than recreational activities. Some of the drugs that teenagers take are easily accessible: a single joint is as cheap as KSH 30 and, depending on the user’s preference; a pot cookie goes for between KSH 25 and 50. There are also cakes and chivda made with bhang in the market and a sachet of heroine is KSH 120, all quite affordable.
Ninety-eight percent of the rehab centres in Kenya are privately owned. NACADA has also partnered with rehab centres like Jorgs Ark Trust, which provides treatment for alcohol and drug addicts. Located in Limuru among sprawling fields of tea, Jorgs is situated in a serene environment and looks more like a weekend getaway spot than a rehab centre where the full fee is KSH 224,000.
In January this year, former Solicitor General Wanjuki Muchemi candidly admitted that his son, the late Wanjuki Muchemi Jr., had been fighting an alcohol addiction. During the 31-year-old’s requiem mass, Muchemi openly spoke about the addiction stating that, “he was addicted to alcohol and failed to sit for his final law examination at the University of Kent in the UK. [But] the university later awarded him a diploma in law.” This is not something Kenya’s successful families easily, if ever, admit to. This is a secret that is tightly guarded and dealt with in the confines of their homes, out of shame and fear of being considered failures. With this, drug and alcohol abuse among Kenyan teenagers is set to continue escalating.
A Bleak Outlook
When a teenager like Derrick is caught with alcohol or drugs in school, he is expelled and sent home to become his parents’ problem. But how does this help the child? If he’s lucky enough, Derrick’s mother will find a new school for him, but considering her reluctance to admit the reason for his expulsion, he’s likely to continue the habit. Alcohol and drug abuse is a problem that must be confronted head on – an idea that Kenyans are only slowly beginning to wrap their heads around.
In Kenya, 22.7 percent of primary school students are drinking alcohol, and as they get older the numbers only grow.
Sex education, which encompasses HIV/AIDS, is a whole subject on its own in school, while the dangers of alcohol and drugs are given, at most, two classes in high school. Just as families are reluctant to admit that there is a problem with their children, it seems that as a society we are unwilling to admit that more efforts are needed.
That trend, however, may be reversing. Due to NACADA’s intervention, universities and tertiary institutions give more attention to the issue.
It’s a good first step, but considering that students are experimenting at ages as young as 13, it seems that steps should be put in place to prevent abuse earlier. Kenya’s middle class is rising fast, but not without an increased emphasis from men and women on their careers. As they make advancements in one area of their lives, others tend to suffer, including their families. Even though they feed, clothe and put roofs over their children’s heads, they have little to do with their upbringing. Instead, kids are raised by the house help, and parents know very little of their day-to-day lives – by the time they realise there’s something wrong, it can be extremely difficult to fix the damage.
Teenagers are at an age where they are easily influenced. With Facebook pages like Weed Smokers of Kenya, where smoking pot is highly praised, and artistes posting photos of themselves on social media smoking bhang and drinking alcohol, what’s to stop Kenyan teenagers from emulating them?
Most of the bhang in Kenya comes from Tanzania through porous borders. The drugs seized in Kenya – shipments as large as 1.1 metric tonnes in 2004 and KSH 6.4 billion worth of cocaine in 2011 – have been amongst the largest quantities in East Africa. While the presence of drugs is an issue demanding attention, it is a struggle countries around the world are trying to get the better of. Considering Kenya’s levels of corruption and the amount of money changing hands due to our position as a storage and transit destination for drug barons, it is unlikely that the availability of drugs will be lessened anytime soon. Instead, if our teenagers are to stop using them, the solution will lie in educating, helping and working with them.