Harrowing tales of a generation enslaved by hard drugs at the Coast

By Patrick Beja | Sep 24, 2023
Drug addicts are waiting for clients at Chobingo Forest in Ukunda, Kwale County. [Robert Menza, Standard]

In the shadowy realm of addiction, where cravings exact a steep toll, the voices of drug addicts and those who’ve clawed their way out of the abyss resonate with tales of desperation and resilience.

In their relentless pursuit of funds to finance the daily drug doses that keep them high, many of them become ensnared in a web of criminal activities. Others recount harrowing tales of prostitution, rape, divorce, physical abuse, and multiple incarcerations.

Moreover, these individuals, both active addicts and those on the path to recovery, often endure abandonment by their families, discrimination, and a profound stigma that hardens their resolve as they navigate the treacherous terrain of addiction—a journey fraught with ruin and regret.

In Kwale County, we encountered a group of female drug users who have spent decades entrenched in prostitution in a forest near Ukunda town, solely to procure the funds required for sustenance and their daily drug fix.

Halima Bakari fled her home in Kwale at the tender age of 10. She was in Standard six. Upon her arrival in Ukunda, she was introduced to marijuana and later heroin.

Now 19 years old and a mother of two, Halima tragically lost her husband to a lynching mob after he committed a theft in Ukunda. She remains unaware of his final resting place.

Currently, Halima earns her through prostitution in the Chobingo Green Lodge forest, located on the outskirts of Ukunda town, alongside a group of fellow women.

She candidly admits, “I am pregnant with my second child, yet I still must entertain men here in the forest to secure the money for drugs and make ends meet. Life has been relentlessly harsh. On occasions, we remain in the forest until as late as 9 pm. Altercations over clients are commonplace, and we must also be cautious of unruly clients.” Halima has embraced Medically Assisted Therapy (MAT) and is presently undergoing Methadone treatment in an attempt to overcome her addiction.

Hamida Said recounts chilling encounters with dangerous clients in the forest, some of whom have attempted to strangle her and forcibly reclaim the money they had paid for services.

“We have faced physical violence, with clients occasionally seizing the money they paid after availing themselves of our services. Given the opportunity, I would entirely quit prostitution,” she says.

Mary Kaindi echoes the sentiments of Ms Hamida, disclosing that she too has been subjected to violence at the hands of rogue clients in the Chobingo forest.

For Mwanaidi Masha, her pursuit to lose weight led to an addiction. She has been addicted to heroin for over 28 years.

“I began with cigarettes but was eventually enticed into using heroin and Rohypnol (bugizi), under the false pretense of losing weight. Now, I grapple daily to acquire my necessary doses,” she says.

Separately, Khadija Hassan shares the heart-wrenching story of losing her infant after abandoning the child at home for several days in search of a heroin dose.

She discovered her baby unconscious due to dehydration and rushed the child to the hospital, but tragically, the child passed away a few hours later, leaving her grief-stricken.

In Ukunda, Said Ali recounts the story of selling five cars including a Mercedes Benz and land, after years of grappling with heroin addiction.

“I once had considerable wealth, owning five cars that I eventually sold to fund my drug addiction. The path of drug addiction is utterly unforgiving,” he says.

At the Omar project in Malindi, a rehabilitation facility catering to drug addicts, a reformed drug user, Mariam Hussein recounts the horrific incident of being raped at a local drug den and left for dead.

“I experienced a drug overdose at the ruins of a building and was subjected to a night of sexual assault. I only regained consciousness in the hospital. My close family members disowned me for my drug use, and I was later incarcerated for possession,” she recalls.

Mariam has since become a peer educator and married a former drug addict and ex-convict whom she met at a local methadone centre.

She is now urging the Kilifi county government to invest in the rehabilitation of drug addicts and help them reintegrate into society, rather than leaving the burden solely on the Omar project, which operates with limited resources.

One of the addicts prepare drugs to inject herself at Ukunda in Kwale county. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Her husband, Juma Hashim who conquered his drug addiction six years ago, considers himself fortunate to be alive and reunited with his family.

He details his tumultuous past, recounting five incarcerations and three encounters with mob violence during his 15 years of heroin use.

“I am grateful to be alive and married today after many years of tumultuous living. I was once a habitual inmate and survived three mob attacks. I also had prolonged conflicts with my family, but I am pleased to have reconciled with them.”

Similarly, in Malindi, Salim Idd once thrived as a prominent fisherman with an expensive boat, but he eventually sold his assets and squandered the proceeds on heroin. He states optimistically, “I have embarked on the MAT programme to reclaim my life, and I am now seeking funds to re-establish myself as a fisherman.”

Abdalla Amin lost his job as a marine officer in Malindi due to his descent into drug addiction. At one point, he even journeyed to Somalia, spending five years there in an attempt to sever his ties with drug-using acquaintances.

However, upon his return, he relapsed twice before finally enrolling in the MAT programme three years ago.

In Mombasa, a retired Ugandan soldier established a heroin network at the Mombasa port back in 1984 when a seafaring friend would periodically supply him with potent drugs.

Today, both the soldier and one of his sons are undergoing methadone treatment at a  rehabilitation centre in Miritini, Mombasa County.

“I served in the Ugandan military for over 30 years while battling drug addiction. I sourced drugs from a seafaring friend in Mombasa, which became my second home. I managed to rescue my son from a drug den in Shimanzi, Mombasa, and he is on the path to full recovery. I retired in 2016 and have my extended family in Uganda,” he says.

In Mombasa County, the founder of the Okoa Pwani Initiative, Robi Mwashighadi, recounts how he lost his job at the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) during the peak of his drug addiction.

He endured a painful divorce and underwent rehabilitation on three separate occasions before successfully overcoming his addiction.

Today, he dedicates himself to helping other drug addicts quit their habits and advocates for their support from both governmental and private entities. He says “We need direct support for drug addicts so that they can undergo rehabilitation, receive counseling, and be empowered to start their lives afresh. Integrating reformed drug users into society is challenging, as drug addiction often accompanies crime and societal stigma.”

A peer educator at the Reachout Centre in Mombasa, Ms. Mercy Wambui says she has helped many addicts in the Bombolulu area to go for the MAT programme and recover.

“I am urging the government to establish rehabilitation centres for men and women. There is a need to take care of their children so that they do not grow up in the drug dens,” she said, adding that many victims are usually rejected by their family members, and their children suffer.

A peer educator at Teens Watch Centre in Ukunda, Kwale, and former drug addict Lucy Wambui Kimani alias Queen Sheba, had her worst experience before quitting drugs.

Queen Sheba says she started using heroin when she was only 18 years old after being introduced to drugs by friends and maintained the habit for more than 10 years.

She was married to a German and at some point relocated to Frankfurt. Things didn’t work out and had to live on the streets before she returned back to Kenya.

Queen Sheba, now married to a Muslim says her addiction got worse when she went to Germany. 

“Life of drug addiction was tough for me. I was an addict in the streets of Frankfurt until I was assisted by the ambassador to return home,” she stated.

Cosmas Maina, the director of Teens Watch Centre, revealed a disturbing trend, citing 12 recent cases of violence against drug users in Ukunda. He passionately appealed to the community not to take matters into their own hands.

Maina’s organisation currently provides support to 200 drug users undergoing methadone treatment. He also urged the government to consider establishing a second methadone centre in Kinondo, Msambweni sub-county, to complement the existing facility in Matuga sub-county.

Moreover, he emphasised the pressing need for a dedicated maternity facility catering to drug users, particularly pregnant women who often face complications during childbirth due to drug withdrawal symptoms. Shockingly, children born to injecting drug users (IDUs) are also reported to suffer from heroin withdrawal symptoms during breastfeeding.

The National Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse Authority (Nacada) released a comprehensive survey last year on the prevalence of drug use in Kenya. The findings were alarming, with the Coast region registering the highest prevalence of multiple drug use at 10.5 per cent. This was followed by Nairobi at 8.4 per cent and Central at 7.8 per cent.

The survey also revealed that one in every six Kenyans between the ages of 15 to 65, totaling 4,733,152 individuals, reported using at least one drug or substance of abuse. Among males in the 15 to 65 age group, one in every three, or 3,783,854 individuals, admitted to current use of at least one drug or substance of abuse, while one in every 16 females, equivalent to 949,298 individuals, were using such substances.The prevalence of current tobacco use was highest in the central region,  at 11.9 per cent, followed by the Coast at 10.8 per cent, and Eastern at 10.7 pe rcent.

Names of individuals featured in this story have been changed to ensure their anonymity and protect their privacy

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