Photo taken from Business Daily, 2018
While substance use has always been prevalent in Kenya, the impact that it has had and is having on the coast and its youth is growing exponentially. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) East Africa finds itself as a popular hub for distribution. As the regulations in places such as the Netherlands and Spain have become more restrictive, drug distributors are utilizing routes through East Africa – and coastal Kenya in particular – to smuggle contraband to other parts of the world like Asia and Europe. With an influx of substances passing through the region to other parts of the world, it is much easier to obtain in East Africa. In the face of this growing problem, the East Africa Institute is posing this question: “what interventions are needed to mitigate the risk of drug abuse and empower the youth?”
According to a 2012 survey from the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), 51 percent of Mombasa citizens have used at least one form of substance in their lifetime, with 34.4 percent of Mombasa citizens currently abusing a substance. Research indicates that of the current youth population aged 15-24 years in the coastal region, 5.7 percent are using alcohol, 8.8 percent are using tobacco, and 12.4 percent are using khat or miraa, which is also known to be a stimulant plant.
A collaborative study between the University of Nairobi and the University of South Africa highlights that media, peer pressure, and poor guidance are all causal factors leading to substance use. The impact of substance abuse affects the behaviour of students leading to a myriad of social issues, and increases the rate of school dropouts. As a result, lower educational achievements can spur idleness and unemployment among the youth in Mombasa, and cyclical in nature, this leads to further substance abuse. The study states that if action is not taken soon, Kenya will lose a great deal of the innovation and leadership potential that the future generation holds.
Sheikh Mohammed Khalifa, the organising secretary for The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, recognises the impact that drug abuse is having on the youth. He states that, “our society here at the Coast has been ruined because of drugs, particularly heroin. Our youth have been turned into zombies because of this menace.” Not only are the youth in Mombasa falling victim to the consumption of drugs, but also many are becoming distributors of these drugs.
While thoughtful and thorough systemic change is needed to combat these issues, immediate action must be taken to mitigate availability and access to drugs before long-term goals are applied. Experts and stakeholders continue to ask themselves what interventions are needed to alleviate the risk of drug use while empowering the youth and providing better opportunities to thrive. The answer to this question is multifaceted.
Minimizing accessibility is one of the first steps that needs to be taken. To this effect, Kenyan police have become more vigilant in controlling borders, as documented in the seizure of 2.5 kilograms of heroin, with a street value of 5 million Kenyan shillings in April, 2019. By increasing border control security measures, access for traffickers into Kenya is more difficult, with the hope that this will be the first step in curtailing the avalanche of drugs into the country. Acknowledging the fact that help is needed, the County Government has opened rehabilitation centres in Mombasa providing methadone treatment as a harm reduction strategy for opioid dependence. While this intervention alone does not resolve the issue at hand, there are organisations looking at other avenues for prevention and rehabilitation.
Reachout Centre Trust is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) offering various programs that promote harm-reduction, drug dependence treatment, advocacy and reintegration. Their facilities include a rehabilitation centre which offers four, four-month sessions including psychotherapy, individual, group and family counselling, life-skills training, sports and games. In addition to the various programs, Reachout Centre Trust saw the positive impact that sports and recreation had on the youth and created the project “Pamba Roho”.
This initiative provides youth with a safe place to play football and interact with each other, rather than turning to substance abuse. The director of the program, Taib Abdirahman, states that the number of drug abusers has decreased since the launch of the initiative. This demonstrates that the Mombasa County Government and NGOs like Reachout Centre Trust need to continue to provide alternative engaging options for youth to reduce utilization of illegal substances.
The evidence shows that more and more youth are making strides towards overcoming the use of drugs. When given access to the right opportunities, youth will pursue more constructive and empowering activities, rather than damaging ones. It is critical that quality education, job growth and spaces for youth to be active in, such as, sports and other arts or social leagues are established so as to distract from the attraction of substance abuse.
Imara Dhalla is an EAI Research Assistant, conducting research on health, youth and identity in coastal areas of Kenya.