2011 was a year of record-breaking drug seizures in both Tanzania and Kenya, and January 2012 saw the largest ever single drug haul in Tanzania: 210kg of heroin worth 9.4 billion Tanzanian shillings (US $5.9 million). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in their report of last year explain that “the emergence of Africa as a heroin trafficking hub [to Europe and elsewhere] is almost certainly due to ongoing corruption, widespread poverty and limited law enforcement capacity – as well as increased pressure and restrictions on traditional drug trafficking routes,” and that whilst comprehensive data is lacking, increased drug abuse in the region is also expected in line with this.
I met Langa for the first time last year in a typical Tanzanian social situation and I immediately liked him: he was chilled yet confident and quietly intelligent. I was shocked when through talking to him to discover that he was a recovering heroin-addict, at that time clean for only 8 months. I have known heroin users and am also aware of the enormous strength that it takes to stop taking this most-addictive drug, and I marvelled at this calm guy sipping his Fanta orange surrounded by the rowdier Tanzanian beer drinkers.
Langa Kileo, the son of Tanzanian civil servants came to fame as a rapper after completing Form 4 (equivalent of GCSEs) in 2004 when he won the Tanzania Coca-Cola Popstars competition along with Shaa and Witness, together with whom he went on to form the popular music group Wakilisha (Swahili for “represent”). After 1 year and two hit singles they went their separate ways in pursuit of solo careers, Langa’s first single “Matawi ya juu” being one of the first songs to be censored on Tanzanian radio because of its explicit content. In 2007/2008 however he developed a drug habit that would change the course of his life:
“I saw a friend smoking one day and I asked him what was in it- they say that misery needs company- so he didn’t tell me it was heroin, he gave me some vague answer, maybe ‘hashish’ and I knew enough to know that hashish was like weed. So I smoked with him thinking it was a normal drug which is not highly addictive. Before I knew it I was addicted.”
Langa explained how most addicts in Tanzania smoke heroin with a mix of weed and cigarette calling it a ‘cocktail’ so that it can, and is often, casually mixed into social situations even with non-users. There are even stories of drug ‘pushers’ filling cigarettes with heroin and intentionally passing them to young people so that they get addicted without knowing. There are injecting users as well, however Langa explained that he thankfully never tried it as he’s never liked needles (the effects of injecting heroin are much more severe). Soon after starting using he decided to leave Dar es Salaam and go back to College:
“I think sometimes one of the reasons I went to study in Dodoma was to try to get away from the Bongo environment. I thought that there wouldn’t be drugs around and that I’d be able to focus just on my studies. But to my surprise things were not like that. I went there and found more drug addicts. There were times when I got fed up with it and I’d try to quit but heroin is so addictive and I’d fail.
“I was lucky to graduate as a heroin addict, and I was lucky again to get a job straight out of college. At my new job I again thought that I would be able to quit because I would be more focussed which I did try to be but the compulsion and the powerlessness that happens when you become addicted to drugs meant that my performance was not at par. My supervisors could see that something was wrong but they didn’t know the source of it all and they eventually dropped me. That’s when it became clear that drugs were a serious problem in my life.”
Even so it took a while for Langa to finally quit. He tried locking himself up in a family home far away from any town but the addiction overcame him, he even went to Loliondo but nothing worked. It was only with inspiration from other recovering addicts that he finally found the will and strength to change:
“There even came a time when I thought that all my life I would be doing drugs and that I would never recover, but one day I heard Hugh Makesela on the radio talking about drugs, of how he used to use but now he’d quit and recovered, that gave me a lot of hope. And it gave me hope to see a public figure speaking so openly about his problems and I realised that it was possible for me to do the same.
“I then met some people that I used to smoke with who had now recovered having attended treatment in Zanzibar. I asked them how they recovered and they gave me a book called ‘The Basic Text’ that is made for addicts and that is used by the programmes. I was still an addict when I read it but the stories inspired me and gave me hope. And the more I read it the more I wanted to quit myself and to inspire other people to change. I checked myself into the Sober Houses in Zanzibar in April 2011 where I stayed for two months and I finally succeeded and have been clean ever since, nearing 1 year now.”
Whilst in the Sober House, Langa established contacts with people from Drug Free Zanzibar and the governmental Drug Control Commission and inspiring and helping other addicts became his sole mission. He registered his own foundation “Second Chance for African Addicts” as soon as he got out and has been raising awareness ever since through TV and radio interviews, talking at events in collaboration with the Drug Control Commission, and the release of the song “Kifo, Jela au Taasis” (Swahili for “Death, Jail, or an Institution”). “I wrote it when I was about 3-4 months clean. I had a lot inside me that I wanted to get out and to warn people about what heroin can do to you.” Langa rightly takes pride in the fact that he can already see how he has inspired others including Tanzanian hip-hop artists Mark 2 B and Easy B, and on a return visit to the Zanzibar Sober Houses got told by several recovering addicts “man I hear your interview on the radio and you were the only reason I came here”.
“It’s not been easy though. There’s a lot of stigma especially in African countries where people have not been exposed to heroin. Some people criticise you. In my first early months of recovery people would make fun out of me- ‘this guys just a junkie’. But I kept going, kept going, kept going, stayed focussed. They used to make fun out of me in the media – ‘we saw Langa in Kinondoni mteja amechoka (that addict’s looking tired)!’ But I reversed that. Once my song came out it was no longer ‘Langa mteja amechoka’ it was ‘Langa recovering addict who is now helping others’. And so I turned my weakness into my strength.
“And so far so good. I cannot help or change every person but I tell the truth and am honest about this problem. And my motivation for doing this is helping keep me clean.”
Langa also described how raising awareness is not just about trying to encourage people not to try heroin in the first place, it’s also about making recovering addicts acceptable in the community and the importance of this:
“Because honestly once you get out of rehab you realise that quitting drugs is one thing, but staying clean is something else. Addiction is a disease of low self-esteem and when you leave rehab your self-esteem is at its lowest: you’ve lost so many things, you’re not confident in yourself, the whole world and people are moving on around you, and this is the point when so many people relapse.
“This person just out of rehab watches everybody else moving by in their lives and they feel alone, and then when they look back at the addicts, they identify with them and believe that they belong with them and so go back. That is when the fight is hardest.
“With time I do believe the cleaner I stay that there will come a time when people will just accept me and other recovered addicts. When I do an interview in 3 years time and say “I’ve been clean for 3 years, I’ve helped this person, this person, this person” and those figures are also out in the public saying the same thing, it’s gonna be like a movement, a serious movement. And we artists are public figures, so we can easily inspire people so more people will be going into rehab and the community as a whole will slowly understand that people can recover from drugs.”
Langa is also preparing to fundraise for the rehab centre that he plans to open in Pugu, Dar es Salaam. He explained that there is no place like the Zanzibar Sober Houses on the mainland, with often addicts being placed in mental institutions that are completely unsuited to an addict’s recovery and can often end up driving a person back to addiction. Langa plans to develop the Sober House model further, having professional counsellors in addition to recovered addict mentors, a gym because exercise is an important part of recovery, and also an accompanying TV show that will show people what rehab is like, generate discussion and keep the awareness alive.
“I want for Tanzanians to understand that rehab isn’t just a place for drug addicts. Rehab is a place for people who want to change their lives and head in a better direction, for people who want to get more control in their lives. Initially people might come with problems of drugs and alcohol, but these programmes are lessons for life, they’re not lessons about drugs. They teach you about how to live as a positive person and be mature and productive.”
Changing attitudes is a lengthy but especially in this case, much-needed process, and thankfully Langa is in it for the long haul seeing his foundation as something that he will be doing for the rest of his life. And the authorities are beginning to step-up responses to this problem both in terms of strengthening law enforcement at borders and trafficking routes, and also providing support to users who inject heroin with Muhimbili opening the first methadone clinic in Southern Africa. However many if not most users in Tanzania smoke (rather than inject) heroin and so are not eligible for this programme, and without greater awareness and support for getting clean, it can only be expected that the number of addicts will increase as more and more heroin is pumped through the country. And this work of raising awareness cannot just be left to recovering addicts because they themselves must be careful not to be drawn back into addiction:
“At the end of the day it’s us addicts who have recovered against those addicts that are still using. We are trying to pull the addicts who are still using to our group but we also have to be careful that they don’t pull us. It’s also about us giving them hope, showing them that it’s possible, that they’re wasting their time on drugs for no reason because they can do it, they can kick the habit and still be accepted by society.”
So what can we do as individuals and as a community? Telling young people that drugs are bad and stigmatising those who use them is not in any way effective against a drug as addictive as heroin, and especially one that is often pushed on young people from all wealth groups without them even knowing what it is. Langa’s work and example could not be more needed and important. The silence that hangs over drug-use in Tanzania needs to be broken. If we are to have any chance of preventing and responding to this ever growing problem, we need to listen to, not shun the heroic stories of those who have battled this aggressive addiction and who have recovered. Support, don’t stigmatise Langa and those like him in what they are doing (check out Second Chance for African Addicts for more information), but most importantly talk to your families, friends, teachers, colleagues about what is going on, and if you know someone who is or who you suspect to be using, talk to them about what they are doing. Break the silence.
[Cross-posted at thecreativelymaladjusted.tumblr.com]