When you first shoot up, you will most likely puke and feel briefly repelled, but soon you’ll feel blissful, relaxed or numb; pain and worries vanish. It will cling to you like an obsessed lover. Actually, you cling to it.
By whatever name — unga (Mombasa), daba, kichuri, stuff, kete, kichuri, ondo and keindo — it sends you to Cloud 9 and, if you don’t stop, into the depths of hell.
You can also snort it, inhale the vapours, smoke it or insert it in the rectum. Opium dens in East Asia and South Asia were notorious; users could lie there for days, smoking pipe after pipe.
And it’s not just a poor man’s drug. There are upscale recreational around the world, including in Kenya.
US Ambassador Kyle McCarter’s daughter Amber died in 2006 at the age of 21 from was described as a heroin overdose.
Recreational users may just use it on the weekends, snorting a bit, or smoking it with marijuana snoring it with cocaine or injecting both (speedballs). Other users may inject it in the inner thigh, then go back to work at their stock brokerage, confident they can make a billion.
The rush of the hit and the way it makes you want more as if you were being deprived of air — that’s how heroin has trapped many people in Mombasa, Nairobi Nakuru, Nyeri, Kisumu and all the way to Isiolo.
The Health ministry says there’s an epidemic. Hardly a month goes by without a drugs haul. Security personnel are unable to stem the rising tide.
Those fighting addictions and most doctors say one dose is unlikely to physically addict you but it’s so pleasurable that addictive personalities can easily start on the road to a fatal embrace. The more you use it, the more rapidly your brain and nervous system adjust; the more you need.
Heroin makes the brain produce feel-good dopamine but after the tolerance is acquired a higher dose is needed to function.
Many people experiment thinking, “I’ll try it once or twice. I can always stop.” But it’s hard to turn back.
Rashid Mohammed (not his real name) usually spent his evenings drinking beer with classmates from the Technical University of Mombasa. He was studying for a Bachelor of Commerce and dropped out in 2017.
He had already experimented with heroin so when friends offered him a line, he accepted.
Fifteen minutes after inhaling, he passed out, then fell into a coma for more than two months.
Today, he is confined to a wheelchair, unable to write, barely able to read. His dreams are gone.
You might think heroin is a problem of city people, slum dwellers.
But dealers connected to cartels are making huge profits by expanding to new markets countrywide.
They are winning customers daily in primary and secondary schools, colleges, workplaces, mosques and churches.
Heroin is everywhere — Westlands in Nairobi, Nyali in Mombasa, Nyeri, Malindi town and in the border town of Migori.
The drug has become cheaper, purer and more easily available. Users often take it as part of a cocktail of other drugs, often at parties.
“What drives Kenyans, especially middle-class youth, to crave drugs to the point of self-annihilation? No one thinks they will become addicted, teens are risk takers, peer pressure is powerful, some are desperate and life is painful.
“When you’re drowning underwater, your body aching with the desperate need to breathe? Withdrawal is worse, says addict Mathew Kimani (not his real name), 22, from Nairobi’s Mathera slums. He dropped out of a national high school in Western. He took the drug for nine years.
Kimani began snorting heroin in Form 1, after senior schoolboys urged him.
“I never knew about hard drugs. I knew alcohol, cigarettes and bhang, but when I saw my seniors sniff this, I didn’t imagine it was a drug,” he says.
By the time he knew, he was hooked.
“After two years, snorting became part of life, so when seniors left, I had no source and had to drop out at Form 3,” he said.
Kimani easily found heroin. He graduated from sniffing and snorting to smoking. He also smoked marijuana to ease heroin withdrawal symptoms. Recently, he began injecting.
BEAUTIFUL OPIUM POPPIES.
Heroin, or diacetylmorphine, is processed from morphine extracted from opium poppies. Users describe warmth, relaxation, detachment and reduced anxiety. Since it comes from morphine, heroin is a powerful sedative and kills physical and emotional aches and pains.
People like Kimani continue to use not only because it makes them feel good but because trying to kick the habit will make you very sick.
Withdrawal without medical attention can kill you.
In 2018 Nacada said 162,863 people were known to abuse marijuana, which may be laced with heroin and 26,058 abused heroin. Official figures no doubt extremely low.
The authority is monitoring 25,000 intravenous drug users countrywide but most are monitored.
We investigated the lives of heroin users to understand how it has grown in popularity and destroyed lives.
Sex worker Lisa Otieno (not her real name)in Mathare slum once held two jobs to support her five children. Now you’d never recognise this gaunt creature. Sometimes her children go hungry.
When she wakes up, Lisa’s first thought is getting her first fix to function ‘normally’. She needs at least foils of 0.1g daily to feel ‘normal’. Without heroin, she says, she’s “ratting” — aching, sweating, hallucinating, nauseous.
As we sit with her, she calls a supplier who delivers four in less than two minutes. “I need 0.4g, Sh400 cash,” she says, her eyes fixed on the white powder. We watch as she injects the drug: She heats the powder in a spoon until it liquifies; it can also be dissolved. She fills a syringe, ties her arm so a vein bulges, then injects In five minutes she’s in heaven.
If the high is “too good,” she says she scratches her head her back ad her private parts.
Lisa faced violence and struggled to cop, turning to alcohol, sniffing heroin, snorting and now injecting.
“I put this before my children,” she says as tears roll down her face.
This has been Lisa’s life for 12 years. As with Kimani, Lisa says withdrawal is labour pains plus nausea and diarrhoea.
In Mathare supply is not a problem. On May 8, police arrested a 30-year-old man with 100 sachets of heroin. Heroin can be easily accessed obtained in Kampala Ndogo and Kosovo areas. However, the exact source of the drug flooding into the slum still remains unknown.
Heroin is not restricted to slums.
A source took the Star to upscale Westlands to see the other side.
The instructions were clear: Do not identify any celebrity. Your name Ariosto from Mombasa and you are suffering withdrawal.
Say you are buying but need to hang out with your friends and not mix with the others. Our source James Maina (not his real name) is well known here and nobody bothers us in this elegant home.
We get a stick of bhang for Sh170 and two sachets of heroin (0.2g each) for Sh500. We sit on cushions in the room as heroin smoke billows around us.
A pet dog wanders in. Maina is starting to get high, he tells us how he comes from a well-off family and started using while on campus because of peer pressure. But addiction has been difficult to overcome.
“It’s a battle and the stigma makes it really hard to set foot in the door to get help and support,” he says.
Kenya Economic Youth Network boss Elphas Were says lack of information on hard drugs, peer pressure, partner influence, environment and availability are among the reasons people start using drugs.
Then there are addictive personalities, people who need drugs to fill a hole.
“The reasons behind increased heroin usage are complex and highlights an ageing population of heroin users who first started using in the 80s and 90s,” he says.
I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT IT WAS
When her boyfriend started sharing the powder with her, he did not tell recovering addict Angela Kiruga (not her real name) it was heroin. She thought they were smoking bhang, no big deal.
“After I learnt it was heroin, I felt like my world crumbled. I was 26 and had a young child,” Angela says. Like the others we spoke to, Angela says heroin starts out as something pleasurable but soon one is enslaved, needing it to function.
“We quickly climbed to using four to five grams of heroin a day each. I knew I would probably die; I nearly did a few times. I’d lost myself, and I couldn’t see any way out,” Angela says.
Once a respected employee in a reputable organisation, Angela became broke and for six years lived on the streets before her journey to recovery.
Mark Bukusu (not his real name), 39, turned to heroin for solace after grief became unbearable following his wife’s death.
“I lost my loving wife and I’ve been on it ever since. I haven’t really dealt with her death. I’ve just buried my head in the sand,” he tells the Star.
“She passed on two days after delivering our last born son. We had five children together and I loved her,” he says. He use to sell groceries before he started using drugs in 2005. Today he lives in Kawangware.
After our foray into Westlands, we made our way to Kawangware far from the upmarket suburb.
We walked into a large open field littered with drug paraphernalia, uncapped syringes and needles with blood residue.
It’s a community ground so anyone, including children, could accidentally get pricked and infected. We meet Duncan Kimani (not his real name).
He is panting and wheezing.
Duncan can’t tell whether he is really sick or withdrawing from heroin. He needs a fix to decide. He smokes a joint of bhang and heroin.
He admits he is sick and needs medical help but Duncan has no ID, no medical insurance, money or phone. We buy him medicine cough medicine but he is a street kid and can’t avoid the cold nights.
Addict David Kimeu (not his real name) another addict tells us that when he’s sick he struggles alone for fear of being looked down upon in a hospital or clinic.
“We are people, we are Kenyans and we are sick. It is very unfair when we face hostility from health workers. I lost two friends due to negligence at the hospital,” he says.
Sometimes when they are taken to hospital with an overdose, they are told to buy that costs more than Sh6,000. “Where can we get the money? We admit we are sick and don’t like this life. We have families and we would want to stay with them,” he says.
for users to share syringes and needles in a place like this. The National Aids and STI Control Programme has classified intravenous drug users as a key HIV population. According to Nascop, the likelihood of spreading HIV among users themselves is 8.7 per cent. And then there are the people they have sex with.
If you’re not a rich addict, your habit becomes desperately expensive. Addicts go to extreme lengths for money to support their habit. Lisa told the Star she can sleep with as many as 10 men to get money for her daily habit.
“Men take advantage of addicts. They can pay you Sh50 for sex and you need to raise Sh500 for a good dose,” she says.
James Kiama (not his real name), who started using heroin for recreation and as an escape from worry, pain and fear, has suffered mob attacks for robbery and once escaped lynching.
Recovering addict English Wairimu (not his real name), 43, lost his upper teeth after he was beaten for stealing drug money.
Despite the devasting effects of heroin on people from all walks of life, authorities have been unable to stem the flow of heroin into Kenya.
On April 30, heroin worth Sh1.5 million on the street was seized at JKIAconcealed as generator spare parts and destined for Guinea. Just the tip of the iceberg.