Hello. My name is Grace Katana. I am aged 20, and would like to share with you the story of my life.
I do this knowing too well that I might attract unnecessary attention or even criticism, but I feel like I have reached the end of my tether. I need you to listen to me and, if touched, save me.
I live in Shanzu, a peri-urban sprawl about 20 kilometres from Mombasa on the road to Kilifi. Shanzu is not your usual trading centre. Here, life happens when the sun dips. Numerous bars and disco joints compete for patrons on the strength of their decibels and the pricing of their drinks, and by the time the sun chases the night away in the morning, lives are often hurtling into a dark pit all over this unassuming town.
Listen to me, for I know what I am talking about. I have lived that life, breathed in the vibrancy, merried in the shaky ecstasy of carefree youth, and lived to pay the price.
I am a drug addict, or what the Americans like to call a junkie. I cannot go a day without a dose of heroin or a cocktail of cocaine, bhang and tobacco. I am hooked, and I am dying to free myself. Dying to live.
I don’t have the words to describe the craving, but heroin has put me on such a tight leash and taken control of every inch of my body, mind and soul. I have to visit the peddlers a few times a day, otherwise I fear I might go insane.
I was 11 when I started using drugs. At 12 I dropped out of school and fled home. At 13 I had my first child, and then my first sexual “client”... in that order.
Just in case that didn’t sink in, let me rephrase it; by the time the average Kenyan girl of my age was preparing to sit her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, I was already a mother, selling out my body for money, and addicted to drugs.
This dark chapter of my life started one balmy afternoon in 2008, when two close friends who were my classmates gave me something to smoke. The roll had that self-effacing, gentle look and feel of a cigarette, but it tasted worse.
One puff led to another, and yet another, and a month later I was hooked. If my friends forgot to carry a roll to school, I would ache all over my body, have these monster abdominal cramps that just wouldn’t go away, and swing from one mood to the other.
My sanity, I deluded myself, came in the form of that mysterious roll. I started carrying some home to puff just before bedtime, away from the probing nose of mum.
LESSONS FROM THE STREETS
But mothers will always be mothers, and a year later she confronted me. She had suspected that I was pregnant as I had been avoiding her whenever I was home. I confessed, and in the ensuing argument I told her that I also thought school was rubbish, so I was going to drop out.
A few days later, I packed my stuff and ran away from home. I felt I didn’t belong. My nine siblings were suffocating me, and the dart-eyed probe of my mother had started making me uncomfortable. I was 12 years old.
I sought refuge in a drug den in Shanzu, but while the drugs were in constant, cheap supply, the food wasn’t. To take care of my needs, I started going into the alleyways and shebeens to hawk my body for, often, a dime.
Now that I am old enough to judge myself, I realise I was foolish. Considering that I was not even in my teens yet, I didn’t even know how to defend myself or stand up for my rights. Men took advantage of that foolishness and naiveté, and at the age of 13 I conceived. My second child would come six years later, when I turned 19.
The first pregnancy was a battle. I was too young to understand what being pregnant meant, or what lifestyle changes I needed to make to take care of the baby. And, to make matters worse, I did not know who the father was.
I cannot, however, lie to you that I didn’t understand the biological engineering happening inside me. As my tummy grew, I knew I would soon be a mother. What I cannot tell you, however, is how my labour and childbirth progressed.
When women talk about their babies, they somehow find ways of infusing the labour experience into the discussion. It is a way of celebrating their motherhood, an appreciation of the silent yet strong bond that is initiated between mother and child at childbirth. But I cannot tell you how mine went, for I was high as a kite when my time came; so drunk that I could not even ask for epidural anaesthesia.
With a newborn in my care, I had to work twice as hard to get the next meal. I had to break my back and brave the chilly nights to get his next bottle of milk and get money for my next joint. And then, before the fact that I had a baby who depended on me could sink in, I got knocked up again.
I don’t know how to explain this without sounding like an apologist, but let me try; every time I step out into the streets as a commercial sex worker, I never know what type of client I will get. They come in different mindsets and attitudes and expectations, so if one turns down my request to use a condom, I have no choice but to obey his wishes, lest I lose a meal.
I have finally realised that I made a mistake to run away from home. Had I stayed on, maybe my mother would have found a way to save me. But now it’s too late. I am a train wreck. Lost and out of control. Completely.
MISERY IN COMPANY
Eighteen other girls live in the same den as I. They, too, took a wrong turn a few years ago, and now they are living with the consequences of their decisions. Their struggles mirror mine, but we find solace in the fact that we are in this together.
I do not remember how it feels to be sober, and I know you might be deriding me for exposing my children to drugs. That’s fine. But what can I do in the circumstances? How do I feed my children? When you look at me you see a woman who has lost direction and should be condemned, but when my children look at me they see a mother; their mother. Different strokes for different people, they say.
Needless to say, I am ashamed of what I have become. I might have mastered life in the alleyways of Shanzu and Mtwapa at night, but deep inside I am a defeated soul. I am not only embarrassed, but also an embarrassment.
I should not live like this, and even though I don’t like admitting it, I am a bad mother to my children.
Look at me. See how old I look, how these drugs have aged me. And then I have this bad cough that is chasing my clients away. I suspect it is TB, but I have neither the resources nor the time to have it checked.
Friends, I have reached the end of my tether. I need help. This was fun when I was 12 and foolish, but it no longer is. Help me. Save me. Help me quit this drugs life.
I would prefer to go for rehabilitation as opposed to using Medically Assisted Therapy (MAT), but my options are limited.
Here in Mombasa there are only four rehabilitation centres, all of which cater for men and charge up to Sh70,000 for a six-month stay.
If you are a woman and desire to quit the habit, the best that the four centres can do for you is put you through a 14-day detoxification process, which is equally costly, at Sh10,000. I don’t know what you can do, honestly. But whatever you do, save me. Before it is too late.
POISON FOR HUMANS
Drugs affect every aspect of the human body, from what we can see to what we can’t:
The cardiovascular system: Problems arise when the heart is constantly sped up or slowed down. Drug addiction leads to adverse cardiovascular conditions, including irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia) and arrest. The use of injection drugs leads to collapsed veins and bacterial infections within heart valves and blood vessel walls.
The respiratory system: Inhaling harsh chemicals could lead to bronchitis, a lung condition that causes shortness of breath (emphysema) and lung cancer. Some drugs induce shallow breath and block air from entering the lungs, which can cause complications for those suffering from asthma.
The gastrointestinal system: Many drugs are designed to be ingested. Abuse of certain drugs leads to inflammation of the stomach, nausea, vomiting, chronic constipation or diarrhoea, abdominal bloating and liver damage.
The musculoskeletal system: This system is made up of the bones of the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connective tissue that supports and binds tissues and organs together. It provides form, support, stability, and movement to the body. Drug abuse results in problems with posture, strength and muscle stamina. Some drugs, such as heroin, can cause severe muscle cramping, weakness and overall loss of muscle mass.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?
Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT): Grace could be put on medication in combination with counselling and behavioural therapies.
Also known as Opioid Substitution Therapy, MAT was initiated in December 2014 in Nairobi, and in 2015 at the coast.
On 11th September 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional office for eastern Africa officially handed over two MAT clinics to the County Government of Mombasa.
The two clinics are in Kisauni Health Centre and Coast General Hospital (CGH). It is estimated that more than 18,000 people inject heroin in Kenya, with the coastal region being the epicentre of the problem.
Some 10,000 people are addicted to drugs here.
Rehabilitation: Grace could also be booked into Mathari Hospital in Nairobi as it has a rehabilitation unit.
Treatment uses a multi-disciplinary approach, such as detoxification, rehabilitation and management of co-morbid disorders.
Other services offered include counselling, psychotherapy, occupational therapy, and guidance.
The JORGS ARK Rehab Centre in Limuru is also another option. It offers treatment to alcoholics and drug addicts, including their families and significant others.
The Nairobi Place Addiction Treatment Centre off Lang’ata Road is also an option, as well as Asumbi Treatment Centre, the oldest rehabilitation centre in East Africa.