Meet beauty therapist saving female heroin addicts


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Beauty parlour spruces up drug addicts and those recovering to boost their esteem, guide them on how best to reclaim their health.

Wednesday March 18 2020

Naima Said stands back and studies her handiwork. “Not quite,” the 31-year-old self-taught beauty therapist mumbles, her forehead furrowed in frustration.

She delicately dabs her client’s eyelid with a squishy make-up sponge, eyebrow pencil at the ready. She keeps dabbing — she’s not finished yet.

Several years ago, Naima used YouTube to train on everything, from hair dying to pedicures.

Now she runs Beauty Corner — a small, if perfectly formed, parlour in Mombasa. Every weekday from 8am, she lays out her tools and waits for women to walk through the door.

In front of her, one three-metre mirror is lined with a messy array of shimmery eye shadow palettes, and baby pink baskets brimming with hair-rollers.

But this isn’t just any beauty parlour. The women who seek Naima’s services are addicted to heroin, or they’re recovering.

Housed in the Reachout Centre Trust, which helps Mombasa residents fight drug addiction, it opened last year with a view to attracting more female users to its services that include HIV testing, counselling, methadone treatment and cervical cancer screening.

ILLEGAL PRODUCTION

Naima herself abused heroin for ten years. When her father could no longer afford to pay for private school, she was at a loose end.

Aged 17, she started smoking marijuana with her friends. By 21, she was a full blown heroin addict. “I was half-dead, half-alive,” she recalls.

“I started sex work so I could afford to pay for my next hit. On the streets, you need to look beautiful, but I looked dirty. I was a junkie. People would see me and get scared.”

Until fairly recently, hard drugs, especially heroin, were rare in Africa. But since 2010, heroin use across the continent has grown faster than anywhere else in the world, the UN "Office on Drugs and Crime" (UNODC) 2015 report says.

The reason is two-pronged. Despite millions of dollars spent by the United States and its allies to curb illegal poppy production in Afghanistan, there has been an almost continuous rise in the amount grown, Simone Haysom of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Giato) points out.

In 2017, opium farming reached a record high (jumping 87 per cent in one year). Despite shrinking 20 per cent since then, Afghanistan still produces 82 per cent of the world’s heroin — and remains the largest opium-producing country.

TRADE ROUTES

Meanwhile, Africa has increasingly become an attractive drug transit route.

Historically, most of the heroin trafficked to the West from Afghanistan came overland via what’s known as the ‘Balkan route’.

Conflict and increased enforcement made this path trickier to navigate, according to a report by Giato. Instead, smugglers have hit the seas.

Since 2010, the ''southern route'', also known as the ''Smack Track'', has grown in popularity, where heroin travels from Afghanistan via the Indian Ocean into East and South Africa.

It then makes its way to Europe, Asia and North America. As more heroin floods into East Africa, a growing number of people are getting addicted to it.

“Instead of the drug just moving through the region, the region itself is now a destination,” Haysom says.

In 2015, the UNODC warned that heroin addiction appeared to be on the rise in Kenya, particularly at the Coast. Home to East Africa’s largest port, Mombasa bears the brunt.

“On the streets of Mombasa, it’s easier to buy heroin than sugar from a supermarket,” says Reachout Executive Director Taib Abdulrahman.

Heroin usage has since spread to other parts of the country, including Nairobi and Kiambu. Data is patchy, but it’s estimated that between 18,000 and 55,000 Kenyans use heroin.

MAJOR PROBLEMS

Help is available in the 50-plus treatment and rehabilitation centres registered with the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, but it can be difficult to access.

While prevention services such as counselling, needle programme and HIV testing are often free, inpatient rehabilitation can cost Sh15,000 to Sh200,000.

Women, meanwhile, are falling through the cracks of these services. “Female drug users have very specific needs,” explains Faiza Hamid, Reachout’s programme manager. “And their needs aren’t being met.”

Stigma is also a big problem. Many engage in sex work to fund their drug habit (a single heroin dose costs between Sh150-Sh200.

This is one of the reasons female users are less likely to access drug treatment.

Concern over securing child care, hard-to-reach treatment centres and relationship issues (women often live with a partner who has a substance-use problem) — also factor in.

If they don’t seek treatment, they’re likely to drop out faster, and experience higher risks of HIV infection.

Women might constitute the minority of users, but experts say these numbers are under-reported — and likely much higher.

FULFILLING HUMAN NEED

And that’s where the Beauty Corner steps in. “I talk to these girls,” says Naima, Reachout’s first female methadone patient, who was chosen by the clinic’s director to head the parlour after attending counselling sessions. She’s now five years clean.

“I say to them: ‘What you see on the outside is drug addiction, and self-loathing. You are beautiful. You’re a mother, a daughter, a sister.’ As I paint their nails, I say, ‘why don’t you start methadone? Why don’t you check your [HIV] status?’ When it works, it’s like magic.”

For years, only a few female users showed up for Reachout’s services — they just didn’t see the point of coming.

“The women told me they felt everything at the drop-in centre was designed for male drug users,” Faiza says. “They already knew their HIV status; what more did they need?”

So she came up with the idea of the Beauty Corner. The aim was to first get women through the door.

To make them feel special, even for a short while before bringing up the other more difficult issues.

It seems to be working. In under one year, 453 women have tested out the parlour’s services, and there has been a big uptake of women using the clinical services, says Faiza.

SAFE SPACES

The numbers of cervical cancer screenings, for example, shot up by 34 per cent. On average, Naima sees 15 women every day.

But still, there is an evident lack of services tailored to women’s needs (the majority of rehabilitation centres are male-specific).

While research on female drug addicts in Kenya is limited, studies show that women enrolled in gender-specific treatment programmes have better “outcomes and improvement” than those who are not, according to UNODC.

Esther Ingolo, Mombasa’s Gender Director, confirmed to the Nation that there are no specific safe places allocated for women by the devolved unit, although several sustainable programmes from which they can benefit do exist.

The parlour, then, is plugging a much-needed gap. There are others too. A short drive away lies Mewa Health and Harm Reduction, an organisation that aims to reduce the negative effects of drug use.

“Most women are homeless, have children and no support,” notes Abdalla Ahmed, Mewa’s programme manager.

“They’re sick — many have Hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis — and have been isolated by their families and communities. More men use heroin than women, but the number of issues women experience is higher.”

“We need to look at the root cause of the problem,” Ingolo said. “We need a long-term solution so that once women are out of the den, they don’t go back.”

PEER PRESSURE

As the parlour fills up, a sticky midday heat settles in. Three women sit side by side, chatting quietly.

One of them is 34-year-old Elizabeth Yieko. She left her home in Luanda at the age of 14 and had been living on the streets until two years ago.

Like Naima, she initially started smoking marijuana. “It was awful,” she recalls of her first heroin hit.

“I said I would never do it again, but my friends convinced me. I did it for a second time, then a third, and after that it was not so bad.”

From that day, her decisions were dictated by heroin. She took to the streets, supporting her life through stealing and sex work.

She spent Sh2,500 a day on drugs, doubling that number after several years. She was eventually jailed for three years for drug possession and theft.

In 2013, however, her life changed. After being beaten and raped three times on the streets, she decided enough was enough.

She was living in a hotspot, often referred to as drug dens, and was introduced to the Beauty Corner by a friend.

“I could not believe it when I saw my friend’s post-parlour visit. She was so clean, had make-up on, nicely done hair with red lipstick. I saw how women who had sold their lives to drugs could still have a life. I felt transformed.”

REACH OUT

Elizabeth has now stopped smoking heroin and acts as a recruiter. She visits hot spots where many female users hang out, to spread the word.

So far, she’s brought ten women to the parlour. Naima, however, wants more. “I’m happy I’m helping people,” she says.

“But it’s not good enough for me. I think about the future. What about life after the methadone? Where are we going to go? For people born and raised in the drug dens, their home is the drug den. We need to find a place for women. Why should we die? Why should we waste our lives?”

This story was produced in partnership with Daily Nation, the Guardian and Fuller Project.