Addiction is learned, so it can be unlearned

Wednesday March 18 2020

Dr. Emily Obwaka during an interview in Nairobi on November 13, 2018. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL


Dr Emily Obwaka is a public health specialist whose current focus is rehabilitation of men and women from alcohol and drug abuse. She is also an ordained minister of the gospel with Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM). She has previously served as the Continental Coordinator of the Pan African Christian Women’s Alliance (PACWA), the women’s commission of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA).


There is talk about legalising bhang because it has some health benefits. What is your organisation’s position on this?

Bhang has benefits, but overriding, it has negatives. The active ingredient in cannabis, cannabidiol or CBD, actually has medicinal value -- it can reduce pain, it can help people who have seizures, it even has anti-cancer properties. This property can even be used to counter overdose caused by the negative constituent in marijuana -tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

The problem with legalising it is that if you do not already have a system of isolating and processing the CBD so that is channelled to proper use, marijuana will become readily available to those who will use it indiscriminately and inappropriately, especially the youth. Marijuana is currently one of the most abused drugs in Kenya because it is readily available, is affordable and comes in several appealing forms, such as smoking or ingesting.

Resin oil, made from it, can be used to make cookies and candy, which can be given to children. As Teen Challenge Kenya, we oppose legalisation of bhang because we see the devastation it has had on many who come to our centres to seek help.


What drew you to the area of drug and alcohol addicts’ rehabilitation?

I went into it because of the personal way in which addiction affected me. My relatives were in addiction and I watched how drugs, including alcohol, devastated their lives. As I have walked with many in Teen Challenge, I realise there is real and lasting hope and I want to champion that hope.


What is women empowerment? There seems to be too much confusion and animosity around this term

The whole idea is women enabled or given the ability to understand themselves, access resources, manage their lives, understand who they are and participate usefully in society.

Women empowerment recognises the reality of the contexts in which women live, in many cases, patriarchal societies, the cultures that favour men when it comes to access to education, resources, and opportunities. There should therefore be a deliberate effort to give women the same opportunities men are given. Women should be helped to come to a sense of identity, worth, and ability to be all that God made them to be.


What did you want to be when you were growing up?

My earliest ambition was to be an air hostess. I was 10 or 11. I read books that glorified air hostesses and the kind of lives they lived. In high school, I really loved sciences, so I wanted to do something related to medicine, but I did not feel that I had a strong enough call to do medicine. Dentistry seemed like a good middle of the road kind of choice because I would not have to deal with the whole body. By the time I finished O levels, I knew I wanted to be a dentist. That is what I chose.


What is the role of the church in Kenya? Does the church still have a voice?

The church is supposed to do what Jesus Christ did on earth. This means it is supposed to help the poor, show people how to live at peace with God, with themselves, with the environment, with one another.

Unfortunately, the church loses its voice when it does not remain connected well to its leader (Jesus Christ) so that the expression of the body is not that of its leader. For example, when the corruption in the world enters the church, the church gets compromised and hence loses its moral authority to speak out. People stop taking the church seriously. Also, when there is disunity between the churches, the church cannot speak with authority.


What makes it difficult to tackle the factors affecting young people such as drug abuse?

Firstly, the homes (and in turn societies) many young people grow up in are becoming increasing dysfunctional. Young people growing up in this environment are struggling with identity issues and healthy coping mechanisms.

In addition, social media draws young people into another ‘reality’ that glorifies these vices and makes them commonplace. It is therefore hard to put a rein on this in a simple way. The challenge is for guardians, parents and other leaders to truly seek to understand the evolving complexities of the young person’s world so we can effectively address the factors that affect them.


What are some of the key public health issues that Kenya must address?

Non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, drugs and alcohol. We still have not gotten illnesses such as malaria and HIV/AIDs under our cap, neither have we been able to curb the frequency of road accidents. All of these are preventable and can be reduced through knowledge, attitude practice and a change of lifestyle.


What was your greatest take away from your internship period at KNH in the late 80s?

Back then, it was the only national hospital. I was working in the dental department. I could do 50 extractions in a day -- at that time, that was the primary intervention. The big takeaway for me was that I was not cut out to be a clinician and knew from my internship that I did not want to remain in dentistry for long.

A child came once when I was on call. He was a bout seven years old. His face was literary torn. It later emerged that that was a case of child abuse. My heart came alive to the fact that I did not want to be at the tail-end of things. I started thinking of community health -- being upstream where I could educate people about being well from inside out. I completed my clinical work and as soon as I could, I applied to do Public Health.


How did you connect all your different career interests?

First understand what makes you tick and what your gifting is. I realised early that I love to see value and positive change come out of people and situations. I believe that this is the thread throughout my life. From my public health focus working with the Johns Hopkins University to working in the church across Africa and later among the poor in holistic transformation, right up to the work I am currently doing, it has been a transformation endeavour.


What do you think is the greatest misconception about drug/alcohol addicts?

That it is chronic mental disease that is incurable. This perspective keeps people from being truly free of addiction. Addiction can lead to mental disease but does not start from this point.

There is no scientific evidence that there is genetic predilection in addiction. What there is, is behavioural patterning which occurs when a parent or person in authority patterns a certain lifestyle which becomes a draw for a child or someone growing in this environment to adopt. Addiction is learned and therefore can be unlearned.