Thousands of vulnerable school children are being lured into soft drugs in a terrifying explosion of substance abuse that has reached crisis point, the Nation has established.
Some of the drugs, including the central nervous stimulant Kuber, are now sold openly in corner shops and have become the new gateway to hard drugs and crime.
The drugs are sold together with a tree-based amphetamine known as muguka, which has become a leading cash crop in the Mt Kenya region, edging out miraa (khat). Muguka is also widely distributed in the country.
As part of the investigation, the Nation sent a young reporter dressed in school uniform to test how easy it was to buy Kuber, which in Nairobi is usually passed off as “mouth freshener”.
Kuber is banned in its country of origin, India, and in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania.
At the first shop, the chatty shopkeeper named Mohamed asked: “Si hiyo itakupea steam mob sana?” (Won’t that get you excessively high?) He then directed our reporter to the peddler, but warned him to be careful with the drug.
To our surprise, and contrary to the warning by Mohamed, the encounter between our ‘student’ and the peddlers inside a small shop along Keekorok Road in Nairobi proved quite uncomplicated.
Our undercover reporter was even given room to negotiate a Sh10 discount for the Sh50 sachet. “It is a way of keeping the customer coming back,” the shopkeeper said.
Within a few hours, our ‘student’ bought five variants of the drug, which the peddlers are now repackaging in smaller, unlabelled, tea-bag-size, clear pouches that go for between Sh20 and Sh50, depending on the potency of the drug.
Kuber is passed off as smokeless tobacco and has gained currency in schools because it can be consumed discreetly by chewing or slowly dissolving in the mouth.
Mr Kahi Indimuli, the head teacher at Machakos High School and chairman of the Kenya Secondary School Heads Association (Kessha), says Kuber and other such substances have become so common that “teachers are increasingly finding themselves at loggerheads with children and their parents”.
The brownish powder is easy to buy because it has no age restriction on the packaging.
It is generally available in any shop stocking miraa, or any other dimly-lit tuck shop in downtown Nairobi that passes itself off as a miraa base.
The Nation established that the drug goes by the general name Dawa in the underworld, even though it is also referred to as Ndovu, Skari, Chavez or Ugoro.
Students ingest it by placing a pinch of it between the lower lip and the gum, making it difficult for teachers and parents to detect the misconduct.
Unlike cigarettes, which get into the system through inhalation of smoke, Kuber is absorbed through the mouth tissues directly into the blood, and onwards into the brain.
Even after the substance is spat out, the nicotine residue continues to be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing it to stay longer in the nervous system than it would if smoked. Chewing also releases more nicotine than smoking.
Teachers who spoke to this newspaper, most of whom declined to be quoted because they are not authorised to speak to the media, said they had always assumed that their students were chewing gum before they realised that it was Kuber.
“A student high on the substance is capable of anything,” said a teacher who requested anonymity.
“You hear cases of teachers being beaten up by school children… it just doesn’t happen out of the blue. These are students under the influence of something.”
A similar situation is unfolding in Kirinyaga County; all because of maruku, a tobacco-based drug resembling Kuber.
Residents now blame it for the increase in school drop-outs. It is also consumed by placing it under one’s lower lip.
The drug is sold in tiny sachets at Sh50 each. Users say maruku is stronger than Kuber, alcohol or even cannabis.
"I use it occasionally, especially when I am too broke to buy liquor,” a young man told the Nation. The drug is sold at a small tin kiosk at the bus terminal in Kagio Township.
The dealers only sell it to trusted peddlers who then distribute it to other parts of the county.
Two young men, probably in their 20s, are always in the kiosk.
The belts, caps and bandanas on display are gathering dust, meaning few people, if any, buy them.
Matatu crews, locals and traders say the two sell the drug on behalf of a prominent businessman whom the Nation can only identify as Njuguna.
Our team got the drug from one of the “trusted” peddlers. A rubber band sealing the package was laced with an oily, sweet-smelling substance.
Consumers are not sure what the perfume is or its value, only suggesting that it increases the potency of maruku.
Mr Indimuli says schools do not have the capacity to fight the drugs menace because teachers cannot tell whether what the student is bringing into the school is a drug.
“They carry narcotics packaged as tablets and declare them as medication during inspection,” said Mr Indimuli.
“Now they’ve invented ingenious ways of packaging Kuber in mandazi and bhang in teabags. How would a teacher know that is bhang and not tea?”
Mr Indimuli argues that unless teachers are given powers to discipline school children, the problem will persist.
“You see, if I found a student under the influence, I’d need to prove it before taking any [punitive] action.
"That means taking the student for a medical test, and given that the child is under 18, I would need to seek consent from the parents. How many parents will allow teachers to take their children for drug tests? Such is the conundrum we face.”
Mr Indimuli told the Nation that Kuber had become so common that teachers had to ban sale of sweets in or near schools.
However, the peddlers have, in recent days, found a better way to ensnare their victims by making a paste out of the drug.
The paste is then applied on the back of the palm from where it gently seeps into the bloodstream.
“The drug causes euphoria in the user, in pretty much the same way as marijuana or cocaine would,” said Dr Ngugi Gatere, a consultant psychiatrist.
Nicotine, the primary ingredient in Kuber, is heavily addictive and exposes the user to the extremely harmful effects of tobacco dependency.
The drug also contains cannabinoids extracted from Indian hemp (marijuana).
Despite the dangerous chemicals, the drug’s packaging and presentation gives it the harmless presentation of some sort of a breath freshener, making it even more accessible to children than cigarettes or other such stimulants.
Of all the types that the Nation was able to buy, only one, Mirage, had an addiction warning.
Dr Gatere said he has attended to addicted students referred to him or brought in by parents.
Kuber, in most cases, was the initiation drug of choice. “Because it is thought to be harmless, it is usually the gateway to other drugs,” he said.
“It all begins with students persuading their colleagues to taste. And before one knows it, one is hooked.”
The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer notes that smokeless tobacco contains at least 30 cancer-causing agents.
Globally, chewable tobacco has been responsible for a rise in head and neck cancers, including oral, oesophageal, oropharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.