It is close to midday in Kimisagara, Nyarugenge district. A group of men, both young and old, bathe next to a drainage channel, oblivious of the passers-by. Another group, possibly in their early 20’s, huddle in deep conversation.
A cloud of smoke lingers around them; the smell of burning ‘grass’ fills the air, a clear indication, that this is no ordinary cigarette they are smoking.
I approach the group with caution, and identify a young man sitting slightly away from it. Though apprehensive at first, he agrees to indulge me in a conversation.
Orphaned at a young age, Abdu Uwamahoro, 20, tells me that they are smoking urumogi- local name for the narcotic marijuana.
“I started smoking it when I lived in a camp in Congo. The soldiers there smoked it, so we picked the habit from them” he recalls. He returned to Rwanda in 1998, and settled in Kimisagara, a place that is known to harbour a considerable number of marijuana users.
He became a teenage father, and in order to fend for his family, the young man, who has never seen the insides of a classroom, has had to find work as a labourer to fend for his dependants.
Uwamahoro smokes the drug despite demanding family responsibilities.
“After smoking marijuana, I don’t feel exactly drunk. I feel so happy compared to how I felt before. I feel like I am living a different life. The problems somehow seem less daunting.” I approach another group of well dressed boys smoking the marijuana sticks.
“I was under sponsorship from an Italian priest,” declares one of the boys, “however, he was ambushed by thugs and his close friend was killed. He left the country on short notice. I didn’t have his contact address and, since then, I dropped out of school,” says the boy who preferred anonymity. A senior five drop-out says that he had searched in vain for a job.
“We resort to doing this [smoking drugs] because we are poor and jobless.”
I then met two girls who I tried to engage in conversation. While one moved stealthily away, another one, Alice Kayezu, a fifteen year old who left her village to search for work, agreed to tell me her story. She found work in Kigali as a domestic worker but, not being able to stand the harassment, she quit.
“I was a house keeper but my boss mistreated me and I left.”
Without a job and running out of money and with no education, she resorted to commercial sex.
“In a week I can earn Rwf 1,500,”she revealed. As she narrated her story, I noticed that her belly was unusually rounded. She admitted to being seven months pregnant despite the fact that she had earlier told me that she strictly used condoms.
“I know the father of this child. He was a friend but left his former job. Now I don’t know what he is doing. I don’t care if he doesn’t admit paternity,” Kayezu says defiantly.
A woman, behind whose home they practice the trade, says they are about 10 girls. She describes them as a lazy bunch who become prostitutes in search of easy money. She added that, as soon as they get pregnant, they are forced to return to their homes.
Sadly, the young school-going children aren’t being shielded from seeing this sleazy side of life. Young primary children at APACE Kabusonzu, a primary school located in the area, have detailed information on marijuana use.
“I know it. They usually smoke it in hiding. But they also smoke cigarettes. I started knowing the drug when I was 12 years of age,” says Eric Bihozagara, a 13 year old who is now in Primary Four.
Origene Rutayisire, the mayor of Nyarugenge district admits to being aware of the marijuana situation in the area.
“We are working with the police to arrest them. Some of them are in rehabilitation centers,” he said. He added that marijuana was usually smuggled into Rwanda from Congo.
Another prominent member of the community, but who preferred to remain anonymous said that initially the police arrests were futile since upon their release the marijuana users had not reformed.
“The police arrested many of them but on release they would return to their old habits. In the rehabilitation centers out of 50 children, 20 remain in custody. Others usually escape,” he says.
“The situation is not good. Many of these young men are also thieves,” he says. He also discloses that apart from marijuana, kanyanga (illicit liquor) is also consumed.
However, all hope is not lost, and one organization is working towards bringing the much needed change. Maison des Jeunes, a youth recreational center built in 1988 by the Germans in Kimisagara, is fighting the good fight.
In 2006 it reacted to the rampant use of marijuana locally by forming the Anti-Drug Association Path (ADAP), with the goal of combating the prevailing societal ills affecting street children and those in schools through sensitisation.
Sewabana Victor is the Vice President of ADAP. He grew up in Gitega and observed the habit of smoking marijuana grow like a cancer. After undertaking a course in finance he decided to do something about what he was seeing taking over his neighbourhood.
“The seven rehabilitation centers are not effective. They combat the symptoms not the causes,” he lamented.
Victor complained that the pace of sensitization was being hampered by inadequate funding.
“If we could get enough funding from UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] we can reach out to more than 36 schools.”
He says that the use of marijuana is a habit that has spread all the way from primary school to university. He is however optimistic that with the goodwill of the community and financial backing from other well wishers, this vice can be overcome.