At the age of 17, he was introduced to the world of drugs. The appetite for drug abuse gradually turned into an addiction for Eric Muchristo who is currently in his S6 vacation. Now, 22 years old, he struggled with drug addiction for three years.
The former Nyamata Catholique Secondary School student’s diet was marijuana, tobacco and alcohol. This toxic cocktail took a toll on his mental state and many times he found himself on the wrong side of the law. He clashed with authorities many times and often found himself behind bars. However, Impact Mission, a community organisation, assisted him and after a stint in rehab, he quit drugs.
It wasn’t easy, he says, but eventually, he was successfully treated. Muchristo is now an ambassador of anti-drug abuse campaign.
He visits schools and talks to students about his experience and the dangers of drug abuse.
Muchristo is just one of the many Rwandans who have been affected by drug abuse. Unfortunately, many of the victims don’t get a chance to get help before it is too late.
The International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking falls on June 26 each year and seeks to raise awareness of the major problem that illicit drugs present to society.
This year, the Ministry of Health has unveiled a six-month campaign which will be launched during the national celebrations on June 26 in Kirehe District.
A study conducted by the Ministry of Youth and ICT, in collaboration with Kigali Health Institute in 2012, shows that 52.5 per cent of the youth aged between 14 and 35 years old had consumed one or more substances at least once in their lifetime.
It also showed that due to regular substance or drug abuse, one young man or woman out of thirteen (7.46 per cent) was alcohol dependent, one young man or woman out of twenty (4.88 per cent) suffered from nicotine dependence and one young man or woman out of forty (2.54 per cent) was cannabis dependent.
Dr Jean Damascene Iyamuremye, the Director of Psychiatric Care in Rwanda Biomedical Centre, says that this is no small burden since the country’s citizens that would be developing it are busy taking “poisonous substances” which destroy one’s mind, family and society.
Magnitude of drug abuse in Rwanda
If you look at data from Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital, drug abuse is not to be taken lightly.
The hospital has experienceda rising number of patients with alcohol and drug-induced mental illness over the years.
Figures from the hospital show that in 2009, only 440 (patients with alcohol and drug induced illnesses) made consultation, compared to the 2804 who made consultation in 2016.
This is in spite of the different efforts put in place by the government as well as other stakeholders to fight drug abuse.
Among these efforts, an inter-ministerial committee responsible for fighting against illicit use of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursors was set up in 2015.
The committee is made up of Ministries of Justice, East African Affairs, Education, Gender and Family Promotion, Sports and Culture, Youth and ICT, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Cabinet Affairs, as well as, Police,with the aim of making sure that the different organisations share information in a way of advising each other on how to tackle drug abuse jointly.
Among the responsibilities of the committee is carrying out research concerning drug abuse, devising strategies of fighting drug abuse locally and internationally, organising trainings for the workers of different institutions concerning drug abuse, and advising the government on the issues concerning drug abuse.
A partnership between the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Department and the inter-ministerial committee has seen over six annual anti-drug campaigns carried out across the country since 2010.
The campaigns involve sensitisation of the citizens on the dangers of drug abuse through open air events, TV and radio; sensitisation of health providers on their role in prevention, reinforcement of the creation of anti-drug abuse clubs in schools, among other things.
Last year, according to the statistics from the Ministry, over 1,795,641 people were sensitised about drug abuse by the Ministry through different activities.
The National Youth Council (NYC) has also been carrying out sensitisation among the youth at the village level during holidays through different events aiming at preventing drug abuse.
The Council also mobilises the youth to create savings groups, cooperatives, it carries out national awareness campaigns to fight the use of drugs and illicit trafficking and also works on the reintegration of rehabilitated drug users - helping them get into developmental activities so that they will not go back to drugs.
To add to these are the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre, Huye Isange Rehabilitation Centre (HIRC), and the Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital where mentally sick people get professional care to bring them back into normal life.
Threats concerning drug abuse in Rwanda
According to Dr Iyamuremye, the Rwandan youth addicted to drugs may have started as early as 11 years old.
He says this is a serious setback to development.
“If we don’t take serious measures together, where is Rwanda going? Because they become hindrances to development, security, as well as their own lives and families,” he says.
Dr Iyamuremye also says that there is a danger of more narcotic drugs being invented by the people.
“For instance, there are some drugs we know now that we did not know last year. There is grass that we just used to see in our gardens but now, some young people have discovered that it can be used as a narcotic,” he says.
He gives an example of one plant named rwiziringa which in the past months, he, along with a team from Ministry of Health, were called to a school in Kigali after students used it.
He says that the Ministry is doing research about the plant and after proving that it is in fact a drug, measures will be taken to destroy it.
What should be done: Officials, stakeholders speak out
With the challenge of drug abuse persisting despite stakeholders putting up a fight against it, the big question remains; what more should be done?
Dr Yvonne Kayiteshonga, the head of the mental health department at RBC, says the battle against drugs should not be for the government only. She says all citizens should engage because it is a concern for the whole community. She points out that journalists are one of the main groups of people that can be of great help towards defeating drug abuse,and this is by putting more effort in informing the general public about its dangers.
In addition, MoH officials say that they are working to establish laboratories that will help in testing different substances, especially foods and beverages, to make sure that there will not be narcotic substances contained in foods consumed in the country.
Paul Habineza, the youth mobilisation and programme officer at the National Youth Council (NYC), says the journey towards wiping out drug abuse in the country is long but possible if everyone plays a part in the fight.
Luke Karemangingo, the headmaster of Gahini Secondary School, says students themselves can be used as a weapon against drug abuse. He says this can be done by organising them in clubs, supporting them with what they may need and letting them reach out to their peers with anti-drug messages.
Sam Birondwa, Principal of Cornerstone Leadership Academy in Rwamagana, says more sensitisation is needed to break the “negative myths” that are common among young people compelling them to take drugs.
For instance, he says some people believe that they cannot perform well at work when they have not taken any narcotics. He says with sensitisation, this can be dealt with.
Youngsters share their views
Muchristo says that elders should create a friendly bond with the young so that the latter will feel free to tell them their problems and ask for advice instead of resorting to drugs.
Musa Shumbusho, a student at Adventist University of Central Africa, says religion is very important for a person to avoid drug abuse.
“I know some people who take drugs but I cannot join them because of my faith,” he says.
Frank Rubaduka, a student at University of Kigali, is the Development Director at Youth Impact Mission, a programme that reaches out to the youth teaching them about drug abuse. He says that drug abuse is connected with lack of enough extra-curricular activities at school to keep students occupied when they are not in class.
“You find that schools have not set up good programmes to keep the students occupied enough so that they will not escape school to do drugs,” he says.
He advises that schools should embrace more extracurricular activities as well as external mentors to help the children avoid drugs.
Police speaks out
Rwanda National Police says narcotic drug trafficking and abuse is still a priority in their daily patrolling activities. The crime is ranked among the top five and is considered as high impact crime like human trafficking, corruption, public funds embezzlement and gender-based violence.
Information from Police shows that in 2016, 3,559 cases of drug abuse and trafficking were registered. However, according to Theos Badege, the Police spokesperson, the trend is likely to decrease this year thanks to combined efforts of the general public, and many other stakeholders.
From the beginning of this year up to May, 1,032 cases have been registered indicating a fair decrease in the crime.
The age group which is mostly involved in drug abuse, according to Police, is that of between 18 and 30 years (constituting 71.66 per cent), followed by those above 30 years (27.22 per cent). Those below 18 years only constitute 1.1 per cent.
“There are no drugs produced in the country and therefore Police is focusing on efforts to prevent their entry mainly through the Eastern and Western parts of Rwanda,” Badege says.
Police says the large quantity of narcotic drugs have been smuggled from neighbouring countries like Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda through “porous borders” of Kirehe and Rubavu for cannabis, while Burera and Nyagatare are used for local brew known as kanyanga.
“The mostly trafficked drug is cannabis. We call for collective concerted efforts in fighting drug abuse and trafficking. Narcotic drugs are harmful to human life. In this regard, Rwanda National Police needs everyone to be involved in fighting illicit drugs,” Badege says.
He recommends several strategies for fighting illicit drugs. These include public awareness through campaigns, use of talk shows on radio and TV, use of community policing, use of anti-narcotic drugs club in schools, effective detection and investigations, reinforcement of anti-narcotic drug units, and, partnership with other countries.
YOUR VOICE: What should be done to fight drug abuse among the youth?
Isaac Ssozi aka Ivoleson Calabash, musician
Drug abuse is a dangerous vice, especially among the youth. The best way to combat it is to reach out to communities through music. We can make songs speaking against drug abuse and go out to communities and sing to them during different functions. Music is a good way of showing people the right path.
George Kabugule, evangelist
I think the media, especially radio and television, can help a lot in fighting drug abuse. Radio stations are able to reach the far ends of the country and sensitise people on the dangers of taking narcotics. Higher taxes should also be imposed on cigarettes and alcohol.
Jean Nepo Nizeyimana, resident of Nyanza Kicukiro
Organising the youth in cooperatives is a way of making them concentrate on developmental activities rather than being idle and engaging in drug use. This way, they work for not only their development, but also the entire nation. Youngsters on drugs are a very serious threat to security and development. I also think that schools should have more lessons talking about the dangers of narcotic drugs so that our children are enlightened.
Gloria Muteteri, resident of Remera
Fighting drug abuse is the responsibility of every citizen. For instance, citizens should not just look on as drugs are being smuggled into the country in their areas of residence, like those who live at the borders. Let everyone watch their neighbour to see that no one gets involved in such kind of mischief.