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Recovering Addicts Lead Effort to Kick Zanzibar’s Heroin Habit

A former addict straightens a flag outside a sober house in Zanzibar, an island ravaged by heroin imported from Asia, February 9, 2012.
A former addict straightens a flag outside a sober house in Zanzibar, an island ravaged by heroin imported from Asia, February 9, 2012.

The tiny Tanzanian island of Zanzibar is grappling with the problem of drug addiction. Many young men on the idyllic island use heroin trafficked from Asia. But some former addicts have joined together to help others kick the habit.

Sober living

On a hot Thursday afternoon, 20 men crowd into a bare room in a village outside Stone Town, Zanzibar to talk about what it is like to have one's life fall apart, and what it takes to restore it.

They are all addicted to heroin, a drug that has been ravaging Zanzibari society for years. And they have come to live here, in a place called a “sober house,” because they believe their fellow addicts hold the key to kicking the habit.

Thirty-year-old Raphael spent 12 years as an addict. He says for him and many other young people heroin was always the drug of choice. “Here in East Africa, the most common drug is heroin because it’s easy to get and a little bit cheaper,” he said.

Raphael is actually from Arusha, on mainland Tanzania. But, he says, once he decided to quit heroin he came to Zanzibar to enroll in the sober house program. He says it has finally made him believe he can conquer his addiction. “Right now I’m doing better, and I can focus on my life," he stated. "I do believe I can make it out of this.”

An alternative to rehab programs

There are nine sober houses in Zanzibar, eight for men and one for women. They were set up by Suleiman Mauly, a charismatic former addict who spent four years living on the streets. Now he has been clean for six years, thanks to an expensive rehabilitation program in Kenya. But Mauly says for most Zanzibaris, that kind of treatment is not an option.

“It cost around $2,000, the full package," Mauly explained. "Not many people can afford that in Zanzibar.”

The sober houses are cheaper, but not free - it costs nearly $100 a month to stay there, and most people who go through the program are supported by their families.

Twelve steps

Treatment is based on the idea that addiction is a public health problem, not a crime. Mauly says this idea is still novel in Tanzania.

“If someone finds out he’s got an addiction problem, they are just thinking how they can punish him instead of helping. Because addiction, it’s a disease," he said. "And addicts need treatment. But people, they hear that addicts are bad people and need punishment.”

The sober house program is innovative. Much of it is based on the international 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it has been adapted to include art therapy, yoga and even acupuncture. The men are taught carpentry as a way to make a living, and spend their spare time doing sports and meditation.

But one of the most revolutionary things about the sober houses, says Mauly, is that the addicts are in charge of nearly everything. “It’s a new method in Zanzibar. It’s a new phenomenon in East Africa, whereby drug addicts take responsibility to run the system. . Recovering addicts are in charge, from the guard, the kitchen, running sessions, everything,” he said.

This, he says, is crucial in building up recovering addicts’ belief in their own abilities. “For someone who is doing the 12-step program, and then you give him another responsibility, he feels high self-esteem because he’s not nothing. You are someone. You can do a lot of things. You can quit drugs," Mauly explained. "And you can learn how to earn money.”

High relapse

The acupuncture sessions are run by Kassim Nyuni, one of the sober house councilors and a former addict himself. He was trained in the technique by a volunteer from a Chinese medical school in Hawaii. He says although acupuncture is something completely foreign to Zanzibar, it has been very effective in treating addiction.

“It reduces tension, and it’s relaxing. It’s a kind of treatment that’s very effective for recovering addicts, because most addicts are getting very difficult to cope with their feelings - a lot of tension, anger, resentment, fear," Nyuni added. "So it helps.”

But Nyuni admits that the sober house’s program does not always work. He estimates that the relapse rate is around 60 percent.

Edwin, who has been in the sober house for five months, says that without the will to change, the sober house method cannot possibly help. “What worked for me, and is still working for me, is the will from inside," he explained. "If you’ve really hit the bottom and you want to change your life completely, the program will definitely work. But if you’ve got two minds about it, you are going to relapse.”

Raphael says that for him, relapse is not an option. His family is supporting him, and he says he now feels the need to repay their kindness. “I can see their love towards me. I dream to take my position in my family. My poppa, he’s getting old, and I am the only son in my family," he said. "I feel responsible to take my poppa’s place. That is how he makes me grow up.”

Mauly says that given the success of the sober houses in Zanzibar, he hopes to expand. His next goal, he says, is to send former addicts to work with heroin users in prisons.