The Tanzanian island of Zanzibar is popular among tourists seeking an exotic tropical vacation destination. But beyond the idyllic locales, the island is being ravaged by heroin from Asia. Drug usage is causing rifts within Zanzibari society, but the fight against it has also led to some creative local solutions.
Every year, thousands of foreign tourists are drawn to the white sand beaches and elegant old buildings of Zanzibar - a picturesque tropical island off the Tanzanian coast. But most are blissfully unaware of a problem ravaging the island’s local population that is caused by a different type of foreign import: heroin.
Abdulley, a tall, soft-spoken man with a scraggly beard, says he has been addicted to heroin for 18 years. He has managed to hold down a part-time job selling fish in Stone Town’s touristy night market. But, he says, it is the heroin that controls his life.
“In the morning, when I get up, I feel I won’t do anything without that stuff," he said. "If I get the stuff, I can be OK.”
Heroin is cheap in Stone Town. Abdullay says he can pick up one foil-wrapped dose on the street for around $3. Addicts call it “brown sugar.”
According to the Zanzibar AIDS Commission, the island lies on a major corridor for drugs trafficked across the Indian Ocean from Asia. This means that the supply is plentiful.
Abdullay explains how the drug makes it onto the streets of Stone Town.
“Some people they were coming with the stuff from the airplane," he said. "They usually go to Pakistan, and then they are taking this stuff into their body, taking lots of this into their stomachs to smuggle. These people, they normally supply to the person pushing this into the streets.”
Reliable statistics on heroin use in Zanzibar do not exist, though some reports put it as high as seven percent. Reychad Abdool of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, says that where official figures do exist, they can be misleadingly low.
“We believe that the extent of the drug problem, especially concerning heroin, is much more severe than we look at when we look at official statistics," said Abdool. "What we see in the region, especially along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania, is an increased frequency of seizures of heroin.”
Abdool says most of the heroin shipped through East Africa is destined for Europe and North America. But quite a lot makes its way onto the local market as well. This, he says, has led to an increase in intravenous drug use across the continent.
“We know for a fact that heroin is being used in at least 30 countries in Africa," he added. "We also know for a fact that the number of countries reporting injecting drug use, especially of heroin, is also increasing in Africa. So these are worrying trends.”
Risk of HIV
With heroin use comes the risk of HIV. According to the UNODC, HIV rates among intravenous drug users in Zanzibar are thought to be 20 to 30 times that of the rest of the population.
Umukulthum Ansell, with the local NGO Zayadesa, explains that they work with addicts to try to keep them from sharing dirty needles.
“We don’t give them syringes," said Ansell. "But if they can’t afford to buy syringes and are sharing, at least we supply them with clean cotton wool and bleach. At least we try to teach them how to clean the needles.”
But the heroin trade is causing other problems as well. In Zanzibar, the local community is suffering the consequences as many of the island’s young men, unable to find jobs, fall into addiction.
Suleiman Mauly, an ex-addict who now runs a network of so-called sober houses in Zanzibar - voluntary live-in facilities run by addicts themselves to help one another recover, says the drug problem affects the local economy.
“There are a lot of problems in the families in Zanzibar because of the drug addicts," he said. "And most of the people who use drugs are youth, so it affects the economic system. In one way or another, everyone has to contribute to the money that drug addicts use to get drugs. When we use drugs we beg for money, we steal money, we damage things.”
Some members of the local community, most of whom are conservative Muslims, are taking the initiative to tackle the heroin problem plaguing their society. They have formed a group called "polisi jamii," or “community police,” that collaborates with Zanzibari police to rid the streets of drug users.
Mauly says their methods are controversial, and not always productive.
“They whip and beat addicts. The community, they think they do something good because they take away addicts from the street," he said. "But they are not solving the problem because they push them away from the street, so when they come back they want revenge.”
Abdullay says the only reason he has not been arrested is that no one has actually caught him using heroin.
“Why is it like this? The people doing this business, they will destroy our future generation," said Abdullay. "I myself have been destroyed. I get feelings myself of what it will be for the next generation if the government is not taking care of these people who are doing this business. I get feelings. I cry, myself.”
He says the government needs to crack down on the dealers, for the sake of the island’s future.