MOMBASA, KENYA - White sands, turquoise waters, and the sails of traditional dhow boats out on the horizon; little wonder tourism is the primary industry in Kenya’s scenic Coast Province. But there is a dark side to the laid-back shorelife. Heroin use has been on the rise at the coast as traffickers move more of the drug through East Africa on its way to Europe.
Farah Abubakar Hajji is wearing red, tropical swim shorts, a powder-blue sleeveless sports jersey and flip-flops. He looks like any other 18-year-old around here, except for one difference.
Farah has scars all over his arms and legs from injecting heroin. He started when he was 14. The circular scars are from “misses,” which means he missed the vein and hit an artery or muscle instead. The smaller dots on his arms and legs tell the story of all the other times.
“I decided to inject because my father left and I remained with a single parent, so I had a lot of stress and I decided to inject. So when I inject, I feel very good. My mother is always shouting but when I inject, I feel it’s okay for me,” he said.
I meet Farah at Malindi's Omari Project, which runs outreach and rehab programs to help local drug users.
Farah tells me he left school around the age of 12, and he would sell things to tourists on the beach.
Malindi, I should mention, is beautiful. It has a dramatic coastline, where rocks and ocean spray stand out against the multi-toned blue of the sky and water.
It’s a tourist town. And that means that during the low season, which it was when I visited, money is hard to find.
And even the high season hasn’t been so high lately. Concern over attacks by al-Shabab prompted Western countries to issue travel warnings about the coast. The majority of those advisories were lifted last year, but tourists are still relatively few.
People here are hustling to sell hotel and safari bookings, boat trips at sunset, crab dinners on the Mida creek, everything.
The most desperate sellers are men locally called "beach boys." They're disheveled and down on their luck, pushing necklaces and Masai beads by appealing to your guilt rather than your preferences. “Please madam, I have not eaten today. Just buy one.”
Farah hustles around town, carrying bags or other items for people. Basically, enough money for his heroin, and to support his girlfriend and her baby. His girlfriend has a drug habit, too, by the way.
I meet Fatma Jeneby in nearby Mombasa. She is the project coordinator for clinical activities of the harm reduction program at the Muslim Education and Welfare Association, called MEWA.
“We’ve seen there is a total change in trend of heroin users, at the age of 15 to 24 years, so this is very alarming to us, because if we are getting drug users at the age of 15 years, meaning that at the age of 10 years, they’ve already started using other drugs so heroin is just a progression of whatever has been there before,” said Jeneby.
MEWA runs rehab support groups at the coast.
Very few people start out using heroin. Here at the coast, they usually try tobacco, marijuana -- called bhang — or rohypnol, a pill that turns your tongue blue and is better known in some places as the ‘date rape drug’ -- or khat, also known here as miraa. And they are also drinking chang’aa, the local homemade, unregulated, alcohol - think ‘moonshine'.
Many times, they’re taking a combination of these. And now, more people are chewing mogoka leaves, another stimulant.
“Mogoka is a new kind of a species for the miraa, and it’s the one which is causing very, very [much] havoc within the community. Because young children are able to acquire this drug at a much cheaper rate, at around 50 shillings,” said Jeneby.
Fifty Kenyan shillings is about 50 U.S. cents, and the drugs are everywhere.
There are no recent counts of the number of drug users on the coast. The last survey, in 2010, said around 10,000 people inject drugs here. There are more who smoke heroin.
I go to speak with Hassan Musa, who is the regional manager of the Kenya Red Cross for the coast.
“If it hasn’t affected you because this person is your son, it has affected you because he is your neighbor. He’ll come and steal to you. He’ll come to steal to your house, which means it affects you. So you’re in your house but you’re worried. You don’t want to leave your house because you know, my neighbor will come and steal. So it has affected you. So in one way or another, whether we like it or not, it has affected everyone in Coast Province, everyone,” said Musa.
In Malindi, I go with two Omari outreach workers to visit the drug dens.
This area has the jarringly cheerful name of Seabreeze.
A group of guys, and a few women, who all appear to be around 25 or 30, are in an open air garage of sorts, with bed rolls piled haphazard in the corner.
And I run into Farah again.
We watch as he shoots up.
“Life is not easy for me, because now, I feel I’ve messed up my life but I don’t know the way out. I just try to find the way out, and mother is very poor. My sister has died, and my mother left with the five children. So there is poverty at home. I’m confused, but I’m not okay with the life I live,” said Farah.
Farah takes the needle out of his arm. His head slumps over as the drug makes its way through his body. He’s just a kid. His girlfriend watches, near a wall with graffiti saying “No Drugs Here.” She lights up a joint. She says there’s no heroin in it, but I’m not completely sure.
Other users mill around. One asks me if I am a doctor. Two others eye my camera bag. Several show me their sachets of heroin, or ‘sachettes,’ as they are known here. A few others hold out the clean needle and syringe kits they get from the Omari Project to prevent them from sharing needles, the fastest way to contract HIV. Several tell me, they'll be starting methadone treatment within the next week, or so. To me, their voices seem tinted with forced conviction.
But the party comes to an unceremonious end as word of a police raid filters in. Farah and his girlfriend run off. The outreach workers and I head back to the office.
I will run into Farah one more time, the next day when I visit the local hospital to learn more about methadone treatment, which helps wean heroin users off the drug. Farah had tried the program before, but dropped out. So he is back to be “re-inducted.”
There are resources emerging at the coast for drug users who want to get clean, but it’s a long hard road, usually with many detours.
Listen to Jill Craig’s full report about heroin use at Kenya’s coast -- including what is driving it and what people in the community are trying to do about it -- in this podcast available at voanews.com.