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Vuzu parties fuel Bulawayo’s growing drug abuse crisis

Life has not been the same for Lisa Ndebele and Sibongiseni Ndlovu* since they attended a party for teenagers in one of Bulawayo’s high density suburbs.

Alcohol and recreational drugs such as marijuana or mbanje in local lingo flowed at the party, while the merrymaking was punctuated by sex orgies, where the youth exchanged partners.

Boys held contests to prove who could sleep with the highest  number of girls, most often without protection.

The two girls had been initiated to vuzu parties, a growing phenomenon that has left parents in Bulawayo scrambling for answers on how to stop the craze and end the endemic drug abuse among the youth that is synonymous with these gatherings.

Ndebele was introduced to a new drug by her friends, a whitish pill that immediately sent her to sleep.

When she woke up the following day, her memory was blurred and she had a severe headache.

“I started smoking roco, which costs about RTGS$30 per package and it makes me high for a short while after taking it,” Ndebele said.

“I now need a few more packs to keep me going but the challenge is that I do not have money to buy the stuff regularly. I am trying to quit, but it is very difficult.”

She said the drug  makes her schizophrenic and at times she hallucinates when in confined spaces.

Securing regular doses of roco is too expensive for the unemployed Ndebele, a situation which forces her to dabble in marijuana, a drug she says is cheaper and more accessible in the high density suburbs.

“I often smoke marijuana because I can no longer do without habit forming substances,” she said. “My friend still takes roco but I don’t know where she gets the money.

“The drug is taken by people from well-up families and this is why I prefer alcohol and mbanje.”

Ndlovu also had a similar story to tell, narrating how she was introduced to roco by a friend at a vuzu party.

Like Ndebele, she is struggling to shake-off the addiction.

In May, police rounded up 113 youths, among them 13 year-olds, who were attending one such vuzu party.

Among the items recovered from the venue were alcohol, sex enhancing pills and used condoms.

A snap survey around Bulawayo’s high density suburbs also established that intoxicating cough mixtures such as BronCleer (popularly known as Bronco) and Histalix D were being abused youths at an alarming rate.

Bronco, which contains the addictive opioid, codeine, is widely abused by rank marshals, touts and street kids, who buy it from known drug peddlers.

Wilson Box, the Zimbabwe Civil Organisation Drug Network executive director, said drug abuse was emerging as a serious mental health issue for young people in the 12 to 35 age group.

“According to the mental health department in Ministry of Health, 15% of all admitted cases (at public hospitals) are due to substance abuse,” he said.

“The most affected age groups are the youth and the most commonly used drugs are marijuana, cough mixtures like BronCleer and Diazepam pills and injections.”

Box’s organisation, which advocates for policies to stem drug abuse, said the advent of vuzu parties had exposed more young people to harmful recreational drugs, particularly in Bulawayo.

“In Bulawayo, the challenge (of drugs abuse) is acute judging by popularity of vuzu parties and the city’s close proximity to South Africa,” he said.

Million Memories Project Zimbabwe director, Trevor Chirimambowa said most young people were driven into drug abuse by lack of jobs and recreational facilities in the city.

Chirimambowa said their interactions with young people caught in the web of drug abuse showed that some had family problems.

“We notice that most young people are idle and this forces them to dabble in drugs,” he said.

“Other issues they face include family problems and a number of them have unresolved anger issues.

“There are a lot of issues that these young people have and some have parents in the diaspora, which means they have no one to give them guidance.”

Chirimambowa’s organisation is involved in the rehabilitation of young drug addicts in Bulawayo. Their programmes include imparting social skills and teaching the youth survival skills.

“We work with people aged between 12 and 24, but the most affected age group is those aged between 16 and 24,” he said.

Mthandazo Ndlovu, a Bulawayo based drug rehabilitation specialist, said most young patients admitted to the Ingutsheni Psychiatric Hospital in the city, were  being treated for ailments linked to drug abuse.

Ndlovu said the commonly abused drugs were marijuana, cough mixtures such as Codeine, BronCleer, crystal meth, cocaine and prescription drugs.

He has been running a number of programmes to help youths that have become addicted to drugs.

“We have been running boot camps for the youth at schools and we help them to stop using drugs,” Ndlovu said.

“I also run in-house programmes for people that need help to quit drugs and we are seeing parents bringing their kids so they can get help and we work closely with the ministries of Health and Education.”

He said research he carried out at schools showed that 80% of the children want to know more about drug rehabilitation programmes, which could be an indication that they had been exposed to drugs.

“I do weekly write ups on substance abuse and I receive at least 20 calls a week from people that want help,” Ndlovu added.

“So, if there is an open centre, where people could walk in, it would encourage a lot of people to seek help.”

He said the lack of proper rehabilitation facilities in the city had seen drug addicts flooding psychiatric hospitals after they fall ill.

However, Ndlovu said the way drug addiction was diagnosed in Zimbabwe forced addicts to shy away from seeking help.

“We need to come up with better ways of handling drug addicts because once people are sent to psychiatric hospitals they are stereotyped as mental patients,” he added.

Drug abuse is being fuelled by the proliferation of the internet and social media, Ndlovu claimed.

“The young people use the internet to search for drugs that get them high,” he said.

“They abuse prescription drugs for mental patients, which contain heroine.

“As a result, we have silent heroin users that take them through prescription drugs, which are sold for as little as 20 cents. One of the drugs is called mangema and it is very dangerous as it contains 75% heroin.”

Some health professionals employed at public hospitals and private pharmacies are selling prescription drugs to make extra cash, Ndlovu alleged.

“Children mostly use vitamin tablets that contain 85% coke, which they dissolve in water before drinking and these are found at most vuzu parties,” he said.

Ndlovu revealed that some drug peddlers have been supplying Bulawayo youths with a drug known as “pseudo cocaine”, which they sourced from South Africa’s Limpopo Province.

He said the drug was very dangerous and could lead to death.

“They mix pseudo cocaine with ephedrine, and embalming powder to produce a substance known as chigunduru and after consuming it, a person can lapse into a semi-comatose stage for two to three days,” Ndlovu said.

“This drug shuts down vital organs, including the heart and lungs, forcing the body to slowly build itself up over the days.

“The use of crystal meth is also on the rise, as children produce it in their school laboratories.

“There is a lot of ignorance when it comes to drug use and most people use them as a form of escapism, but these drugs are addictive.”  

Bulawayo police spokesperson, Inspector Abednico Ncube, said drug abuse, particularly among the youth, had become a cause for serious concern for law enforcement agents in the city.

He said the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) had observed that drug abuse among young people often peaked during school holidays and at major events such as the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF).

“ZRP is seized with the issue of disorderly conduct by young people and this conduct, according to our assessments, occur on the first Saturday of schools closing, in April on the last day of the ZITF and last Saturday before schools re-open,” Ncube said.

“We have carried out investigations to identify drug peddlers especially in Entumbane.

“We are carrying out campaigns in partnership with the media to caution young people about the dangers of drug abuse.”

He said their campaigns also targeted parents, saying it was not only children with parents in the diaspora that were abusing drugs.

“We are conducting investigations on drug channels from the source, to the supplier and to the user,” Ncube added.

“The Criminal Investigations Department’s drugs and narcotics department under crime watch makes arrests almost every day so the community should know that the police are doing something about removing drugs from the streets.”

Ncube said, for their campaigns to have a long term impact, the ZRP had roped in the Education ministry, which will give them access to schools.

“We will also work with the Bulawayo City Council to make youth centres more attractive to young people,” he said.

Meanwhile, the National Aids Council is worried about the sex orgies that have become synonymous with the vuzu parties.

NAC said young people in the city were exposing themselves to sexually transmitted infections such as HIV by engaging in unprotected sex.  

“We are worried about the vuzu parties that are resurfacing because children get high on drugs at these events and most of them are aware of the dangers posed by the activities,” NAC’s Luveve district coordinator, Priscilla Mac Isaac, said.

“These parties could be another source of HIV infections.

“Some of the youth have disclosed to us that they hold ‘sex races’ where they seek to outdo each other on the number of people they sleep with.

“They spin bottles to choose sex partners.

“Our fear is that most of them do not use protection, which means the chances of them getting an infection are very high.”

Isaac said it was important to impress on young people that sex is for the mature.

She said the lack of recreational facilities in Bulawayo was contributing to rising cases of drug abuse.

Zimbabwe has in the past used by foreigners as a transit point to bigger markets for hard drugs in the southern African region, Asia and Europe.

*not their real names

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