Zanzibar falls victim to international heroin trade

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.

On the tropical island, a shot of heroin costs as much as a bottle of beer. As a consequence, many Zanzibaris are addicted to what they call “unga” – flower in Swahili. So when the sun sets, the island reveals her less sunny side. In the old harbour on the coast, dealers and users meet. Used needles lie shattered in the white sand.

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.

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.

Local initiatives

The conservative Muslim community living on the island recently took matters in their own hands and formed the “polisi jamii”, or social police. This citizen-led initiative patrols the street at night and takes addicts off the streets by force and hands them over to the police. But treating addicts as criminals is not a real solution to the problem, thinks Suleyman Mouley, a 32-year-old former addict. “Addiction should be considered a social health problem, not a criminal act,” he says.

Suleyman is the founder of six Sober Houses in Zanzibar, alternative spaces where addicts can recover. The idea behind the Sober House is that addicts can kick their habit together, if you give them intense holistic counselling and enough daily chores to keep them occupied. The Sober Houses are all run by former addicts. They don’t use medication but rather talking, sports, carpentry and mediation.

Article sources: Voice of America and allafrica

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