By Sharon Atieno

Though school closures were imposed as a measure to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country, it has come with its own challenges including increased uptake of drugs among school going children. This has become a trend in estates across Nairobi.

Residents of Kariobangi South Estate and Korogocho in Nairobi say both teenage boys and girls smoke bhang and cigarettes. They also chew khat and use other easily available substances such as jet fuel (musii) and Chavez (a traditional Maasai drug placed between the lower lip and teeth).

Ms Catherine Jumba, a guidance counsellor with the Kenya Good Neighbours Organization in Korogocho area, estimates that drug abuse has gone up by 30% since the start of the pandemic.

Other institutions working to curb drug abuse have reported similar trends. “With schools being closed the number of people we attend to has increased. The whole of last year, we had 76 teenage boys. The year has not ended and yet we have 86 excluding children below 13 years and girls whom we have given referrals to other centres,” explains Ireneaus Murema of Napenda Kuishi Trust Rehabilitation Program.

When bars were closed due to the pandemic, the National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) had warned that children were being exposed to alcoholism at home as people resorted to drinking at home.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, NACADA found that alcohol and drug abuse is a major problem of concern among school-going children in Kenya.

In 2018, a national survey found that 20.2% of primary school pupils have ever used at least one drug or substance of abuse in their lifetime whereas 2016 data on secondary schools reveal that more than 1.8 million students had ever engaged in the same.

“Most of them tell us that they engage in drugs because they are bored at home. They are not going to school and they are not doing any work,” says Jumba. “They say that they will take drugs unless they find something to keep them busy.”

Apart from idleness, poverty and easy access to drugs and substances are major factors fueling drug abuse.

“Most parents have been working in these posh areas such as Pangani, Parklands etc. but during COVID-19, they were not able to go anywhere. Their jobs were terminated to avoid transmission of the virus. Sometimes the parent goes to look for food and comes back empty-handed,” Jumba notes, adding that the lack of food at home pushes the child to engage in drugs to forget his /her current situation.

Also, those that are older siblings in their families take up the responsibility of feeding the family. Thus, they end up scavenging at Dandora dumpsite, stealing or engaging in prostitution; and as a result engage in drugs in order to cope with the stresses of these jobs, she explains.

Some parents, she adds, left children at home and went upcountry since the pandemic began and have never come back. Thus children were forced to fend for themselves and due to negative influences ended up in drugs.

Both Jumba and Murema agree that the availability and affordability of drugs encourages the teenagers to take part in the vice.

“A roll of bhang goes for at least five shillings, jet fuel can go even for around twenty shillings, illicit brew like chang’aa can be measured even for ten shillings while drugs like yellow tabs (used for treating people with mental illness) can be purchased from the chemist at five or ten shillings,” Jumba says.

Though community drop in centres like the Kenya Good Neighbours offices and Napenda Kuishi Trust Rehabilitation Program, offer some form of reprieve for these teenagers and their families who are vulnerable, they are not able to deal with very serious cases of drug abuse disorders which might require treatment and psychiatric assistance.

And help may not be forthcoming since the pandemic has also taken a toll on the activities offered by these community drop in centres.

Jumba mentions that the pandemic has made guidance and counselling activities within the area challenging as some of the children want to be given food as incentive for them to come for the sessions yet the organization does not have adequate resources to cater for that.

Murema reveals that the high number of clients they have been receiving since schools closed is overwhelming as they are only four staff members.

The lack of food at home also affects attendance of these sessions as some teenagers skip sessions to do odd jobs in order to feed their families, Murema adds.