It wasn’t until Albert Chauka*, 29, tried to sell the last of his valuable assets – a bed and blankets – that he finally opened his eyes to the reality that the drug he puffed with his friends had become a dangerous vice.
On a blistering summer morning in Epworth’s Free Magada, a township about 13km outside central Harare, Zimbabwe, Chauka shared his story - a painful tale of addiction to Crystal Meth - with me.
Wearing an infectious smile, he welcomed me into his safe haven - a grimy room detached from the main house.
Smelly cigarette butts were untidily scattered on one side of the room while on the other side was a bed suspended on bricks and on top sat worn-out blankets.
Beneath his seemingly cheery exterior was a layered story of depression, despair, sleepless nights, and hallucinations.
The 29-year-old was already clad in black clothing, a symbol that he is mourning his former self - the young sober man who was not drowned in this dangerous vice.
Once we were seated - he admitted that he had already sold most of his possessions, including a television set he stole from his parents just so he could get a fix.
His parents, devastated by the betrayal, kicked him out of the main house after they realised his stealing had become a habit. Stealing from his parents is a decision he said he regretted but at the time of the incident he was willing to risk everything for another joint.
Albert reassured me at different points of our interview that he hadn't always been like this. He was once a sober man working as a shop attendant in downtown Harare. He once had friends and the prospect of a love life.
It was, however, during lockdown after the virus pandemic plunged hundreds of young people into a state of unemployment that he - like many others - became gripped by the rise of Crystal Meth that has ravaged teenagers living in townships.
South Africa is already known to be home to the largest and most established meth consumption market in East and southern Africa but it appears over the course of the pandemic - Zimbabwe is now suffering its own crisis.
Explaining how he spent the better part of his formative years smoking just cannabis and later crystal meth, Albert said he was initiated into the world of drugs shortly after he gained admission into University four-years ago.
“Just like many other innocent and depressed youths, I was initiated into it by some of my course mates. I am a product of a dysfunctional family who always felt depressed every time I returned home from college. My parents were always picking quarrels over one domestic issue or the other,” he said.
He claimed that his "miserable mood" had caught the attention of some peers who allegedly introduced him to the life-threatening drugs to cheer him up.
“That is how I got hooked. My family and siblings knew something was wrong with me. But I couldn't bring myself to tell them what I was passing through for fear of stigma."
The idea of gang members or drug peddlers preying on young and often vulnerable people is not new.
It Only Takes A Light Bulb
Moments after speaking about his past and how he landed where he is now - he told me that his heart had started racing, adding that with every beat, his body begged for relief.
“Cravings make me weak and I usually feel cramps all over my body – I sometimes even feel like vomiting,” he said, adding that he was in desperate need of US$5 which could buy him almost a gram of Meth.
Known scientifically as Methamphetamine - and gukamakafela, mutoriro, buwe or dombo on the streets of Epworth, Zimbabwe - the drug is a highly addictive stimulant used for its euphoric effects.
Despite the prohibitive costs of US$5 to US$12 many addicts like Albert find a way to fund their appetite by selling their possessions, while others are driven to steal.
Quite often their actions lead them to get disowned from their families or worse - jail.
Just moments into our discussion - he took an almost worn-out US$2 dollar and shoved it in his pocket before stealthily going outside to what appeared to be a drug peddler on the other side of the street just adjacent to his house.
I watched - while seated in the room - as they made their transaction.
Drugs in this locale are cheaper compared to those sold in leafy suburbs.
In this area peddlers sell them cheap to push more volumes for quick returns. It's easy money to them.
Moments later, Albert walked back in with a smirk on his face holding a fluorescent bulb, shaped like a smoking pipe ‘chikwepa’ as it is called in vernacular Shona, together with a cigarette lighter.
He gently applied heat on the curved tube, a process known as recrystallizing of the glass.
The 29-year-old demonstrated how he uses a simple light bulb to get a fix. Soon a cloud like smoke filled the room and it reeked of a misty vapour from the burning substance.
“My pain has gone, no more sweating and my heart rate has dropped - all is well. [But] life is now an agonizing cycle: wake up, find a way to get money, get high, repeat. I no longer have aspirations."
“[But] there is reduced anxiety, euphoria, pain relief, and a host of other good feelings [when taking the drug]," he added.
Although the drug has been used in the country for years, its use has grown in the townships as the economic crisis grips the country, leaving fewer job prospects for the younger population.
Its been widely reported that Zimbabwe has a nearly 90 per cent unemployment rate, with young people worst affected.
Asked how the pandemic impacted his life he said losing his job was a blow that led him down a spiral path.
“That was actually my first job since I left school and the little I was getting was sustaining me in many ways - now I have to look for money everywhere even if it means selling my shoes."
On the subject of rehabilitation, he added: “While I am regretting ever getting into drugs, I wish I had the money to go for rehab."
But the few rehabilitation centres dotted across the country are expensive - costing on average $ US 1 000 per month, a figure beyond the reach of Chauka and many other Zimbabweans in need of these services.
Experts have already warned the Zimbabwean government that the lack of public rehabilitation centres available for working class communities will worsen drug-induced mental health issues in the country.
To deal with the drug abuse menace, Zimbabwe has since set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Tackling Substance Abuse Menace among the Youths.
But lack of speed in robust action and accessibility could mean young people like Chauka and his friend Ruramai Gadzikwa, 26, could continue to relapse.
A spokesperson from Mandipa Hope Rehabilitation Centre, Ms Carol Mashingaidze Tapfumaneyi said rehabilitation is expensive because Zimbabwe has few trained psychiatrists who can deal with such cases.
This is part one of a series looking into the drug scene in southern Africa
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