January 18, 2018
As homelessness and unemployment plague Zimbabwe, some turn to legal and illegal substances to numb the pain. Reports of violence and drug use on the streets are a rising concern for residents.
BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Lying down on the sidewalk of a downtown street, Munashe Dube, 22, pulls a bottle from beneath his worn-out blanket.
With bloodshot eyes, he stares at the brew that he has just mixed in the bottle before taking a sip. Around him, other bottles give away the recipe for his homemade concoction: cheap whiskey, cough syrup and milk.
Dube mixes this potion when he wants to get high, he says. He adds that if he can’t afford all the ingredients, he sniffs adhesive thinners, a liquid solvent often used in construction to soften tough adhesives.
Dube has been homeless for seven years. He spends his days wandering the streets of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, begging for money from passers-by.
Sometimes, he makes just enough money to buy the drugs, he says. But when money is tight, he goes without eating because he’d rather get high, he says.
“To me, doing drugs and substances has become a daily routine, and it keeps me stress-free from this miserable life that I am living,” he says.
Drug and substance abuse among Bulawayo’s homeless population is becoming increasingly common, as many, including Dube, are mixing their own drugs from legal ingredients. When intoxicated, some users become violent toward residents and business owners, forcing many to ask local government, law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations to intervene.
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has contributed to a surge in both homelessness and drug use, advocates say.
Linda Chinobva, GPJ Zimbabwe
Years of hyperinflation have crippled the job market. Unemployment estimates differ wildly, ranging from an estimate of 9.3 percent in the Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom, to an estimate of 95 percent from to the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, a local non-profit. A lack of unreliable data leaves national unemployment levels uncertain. As economic hardship lingers, some turn to addictive substances – whether consumption or sale – to cope with financial adversity and psychological distress.
Dube started using drugs after his mother passed away in 2010, he says. At the time, he was 15 and living in Beitbridge, a border town in southern Zimbabwe. He moved to Bulawayo hoping to find a job, but he didn’t.
Per guidelines outlined in Zimbabwe’s Social Welfare Assistance Act, homeless people may be eligible for government assistance. Depending on the level of financial hardship, among other factors, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare is legally required to provide assistance to applicants. But a source from the ministry, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job, says the ministry has not been able to provide social-welfare assistance to several homeless applicants in Bulawayo because there is a backlog of applicants nationwide.
In Zimbabwe, any person who possesses, manufactures, uses or sells illegal drugs, including marijuana and opium, faces a minimum prison sentence of five years and a maximum of 20 years. Despite legal repercussions, many of Bulawayo’s homeless residents continue to use drugs, some illegal and others often made from legal ingredients.
These ingredients typically include adhesives, alcohol and over-the-counter drugs that don’t require a prescription. When mixed and allowed time to ferment, the homemade drugs are often extremely potent and cheaper than some illegal substances, such as marijuana.
Fifty grams (1.7 ounces) of marijuana costs $5, while a 500-milliliter (17-ounce) bottle of alcohol costs $1, and two grams (less than an ounce) of adhesive thinners cost 50 cents.
Substance abuse can have both short- and long-term health effects, ranging from loss of appetite to increased blood pressure, stroke, cancer, psychosis and death. Aggression is another side effect. Alcohol, for example, can decrease anxiety but may also cause the user to engage in dangerous activities.
David Sigauke, a security guard who works at a shop in downtown Bulawayo close to where some homeless people sleep at night, says he has witnessed violent behavior by some street residents who are clearly intoxicated or high. At times, he has to interfere so they don’t hurt themselves, he says.
“I was punched by an intoxicated man because I refused to give him money when he asked for it,” says Thandolwenkosi Nkomo, who says she often passes homeless people on her way to and from work.
Bukhosi Tshalibe, a convenience-store owner, is also worried about the violence in the city. He regularly sells glue to customers but cannot determine what it will be used for, he says.
“As you can see, I am only a vendor selling this glue and I am not aware that the vagabonds use the glue to intoxicate themselves,” he says. “When they come here to buy, they say they want to mend people’s shoes as a way of making money, and I cannot question them.”
Nonprofit organizations and religious bodies say that to address violence among drug users on the streets of Bulawayo, it is necessary to provide constant support and resources that will help them become socially responsible.
Fred Tembo, a pastor and member of Alpha and Omega International Ministries, says the Christian organization gives food and clothes to the homeless people. He says the homeless people appreciate their assistance because they do not have many people that help them.
While some residents have suggested that the government remove drug users from the streets, Tembo says this quick-fix approach is not effective or sustainable for addicts. He says it is important to collaborate with community leaders, mental-health practitioners, local government and religious organizations to ensure that the rehabilitation of substance users in Bulawayo will be good for both residents and users.