In a small single-roomed shop, Ishak Kalumba is busy repairing a phone. His white sleeveless vest, which exposes sizeable biceps, and baggy trouser with six pockets, speak of his youth.
The dark patches on his face are scars of violent beatings — a bitter memory of his previous life as a street child.
As he works his way through the tiny parts with ease, he muses over how he used to snatch phones. Then, he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, which he always bought from various places without restriction, despite being a minor.
“That was then. Now I am concentrating on leading a clean life free from pick-pocketing, alcohol and drugs,” the 24-year old says in reference to his seven-year street life.
Life on the Streets
Kalumba’s journey to street life began at the age of 10, when he started taking drugs. A year later, he took to the streets.
“I felt out of place and the best alternative was to hit the streets where I would be my own boss,” he recalls.
But sleeping on the streets was more difficult than he had thought. Being near a wetland, Kalerwe, a Kampala suburb, was very cold at night, especially when it rained. At night, they would go into the market and scavenge for torn paper boxes to sleep on and also cover themselves with.
They still were not warm enough, so to keep away the cold, he started taking alcohol in addition to marijuana and mairungi (khat).
With that combination, Kalumba was high most of the time. He lived in his own world. With the death of conscience, he joined a gang of street kids that terrorised Kalerwe day and night. Their duty was to steal and sell stolen items. They never saved any money. Tomorrow was supposed to take care of itself, so all the money was used to buy alcohol and drugs.
To spare money for drugs and alcohol, they limited themselves to cheap foods such as chapatti and soup (bbiri supu), chapatti and beans (kikomando) or chapatti egg roll (rolex).
Being permanently high gave him the courage to steal without fear. He concentrated on stealing phones. On average, he stole one phone a day for five years. A year has 365 days, meaning he could have stolen more than 1800 phones, which he sold at a give-away price, often as low as sh20,000.
He says it is phone theft that earned him the most beatings, about twice a month.
“Most times my friends saved me. They would either fight those who were beating me up or distract them so I could escape,” he recalls.
At times he was beaten when he was high and only felt the pain later after he got sober. He recalls a beating that nearly ended his life.
“I had just stolen a phone when its owner shouted, ‘thief!’ People surrounded me and beat me up severely. They even brought tyres to burn me, but my friends came to my rescue. I could not understand what was going on as they carried me to safety and later took me for medical treatment,” he says.
At the hospital, he lied that he had been attacked by thieves. But even those beatings did not reform him.
The transformation from snatcher to phone repairer started one afternoon with someone whose pocket he was about to pick but ended up becoming friends with. It turned out the person was a community worker with the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL).
“He used so many tricks to lure me off the streets. At first, he taught me how to ride a bicycle and this is what I loved the most. After that, he took me to their centre and excited me by taking me to a lecture where they were teaching computer and telephone repair,” Kalumba recalls.
Kalumba was fascinated by the inner workings of the gadgets that he often stole. “I picked interest and he told me that I could also learn how to repair phones if I dedicated my time to attending classes,” he says.
Kalumba says although nobody judged him for taking drugs and alcohol, he soon found these habits out of place as he settled for training. He observed that the people around him were not taking alcohol and drugs. Some of them told him they were once in his situation.
“As time went on, I found myself wanting to stop taking alcohol and drugs. The counsellor helped me find a new life. He kept me busy at the times I would have smoked,” he says.
As his newfound life took shape, Kalumba went back to the streets to convert his former colleagues. “I am happy that most of them have been able leave the streets and start new lives like me,” he says.
A new life
Kalumba now has a certificate in electronic engineering from Masoli Rehabilitation Centre, run by UYDEL. He says he earns an average of sh30,000 a day and although this is lower than what he used to earn from stealing, he is happier because it comes without beatings and he is able to save. He now has a home, with a wife and a child and is looking forward to building a great family.
“I earn my money without beatings and hustling. I have freedom at heart. I now think more of developing my life,” he says.
Despite his new-found happiness, he regrets his past and would not wish it on anyone.
“It was a time wasted. I did so many things that I regret, but I cannot change the past. I have to focus on the future,” he says. “It was a hard life.”
Teen time bomb
Like Kalumba, many teenagers are suffering the effects of alcohol. Referring to various reports of increasing alcohol consumption among the youth, Rogers Kasirye, the director of UYDEL, says Uganda is sitting on a time bomb.
“They may not feel it at the beginning, but it can become an addiction during their late teenage. That is why we are fighting to mitigate the consequences before it goes out of hand,” says Kasirye.
In a 2013 research by UYDEL, 40% of 1,134 youths interviewed said they consumed alcohol twice a week. Of these, over 70% took sachets, the cheapest and most available form of alcohol in Kampala. About 70% said they were lured into sexual encounters after consuming alcohol and 80% of them did not use a condom.
“When we say the situation is pathetic, we are not just making up things,” says Kasirye.
“Parents are spending more time looking for money, forgetting the cardinal value that without parental guidance, their families are being destroyed. Most of the youth want to experiment and it is sad the experimenting might lead to so many repercussions,” he adds.
According to Isaac Ssebagala, one of the counsellors who has specialised in counselling students who use drugs, it is alarming how the cases have shot up, from less than 50 just three years ago to over 200 last year. And this is only at UYDEL without including those at other organisations in Kampala.
“Youth buy alcohol off the streets or in supermarkets where they are rarely asked for identification. Even at local shops, children can buy alcohol and the community does not care,” says Ssebagala.
He says it is worse in some communities where they give new-born babies alcohol as an initiation ceremony.
Dr. Nazarious Mbona Tumwesigye of the Makerere School of Public Health estimates that about four million youth across the country consume alcohol. He attributes this to idleness.
“They believe the only way to make themselves active is by drinking. They do not want to take part in activities like Church services or sports, which is a better way to spend their time,” says Tumwesigye.
Tumwesigye explains that every sip of alcohol has the effect of making you want to take more and the youth do not have the mode and mechanism of controlling this excitement. He says although some people claim that going to a pub has social benefits, this is only for people who can control their alcohol consumption habits.
“Excess alcohol damages the liver and affects the brain leading to familiar signs of drunkenness such as slurred speech, difficulty in walking, memory lapses, impulsive behaviour and poor judgement. It may also affect the heart, leading to high blood pressure. Diabetes can also result from excessive alcohol consumption,” Tumwesigye cautions.
Dr. David Basangwa, a psychiatrist at Butabika Mental Hospital, says 20% of mental patients admitted to the hospital are a result of excessive alcohol intake over a period of time. It has other effects such as dropping out of school, accidents, reduced productivity at work and sexual dysfunction.
Need to break the chain
The fact is that alcohol appears trendy and cool. Rogers Mutaawe, the secretary general of the Uganda Alcohol Policy Alliance (UAPA), says classy alcohol adverts give young people the wrong picture.
“Adverts show couples being cosy and enjoying life and the youth fall for it. They do not warn them on the dangers,” adds Mutaawe.
The fact that alcohol is cheap as you can get a sachet at only sh200, even on the street, means it is easily accessible to the youth.
“We are advocating for minimum standards of the quantity and the prices they should be sold at. This will help address the vice as we look for other ways of dealing with the problem,” says Mutawe.
Uganda is a signatory to article 33 of the United Nations Convention on children’s rights, which calls for the protection of children from all forms of drugs, but lack of domestic laws to this effect has made it difficult to regulate alcohol consumption.
The 2007 Narcotic Substances Bill, which will also take on alcohol issues, has been lying in Parliament for seven years.
Even the few laws that are in place, are not being implemented.
“There are existing laws, but the different local governments are supposed to domesticate them and ensure that they are enforced,” says Beatrice Ayikoru, a senior official at the gender ministry.
Yet prevention is better than cure. In extreme cases, treating a drug and alcohol addict can cost as much as sh70,000 per day, and the treatment may last three months.
It is from this that Dr. Tumwesigye advocates for keeping youth busy in apprenticeship where they can learn things like craft making, which will turn them into job creators.
“This business of waiting for white collar jobs should stop. If we cannot volunteer at work shops to learn, then we need to get active in another way, like gardening, sports or going to churches for fellowship,” says Tumwesigye.
Mutaawe is of the view that youth addicts who commit crime should be subjected to a special justice system that provides for rehabilitation.
“We need special courts and special punishments that will make these people change and become productive,” he says.
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