â€œWHEN you come to see me on Thursday, bring some cigarettes and weed for me please,â€ reads a text message from Mark a student of a Luwero boarding school. Mark, a son of a legislator in a neighbouring country, is sending the message to a friend of his who is about to join university. Weed is a word that teenagers use to refer to marijuana.
Nineteen-year-old Mary (not real name), had more than a brush with drug use while in Oâ€™level between 2003 and 2005.
â€œI started experimenting with drugs somewhere in S.2 during holidays. A group of Sudanese friends introduced me to cocaine. We used to take whatever we came across,â€ Mary recalls. After sometime, she started taking the drugs to school. The friends did not sell them to her but asked her to sell to others. â€œThey would even visit me at school and bring some.â€ Over time, Mary introduced other students to the habit.
One of those recruits, Judith, happened to be asthmatic. â€œThe drugs used to affect her badly. She would get bad asthma attacks. It made me feel bad but my other friends were hardcore. They just encouraged her.â€
One day during the holidays, Judith took the drugs and got a fatal attack. For a full minute, Mary cannot speak. Sighing heavily she continues in a voice so shaky that she is barely audible. â€œHer parents called us and told us that she was sick and admitted to hospital. We all knew why she was sick. We went to see her. A few days later, she died.
That was the turning point for me. I decided to quit that day. I felt so guilty. God this is so difficult â€¦â€ Mary trails off.
She was able to quit over a period of six months but today, two years later, she still breaks down while narrating the experience. â€œMany of my friends had abortions. Many times they slept with complete strangers after using drugs,â€ Mary recounts.
Tom (not real name), a 19-year-old who just completed his S.6 vacation is still battling a drug problem that he picked up seven years ago.
â€œWe have a serious drug use problem in schools but it is a hidden habit. School administrators will tell you it is not there but when you interact with the students, they open up and tell you that a number of their colleagues are using drugs,â€ says Rogers Mutaawe, the programme officer at Uganda Youth Development Link.
â€œWe have a very serious drug problem especially with young people. Most of the people we arrest for drug use are youths,â€ Robert Ojaba, the deputy head of the CIDâ€™s anti-narcotics unit, confirms.
Interacting with teenagers in and around Kampala, Saturday Vision got many testimonies of drug use in schools especially in the upmarket private schools and in some leading government schools.
â€œThere is a student in my former school who is well known for being a drug dealer. His source throws the drugs over the fence and he distributes them in school,â€ says an S.6 vacist who was a prefect at a boarding school in Kibuli.
According to Mutaawe, Ugandan students mostly abuse marijuana (cannabis) and alcohol. â€œWaragi packed in sachets is easy for them to conceal, it is cheap and readily available,â€he explains. Possession and use of marijuana is growing in Uganda.
In 2006, the Police arrested 913 people in connection with marijuana. The figure went up to 1,138 in 2007 according to the statistics available from the anti narcotics unit.
Ojaba says most of the people arrested were drug users aged between 15 and 35 years. In 2006, 49 acres of marijuana plantations were destroyed, while 80 acres were destroyed last year alone. Harder drugs like cocaine and heroine are not as readily available, although students said some foreign students use them.
Students also revealed that kuber is a widely abused substance in schools. To ingest the drug discreetly, students normally place the sachet below their tongues.
In some of the schools, guards, cooks and other staff members bring the drugs into the school and sell them to the students. A roll of opium on average costs sh1,000 and one can get fresh leaves of marijuana for as little as sh200.
In one Entebbe school, students buy drugs from fishermen, according to a former student. Students also escape from school to buy the drugs or ask visiting friends to bring them in.
â€œWhere you have day scholars as well as boarders, the day scholars bring the drugs in. You cannot check every day scholarâ€™s bag everyday,â€ Mutaawe says.
Ironically, students take the drugs mostly during the day, because security is tight at night.
Outside school, users get the drugs from both upmarket and shoestring hang outs. â€œMen with the stuff hang around popular hang outs. You just go over and ask one of them if they have the â€˜other stuffâ€™. If you speak Swahili, the transaction will be much easier,â€ one regular buyer reveals. He says in the upmarket hangouts, one often needs to be introduced to the dealer by an old user. But in areas like Bwaise, locals sell the drugs with little discretion.
A teenager in Bugolobi reveals another trick. â€œYou stand at the taxi stage with a sh1,000 note dangling from your fingers. Someone will notice, approach you from behind, press the drugs into your palm and take the note.
Why students are abusing drugs
The pressure to excel is one of the foremost reasons why students have turned to drugs according to Mutaawe. â€œDuring our intervention programmes, users say the drugs help them stay awake for hours so they can read long into the night. You know everyone these days wants their name in the papers,â€ Mutaawe explains.
He also believes that the lack of co-curricular programmes contributes to drug problem. â€œLook at all these city schools housed in storeyed building without even a playground for the students to release stress or kill boredom by playing! That is why they are resorting to drugs.â€
On the other hand, student users, school administrators and police officers blame it on peer pressure. â€œOne will see how drugs give another the courage to do extraordinary things like going to discos. He too would like to do these things without fear so he starts using the drugs,â€ Ojaba explains.
The laxity of the law on offenders is also to blame. â€œThe National Drug Possession and Abuse act is the mildest law we have in this country. It sets no minimum fine for offenders and a maximum fine of sh1m. Even this is at the discretion of the magistrate. Many times offenders just go off with a caution,â€ Ojaba laments.
It is also worth noting that many drugs that students tend to abuse are not even classified as illegal by the law or the law allows room for oversights.
Kuber is sold over supermarket counters, a young person in Uganda is never asked to prove his age before buying alcohol from any outlet, khat, although a brain stimulant is not illegal and there is no age limit on smoking.
Drug abuse rampant in schools