By Lydia Namubiru
and Joseph Kariuki
OSCAR (not real name) started drinking at the age of 15 at Ntare School. Today, at 24, he has been admitted twice into rehabilitation centres and is still battling his addiction to alcohol. His dark journey began as a juvenile sneaking out of school to go to a disco. â€œWe decided to have a drink first,â€ he remembers. A friend bought him his first drink â€“ a Carlsberg beer. Â He drank it and, â€œFor the first time, I felt that my skin fit,â€ he said.
A year later, drinking had become a pattern. He drank every weekend during his Senior Four vacation. His parents noticed it but did not take it seriously. â€œBesides other people in the family drink,â€ he reasoned.
By the time he joined S.5, he was drinking daily. Ironically, he did not see this as a problem. â€œI felt I could stop whenever I wanted,â€ he said. He only started to worry about it when he suffered a memory lapse one day during his Senior Six vacation. â€œI did not remember what had happened or how I had got home.â€
His parents took him to Serenity Rehabilitation Centre in Nsambya, Kampala. â€œI joined university and there the party began,â€ he recalled. Alas, it was a party that drove him into a black hole a year later. â€œI blacked out (fainted) in church one day. That was my wake up call,â€ Oscar said.
His parents took him to Victory Rehabilitation Centre in bweyogerere where he spent three months. He has been sober two months but admits that it is a struggle. â€œAll I can tell you is that today I will not drink; I take it one day at a time,â€ he confessed.
Oscar is just one of many youth grappling with alcoholism. Worse still, children as young as 12 are boozing to the extent that they are admitted to mental health facilities for alcoholism, according to records at Butabika National Mental Referral Hospital.
â€œWhen you see a 12-year-old coming into hospital for alcoholism, you know they started drinking a few years back,â€ says Dr. David Basangwa, a psychiatrist in Butabika.
Basangwa says about 10-20 children below 18 years old are treated at the alcohol unit of Butabika, annually. This is roughly 10% of the patients served by the unit. However, these children are a small fraction of the child alcoholics out there.
Even in primary schools, teachers are reporting alcohol abuse as a major problem. At a January 27thÂ meeting in Kitante for primary school headteachers, the deputy headteacher of Nakivubo Settlement Primary School specified alcohol and drug abuse among pupils as one of the schoolâ€™s major challenges.
BOOZE AT SCHOOL
Some 71% of the students in Kampala and Wakiso say alcohol use exists in their schools, according to a 2003 study by the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL). Social workers at the NGO say students especially day scholars buy alcohol and smuggle it into school for sale. UYDEL, a youth NGO, says it has counselled more than 60 students expelled from school over alcohol abuse in the last three years. Again, those that seek help are only a minority of young alcohol drinkers.
Basangwa says alcoholism is especially prevalent among children from dysfunctional families, IDPs and those who live on the streets. However, journalists have observed that even well-off parents are increasingly allowing their children to experiment with alcohol, especially at social functions.
â€œThe earlier one starts to drink, the more difficult it is to treat them,â€ Basangwa says. He further explains that alcohol consumption interferes with the development of the child. Unfortunately only a small fraction get treatment. â€œThis is specialised treatment that many people cannot access especially in the rural areas,â€ Dr. Basangwa told Saturday Vision.
Alcoholism among young people is seen as a major contributing factor to premarital and high risk sex among young people. The 51.5% majority of 15-24 year olds that admitted to having had sex in the year preceding the 2006 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, said either they were drunk or their partners were at the time of intercourse.
Some 36.2% of girls/women between the ages of 15 and 24 said either they were drunk or their partners were when they had sex, while 15.3% of boys/men in the same age group reported the same circumstances at their time of intercourse. Sex that occurs when both or one of the partners is drunk is considered high-risk sex since drunkenness impairs judgement and compromises power relations between the partners. Â
Uganda has no policy to control access to alcohol. Consequently, alcohol is increasingly being marketed among young people.
â€œThe sachets are among the driving factor in alcohol abuse because young people can access spirits in the streets,â€ said Dr. Basangwa.Â He adds that children are carrying waragi sachets to class, hide them between books and sip the drinks when teachers go out.
â€œWe need a policy if we have to arrest alcoholism, we need to address issues of advertising and points of sale,â€ said Dr. Basangwa.
In neighbouring Kenya, the government has come down hard on alcohol brewers and distributors. For instance, any shop caught selling alcohol to an underage person loses its trading license. The National Breweries Association of Kenya compels all brewers not to advertise on radio or TV before 8:30pm.
In Uganda, even breweries insiders admit the industry is too unregulated. â€œHere, you find alcohol being sold in the same shop as flour and milk. That does not happen in Kenya. In Uganda, you find people sitting outside a supermarket drinking. Again, there is nothing like that in Kenya. I think that (unregulated sale points) is what makes beer accessible to minors,â€ says one brewery source.
Marketers are also targeting young people. For instance, beer marketers refer to their highest potent brands like Pilsner and Nile Special as â€˜recruiting brandsâ€™. Because of their high alcohol content, youth can afford to get drunk at relatively pocket friendly prices and they are â€˜recruitedâ€™.
However, the alcohol industry feels too much blame is heaped on them. â€œWhen you see a child holding an alcohol package or intoxicated, they got it from an adult. It is our responsibility as Ugandans not to give and sell alcohol to underage persons,â€ argues Marion Muyobo the chairperson of the Uganda Alcohol Industry Association. She further says the industry is doing its part to encourage responsibility in the consumption of alcohol by running campaigns on responsible drinking in the media and on billboards. She promises that the industry association is launching another campaign called WE ID where they will work with bars to stop the sale of alcohol to minors.
Muyobo acknowledged that production and sale of waragi in sachets has been banned in Kenya. â€œIf the government bans them here, we shall comply,â€ she says.