Fractious religious groups in this East African nation are uniting to tackle alcohol and drug abuse, amid concerns the substances could wipe out a cross section of the younger generation.
From Sunday schools to Islamic madrassas, the groups are providing preventative education, public awareness and life skills training. Some also offer addicts rehabilitation and psychosocial support.
The drugs of choice are mostly alcohol, heroin, cocaine, as well as the milder bhang (marijuana) and khat.
As Kenya’s economy has grown, the misuse has reached crisis level in cities and villages, prompting religious leaders to declare a national disaster.
In Central Kenya women have staged protests and destroyed local breweries, blaming increasing marriage breakups on alcohol and drug abuse.
“We have been taking a leading role for some time, since the community and the government have been in denial,” said the Rev. Wilfred Kogo, head of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa’s drug abuse division. “We are going beyond our own congregations to also educate our neighbors.”
Leaders say Kenyans are turning to drugs because of poverty, unemployment, ignorance and foreign influences. Advertisements that praise alcohol consumption may also be contributing to the epidemic.
Christian and Muslim groups are intensifying their campaigns in an effort to turn the communities into “ambassadors” against the drugs, said Sheikh Juma Ngao, director of Kenya’s National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse. In Mombasa, Kenya’s coastal city, where Ngao chairs the Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council, clergy and lay leaders have united to educate and support heroin and cocaine addicts.
An estimated 26,000 live here and the council advocates the use of clean needles to prevent HIV transmission. Many of Kenya’s 49,000 needle users are HIV positive.
Initially, hard drugs were not easily available, but quantities passing through Kenya en route to Asia, Europe and the United States have increased, creating a domestic market, according to several reports.
Churches began raising concerns in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after riots linked to drug abuse hit schools. In 2008, students in more than 300 secondary schools rampaged and destroyed school property worth millions of dollars. This was partly blamed on alcohol and drug abuse. In 2001, the burning deaths of dozens of children in Kyanguli Secondary School in Machakos County shocked churches, the sponsors of more than 60 percent of the country’s schools.
“We were very alarmed,” said Francis Kihara, a lay leader in the East African Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church of Kenya. “We went visiting primary and secondary (high) schools and educating the children about drugs.”
A 2012 report by the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse shows that 13 percent of teenagers aged 10 to 14 have used an intoxicating substance, such as alcohol. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, 11.7 percent abuse alcohol, while 6.2 percent are regular users of tobacco products. Of this group, 4.7 percent chew khat, while 1.5 percent smoke bhang (marijuana).
Kihara noted that faith interventions are resulting in some reduced drug and alcohol use, but he explained the problem requires a sustained response.
“You need to do it every day, every week, every month,” he said.
Educational programs established in youth clubs, churches and schools, as well as organized music, poetry and drama classes, have stalled recently due to lack of funds, he said.
The anti-drug coalitions got a boost June 10, when President Uhuru Kenyatta, addressing the second National Conference on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Nairobi, ordered security forces to deport or arrest any suspected foreign drug trafficker.
“This is the strongest commitment against drugs that we heard in 51 years,” said Ngao. “It is a key boost to our work,” said Ngao.
Jesse Mugambi, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, said the problem is worsened by the lack of legislation regulating ads and alcohol concentration percentages. “Alcohol advertisements have praised consumption as a sign of a decent lifestyle for Kenyans, misleading many into addictive habits that ruin their lives, careers and families,” he said.