This haul of heroin was seized in Nairobi on February 14, 2013. The drugs were brought in from Tanzania. AFP Photo/Stringer
Just 12 months ago, drugs were not a social problem of much public consequence. By which I mean, we had been whispering to each other about rumours for years and years and quietly averting our eyes from any problematic evidence. The usual suspects did what they could: Clerics pounded their pulpits, newspapers printed tasteless photos of drug mules and the pellets they expelled, we chalked it down to morally dysfunctional individuals and incarcerated young men. Life went on as usual.
Things have changed rather dramatically in a short time. Just about eight weeks ago, President Jakaya Kikwete announced an intensification of the war on drugs. Suddenly, they are absolutely everywhere. You can imagine how vulnerable Tanzania is to the international drug trade. This long inviting coastline full of nooks and crannies, our acceptance of corruption as part of life, the youth unemployment problem. These are all perfect conditions for drug mulling to emerge as a profession, and it looks as though some elements of society have been exploiting the opportunities quite successfully.
Who would have thought it? Tanzanians hiding behind our collective reputation for sloth and harmlessness to traffic designer drugs, cocaine and heroine hither and yon?
It was easy to minimise this trafficking habit of ours when the consequences largely consisted of a few nameless and faceless Tanzanians being thrown into foreign jails, safely out of sight. The occasional bust within our borders by our supposedly vigilant security forces was enough to maintain the fiction that it was a minority issue, under control. However, recent addiction problems experienced by highly visible entertainers have challenged this assertion. It is no longer a pesky foreign habit that can be squashed with the judicious application of moralism, like smoking and miniskirts. Globalisation has some real drawbacks, the drug trade being one of them. We can no longer deny that we’re a part of the system.
So far, it looks like we’re really going to be attacking the supply side of the equation with great political vigour. I’ve said it before but it is worth repeating: Term limits are fantastic. There is nothing like a last-minute effort to leave a legacy to motivate an administration. The burning question in our case has always been the same. How do drugs that we don’t produce locally in export quantities manage to get into the country and then leave without any implication of drug barons, time after time after time? Is this trend going to change, now that we’re apparently committed to fighting the drug trade?
So far, internal consumption seems to be specifically a performance industry problem. Or maybe it just looks that way because we don’t know anything for sure about what falls off the containers at the ports and stays in the country. How this reticence is going to be of use in arming the young and vulnerable about the downside of a high life is a mystery to me. I suspect we plan to this with the same aplomb as we do the issue of sexual predation of school-going minors. With a culture of silence, and copious punishment for the victims.
And then there is that other problem.
Like anyone who has ever travelled while African, I have my fair share of tales that I could tell about immigration officers and their ways. Thanks to an encounter back in the late 1990s, I still can’t find it in me to have charitable thoughts about folk that work in American embassies. However, that pales in comparison to a near-miss in Pakistan that would have afforded me the unpleasant experience of a body-cavity search by a shockingly hairy man, followed by a touch of incarceration. I was told later that that so many young Tanzanian women had travelled there bearing drugs that it had become more or less standard procedure to sling us in the slammer.
It is only going to get harder with time. Have you braided your dreadlocks while travelling by bus to Malawi? Carried more than two suitcases to South Africa? Refused to go to the bathroom on a long-haul flight? Watch out. Even speaking Kiswahili in public outside our borders can become a liability. Anyone who has watched a good gangster movie knows that this is not a fight easily won. Ours is a drug trading industry that has thrived for years; uprooting it may be impossible but at least the government is promising to try. Wish us luck.
This article was originally published on The East African.