By Ishbel Matheson in Lusaka
At the Lusaka sewage ponds, two
teenage boys plunge their hands into the dark brown sludge, gathering
up fistfuls and stuffing it into small plastic bottles. They tap the
bottles on the ground, taking care to leave enough room for methane to
form at the top. A sour smell rises in the hot sun, but the boys seem
oblivious to the stench and the foul nature of their task.
are manufacturing "Jenkem", a disgusting, noxious mixture made from
fermented sewage. It is cheap, potent and very popular among the
thousands of street-children in Lusaka. When they cannot afford glue or
are too scared to steal petrol, these youngsters turn to Jenkem as a
way of getting high.
"It lasts about an hour", says one user, 16-year-old Luke Mpande, who prefers Jenkem to other substances.
"With glue, I just hear voices
in my head. But with Jenkem, I see visions. I see my mother who is dead
and I forget about the problems in my life."
Symptom of poverty
Sniffing sewage is a symptom of
the desperate plight of Zambia's street-children. There are thought to
be some 75,000 in the country as a whole - a number that has doubled in
the past eight years.
the Aids epidemic affecting an estimated one in four adults in urban
areas, and the government's harsh privatisation policies throwing
thousands out of work, it is the children who have suffered the most.
Sikwanda Makono is an education
specialist at the Ministry of Health. "Now that the economy is going
down, we see more and more of our younger boys going into the streets.
"And girls too. If you drive around at night, you see very young girls looking for men, to merely get something to survive."
children can also no longer rely on the extended family, once the
backbone of African life. This traditional safety net is now on the
verge of collapse.
Children are sent out onto the
streets to earn a living, or treated cruelly by relatives already
struggling to support their own families, or simply abandoned by
parents, who cannot afford to feed and clothe them.
Victor Chinyama of the United
Nations Children's Fund in Lusaka says it is imperative that the
Zambian government gets to grips with this problem.
"So far, one doesn't get the
feeling that this has been recognised as priority, or as a problem that
needs to be nipped in the bud," he says.
"This problem is on the rise and the sooner it is dealt with, the better."
Substance-abuse offers a temporary respite in an otherwise harsh world.
Nobody knows exactly where the
idea for making Jenkem came from, but it has been used by
street-children in Lusaka for at least two years. Nason Banda of the
Drug Enforcement Agency is not proud when he says that it is unique to
Zambia. He shudders when he sees the boys at the sewage ponds,
scavenging for faecal matter to make Jenkem.
hits right at the heart to see a human being coming down a level, to be
able to dip his hand into a sewage pond, picking out the material and
not caring about anything but the feeling of getting high."
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