By Patrick Musira in HARARE : It was bad enough that the sun was unusually hot on this March day as Tendai lay sprawled on his back just a few feet from the road, causing speeding commuter traffic to brake suddenly on realizing there was a body lying dangerously close to the road.
“He’s just too drunk to be in his right senses,” a commuter tout observes drily. “He’s been boozing throughout the night at the usual night club that never closes in the Avenues and that’s where he probably lost the phone,” says the tout, adding: “Anything is possible – he could have even sold it to get money to continue drinking waiting for sunrise!”
Periodically, 22-year-old Tendai – Jah Tindo to his friends – would wake up and make a scene, accusing anyone passing by of having stolen his cell phone and money. This harassment continued until he decided to drag himself to his feet and make another round foraging through council garbage bins before returning to his roadside spot moaning about the loss of the priceless Blackberry he had recently received from a sister in the Diaspora.
In a nearby ditch empty plastic bottles of cheap imported spirits provided a clue to Tendai’s condition. And the two half empty bottles in the young man’s trouser pockets confirmed it; he was clearly suffering from the morbid effects of an extended bout of drunkenness.
As another kombi comes screeching to a halt just beside the suicidal Jah Tindo, the conductor jumps out and drags him aside. After all the passengers have disembarked the two of them clamber inside.
Moments later an excited Jah Tindo emerges, screaming in delight, waving a cell phone: “I’ve found it! I knew I was going to find it!”
To celebrate, he pulls a plastic bottle from his pocket and takes a deep gulp of the contents before staggering back inside where he collapses on the back seat. Moments later the empty container is sent flying out through the window to join the other empty spirit bottles in the ditch.
A note on the 275ml bottle shows the drink is “Zed ananas”, a flavoured gin produced by Mozambique’s Reddy’s Global Industriesand is “blended to perfection”, with an alcohol content of 42% (by volume.)
Dozens of similar empties are strewn around the commuter rank;among them other brands, including Double Punch, another cheap and deadly spirit, also from Mozambique, and with similarly high alcohol content.
Most of the public commuter ranks in the city are in the busy congested downtown sections and this area along Chinhoyi Street, from Samora Machel, crossing Kwame Nkhrumah, Nelson Mandela and Jason Moyo avenues right through to Charter Road, is one of the busiest.
A woman waiting to board a commuter taxi to Warren Park, one of Harare’s busy high-density suburbs, comments on the ample evidence of alcohol abuse: “It’s scary the way these young people take alcohol these days.”
Although there is an increasing use of highstrength alcohol that is fuelling a surge of casual violence and other risks that come with alcohol abuse, police say there is no specific law that prohibits the consumption of alcohol for those over 18 years of age.
“The Liquor Act makes it an offence to drink alcohol in public and the police frequently raid such known places and quite a number of people have been (caught and) fined for doing so,” says police spokesman Superintendent Andrew Phiri.
He explains that idle youths carrying out piece jobs as commuter touts arebreaking the law by drinking alcohol in public, in addition to their unruly behaviour.
A medical doctor at the Avenues Clinic warns of a deadly link between the widespread abuse of these cheap, new imported alcoholic drinks that are readily available in most supermarkets, and the growing social problems especially among teenagers and young adults.
She points out that most of these spirits are 10 times the strength of beer – and retail for as little as $1 per 275ml bottle!
“This is poison and it’s killing our youth,” she says. “With these brands now becoming more popular among the young, it is time we looked at the social problems and health risks they are causing.”
There is evidence of growing concern in government, with even Finance Minister Tendai Biti raising a red flag over the issue of cheap imported alcohol last November – though with an eye on a slightly different area.
Presenting his national Budget Biti noted that: “Consumption of locally produced wines and spirits has drastically reduced as a result of stiff competition from smuggled alcohol which retails at very low prices since no excise duty is paid.”
It is the huge profits to be reaped that have seen the popularity of these imports rise and establish themselves on the market.
According to an official with a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the Avenues area of the city, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the youths,especially unemployed or self-employed like Tendai, are ignoring the dangers associated with alcohol abuse at their own peril.
AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The organization is not aligned to any sect, political groups, or race and does not engage or endorse any political causes.
The official, who was quick to point out that the problem was not confined tounemployed youths but included all classes,says they are planning a conference with youth groups – including senior schoolchildren – on the dangers of alcohol.
“Alcohol is a drug and like any other drug it has to be taken in moderation,” he cautions, advising that consumed to excess it is likely to lead to shattered lives, broken families and bleak futures for those who become dependent on it.
“Alcoholism has no respect of class, status or social strata!” he says, explaining: “The problem at the bottom end is that youths are more visible on the streets and usually drink in public but even professionals are abusing alcohol.”
A director with a humanitarian NGO in the capital, Virginia Muwanigwa, recalls one incident where a youth died from alcohol poisoning.
“But still, his drinking associates who attended the funeral came plastered to their eyeballs – obviously oblivious of the torment they were causing to the family and relatives of their departed drinking mate,” she says.
The incident moved the pastor of her church presiding at the funeral to embark on a weekly crusade to educate delinquent youths on the dangers of their habit. He visits the known areas where youths hang out, “killing time – but in fact they end up killing themselves,” he says.
Edgar Hendricks, a member of another local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in the Avenues area of the capital, says his organization also works hand-in-hand with local youth groups to help people overcome alcohol addiction and provide counselling services.
“We have helped lots of people overcome addiction in our branch,” he says. “Those who had the willpower slowly gathered the pieces of their shattered lives to reclaim their futures.”
Hendricks says part of the problem is a lack of recreational activities and space.
“Youths mustn’t let their lives revolve round the bar and the bottle. They should be encouraged to get involved in positive and productive activities like sports, hobbies and even charity work,” he says, emphasising that the youths need to be kept busy and avoid beer because drinking alcohol every day destroys their ability to think clearly for themselves and almost inevitably leads to addiction.
Parirenyatwa Hospital’s Psychiatry Annex says it is struggling with overcrowding as inmates suffering from stress-related alcohol abuse are signing up to seek help.
“But the major challenge is a stretched-thin professional staff here and we are frustrated by the near-constant shortage of accommodation – or those who keep on returning after seemingly having kicked the addiction,” says a member of staff at the institution who wished to remain anonymous.
Although he did not provide statistics, the official said the situation was a cause for concern.
“It’s just getting out of hand,” he continues. “It’s bad. The future is not promising if youths take alcohol at this level of intensity. These imported brands are very dangerous and the government needs to do something before our children completely lose their future!”
His worries are not isolated, as another public transport user is incensed by the behaviour of street kids and “these so-called ‘rank marshals’” in the commuter transport business.
“Have you noticed the behaviour of the commuter touts? I have never seen anything like this,” she says, urging the government to ban the sale of these cheap imported spirits.
“They are very potent and the effect is shattering – you can see the effects on our young men who end up committing acts of violence under the influence,” she adds.
But are the youths aware of the challenges and dangers posed by these cheap imports?
“We can’t control what all people take or when, but we can control how we respond to it,” says Andrew Leyton, who was an alcoholic in his youth but quit the bottle 24 years ago. “And I want every responsible Zimbabwean who likes their drink to know the consequences,” he adds.
According to police, more than 1— people die in alcohol abuse-related accidents every year in the country. A further 3000 sustain minor to serious injuries.
According to the 2004 World Health Organisation Global Status Report, in a paper entitled “Drug Use, Abuse and Alcoholism in Zimbabwe” published in 2002, it was argued that alcoholism is one of Zimbabwe’s four top diseases. The paper states that at least three million people in Zimbabwe are alcoholics. The paper projects that in the4 next 20 years, alcoholism will be the country’s number one social problem. That was almost 10 years ago. Has the country reached that stage already?
The porous borders offer opportunities for daring smugglers and bootleggers to bring in various cheap but highly intoxicating spirits like ZED and Kenge.
As long as there is a demand there will always be consumers; it takes two to tango, says one observer, pointing out that it’s a social and economic problem.
These cheap but potent beverages became an attraction, especially among the youth and unemployed, during the harsh economic times the country experienced in the last decade. These were abusedby drinkers to escape the cruel realities of their struggle to survive while at the same time they provide a source of easy profits for enterprising minds.
“But what we are witnessing is the loss of a generation,” one market woman observes, saying youths spend most of their time idling at the market doing nothing but drinking.
“I’m afraid we might have some suicides because of this,” she says.
Several commuter omnibus drivers interviewed by this newspaper also say cases of violence involving alcohol abuse are becoming a worry on their beat.
“It happened so fast I couldn’t think at all,” says Thomas Banda, a Sunningdale commuter taxi driver who was once forced off the road when trying to avoid a drunken youth who just “appeared from nowhere” in the suburb. He too, called for the sale of these spirits to be banned.
“They are pure poison, a menace to our youths and should be taken off the market now,” says Banda, a tee-totaller himself. “Anyone found bootlegging such stuff must face a stiff sentence.”
But back at the commuter rank, it’s life as usual as Jah Tindo, rank marshal for the day, gets into a recently arrived taxi, closes the door and starts blowing the hooter non-stop, much to the annoyance of those waiting in the queue. They just look at him, some shaking their heads.
As he marvels at the response, he takes a swig from a familiar bottle and surveys the queue.
“Give the people what they want!” he bellows and staggers out of the vehicle, book in hand: “Order! Everyone fall in line!”