Peter’s story: rehabilitation counsellor and recovering drug user

As told to Wachira Charity, communications officer at KANCO.

Even among the drug use community, injecting drugs is perceived as the lowest of the low. This is why many people who inject drugs are cocooned together, heightening the likelihood of risky behaviours that could lead to harm and HIV infection. I know this because I have walked that journey of addiction to heroine, crack, alcohol and other drugs, and there is huge self and community stigma. Now, I am working to break down these issues as a rehabilitation counsellor at a pioneering harm reduction service in Kenya.

<p>A client collects his methadone prescription</p>A client collects his methadone prescription © International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Many moons ago I was born to my parents; my father a Kenyan and my mother of Jamaican descent, both with prestigious jobs. I went to the best of schools and had everything a child could dream of. Due to my mother’s culture where beer accompanies food, I was introduced to alcohol at a very early age and soon after I started smoking while still in primary school. I was chased away from school but was then taken back following my father’s appointment at a high profile job. This taught me to be ruthless and I had no respect for the teachers whatsoever, in fact as far as I was concerned, they were nobodies. As I interacted with other kids from other rich families, we would compare notes on the kind of cigarettes they were smoking as we competed to upgrade.

Ecstasy in the land of the free

At 18, my brothers and I were taken to the United States to continue with our studies. Upon landing I met a lady who I married immediately. My wife introduced me to cocaine. The cocaine gave me an unforgettable feeling: I loved her, I loved what she was giving me, and I loved my new life.

Within the first six months I started a landscaping business which was successful, adding to the push to get a better high. I would do a cocktail of drugs including cocaine, heroin and bhang - an indescribable feeling, but which led me to be co-dependent on multiple drugs. Shortly after I started shooting, I felt ecstasy and lethargy at the same time.

America is truly the land of the free, and throughout all this the community accepted me although I still felt things were not right. I had no time to see my children. Sometimes the drug use brought me fear and shame as a man and as a father but not for long, the adventure for a new high always took the day. Then I discovered crack. I discovered how to make it and soon became my own enemy as I would end up taking most of it. The feeling was like orgasm and fear, on one hand it was so good but on the other hand I was afraid it would end.

Putting the highs over my health

On that journey I engaged in many criminal activities. I stole, extorted money, and at some point attempted to sell my own child to get high. I still have the cut marks from my wife struggling to get back our child while I was busy shouting at a customer. My life came to a near end many times: I have been shot and at one point my stomach was ripped open by some Mexican drug sellers who I had sold a drug to earlier. Then they found me selling crack. Despite having a life-threatening injury, I finished injecting myself before I was wheeled into an ambulance which saw me get about 800 stitches. This explains addiction as a disease of the brain. Given the circumstances, I was jailed and then deported following an arrest by the FBI.

Going to rehab in Africa

My dad picked me up at the airport after 30 years of not seeing each other. He immediately shaved off my dreadlocks and that sparked resentment. I moved in with my parents in their home in Buruburu, Nairobi and while there I indulged in alcohol and bhang before my father took me to rehab with the assistance of the police.

It was during my stay there that I got time to reflect; I saw the journey I had taken and it became a turning point for me. I felt I needed to come out and share my story and reach out to other drug users. I was able to see life with drugs and without drugs with clarity, and had a resounding ambition to reach other drug users, igniting a new drive for me. That’s when I got an opportunity to work with Nakuru Drop-in Center. I am now a rehabilitation counsellor, helping other people to stop using drugs.

Unfortunately I was diagnosed with throat cancer, perhaps from my many years of exposure to toxic substances and I am currently undergoing treatment. But I am soldiering on, more determined to make a difference in the community of people who use drugs, protecting them from harm and HIV.

The information gap on harm reduction

The major difference I see in Africa is that we are too narrow minded on the drug use problem, probably from the huge information gap that exists or from ignorance. And yet in subtle ways we all engage in substance abuse at social occasions, such as alcohol when celebrating or mourning traditionally. This sows a seed of vulnerability to drug use and yet we often choose to bury our heads in the sand when addiction to drugs is talked about.

There is enough evidence that can no longer be ignored in conversations around drugs, and critical decisions need to be made. For instance, there is a huge information gap on harm reduction among these populations; stigma is rife among the community; and programming for these groups by the county government are lacking. I am however very optimistic about this new emerging conversation on harm reduction in Nakuru County and in my view we are on the right track to helping our people.

This story was first published on the KANCO website, as part of the first Alliance Integrated Harm Reduction Project newsletter. The Alliance Integrated Harm Reduction project, is a harm reduction project aimed at increasing access to essential HIV and harm reduction services for people who inject drugs, their partners and children in Kenya. The three-year project (2018-2020) is supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, and implemented locally in Kenya by KANCO.