“I understand the stigma of using drugs, that’s what I want to fight”

By Wachira Charity, communications officer, KANCO.

Catherine Boyane, founder of the Nakuru Drop In Centre in Kenya, on how her experiences of drug use led her to help others:

<p>A client receives her methadone treatment</p>A client receives her dose of daily methadone © Corrie Wingate for International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“Drug use is something I understand all too well. At some point my parents, myself and my two brothers have used drugs or still are. 

“I understand the struggle of a drug user; the rejection and the stigma people face every day. That’s what I want to fight. I’m proud to have opened the Nakuru Drop in Centre, one of the first to offer any kind of services to drug users in Kenya.

“I first came to Nakuru when I was young, after our family relocated from Nairobi. After the move, our father’s alcohol intake took a turn for the worst and he became violent. 

Family broken by alcohol

“I recall one time when he came home drunk, beat our mother badly and threw her out without any clothes. I was embarrassed and so sorry for my mum and I remember throwing her my nightdress through the window to cover herself, although it barely fit her. The violence culminated in divorce. Soon after, out of frustration, my mother took to alcohol too. 

“After that is was like something broke in our family, in my siblings and myself. I was suspended from two secondary schools, but struggled through, completed my education and got a good job as an accountant. With money and freedom to do what I wanted I began to drink heavily. Sometimes, I would drink from dawn to dusk and abscond duty for many days. Despite my shortcomings my employers loved my work and kept me on. 

“After two decades of this, and despite becoming a branch manager in Malindi, my alcohol problem caused me to lose my job. It was at this stage that I took to sex work and began taking drugs. Jail and hospital became my alternate homes, almost in equal measure. I contracted HIV, TB and sexually transmitted infections that left me infertile. Homeless and sickly I was discovered by old colleagues lying in a trench by the roadside. They handcuffed me and put me on a bus back to Nakuru. It was at this point that I came home to my daughter, whom I had abandoned many years ago.

Opening a centre for drug users

“I was shocked to find her all grown and with my grandchild. Seeing them both made me want to change my life and in 2013 I enrolled in rehab. 

“After rehabilitation, and with support of the SDA church in Nakuru, I opened the Nakuru Drop in Centre. At first, I could not offer much other than counselling, but at least I gave people a shoulder to lean on. 

“I wanted to do more but we were limited by a lack of resources so I was happy when KANCO came on board. KANCO is driving the discussion on harm reduction in Kenya, and is creating synergies between people who use drugs, police, policy makers, religious leaders, health management and other gatekeepers. 

“This is creating an effective harm reduction response, one that is being driven by the community itself, something that resonates with my vision.”

How the Alliance is helping

Located in the fourth largest city in Kenya, the centre has been supported by KANCO, our Linking Organisation, since 2017. Through the Alliance’s Integrated Harm Reduction Programme, the centre offers a range of services, from HIV testing, antiretroviral treatment and needle and syringe exchanges, through to family counselling and empowerment workshops for women. In the Nakuru county region, the programme is working to reach 400 people who use drugs by 2020.

Centre staff say they are seeing risk-taking behaviour decrease among those using the centre as people’s knowledge of HIV prevention rises. In large part, this success is down to the centre’s peer educators, people who use drugs who visit popular drug use spots in the city and link the people they find there to the centre. 

The Alliance programme also supports Linking Organisations in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Senegal and other countries to explore and implement more effective services to reduce the harm caused by using drugs, and expand these services to areas where they are not currently available. 

A version of this story was first published on the KANCO website, as part of the first Alliance Integrated Harm Reduction Project newsletter.