Evidence of Liberia’s continuing transition from the scars of war to socio-economic resuscitation abound. Among them are social problems that have taken their toll almost entirely on the country’s youthful population after a long spell of fifteen years on the sidelines.
It would be recalled that families were broken and children exposed to bad peer influences during the war, which in turn condemned most to ghetto life. Today, amidst sexual abuses and addiction to dangerous substances based on the ignorance of some about the associated negative impact of such lifestyles, an entire generation faces complete breakdown in the ghetto.
The glimmer of hope lies in the fact that some, if not all, want to be bailed out. But as M-News Africa’s Michael Roberts digs into life inside Monrovia’s drugs dome, any nation that does not develop a blueprint to emancipate its vulnerable groups will be setting itself up for chaos. “Walking from the main streets of Monrovia, just on the outskirts of Broad Street, I was welcomed by a drug cartel that comprises young people, some of whom are below 15 years of age. Behind the building that used to house the Ministry of National Defense is a courtyard filled with makeshift zinc shacks. Thin smoke oozed from their roofs as if readying to produce flames. In the slum shanties were gang members who yelled at me to stay away or risk being attacked.
Their faces were bloated. “What is this man doing in the hole here? We will not talk to him because many fake people have been coming under the disguise of finding news and getting us out of this life but most of them were “419” (fake) people,” they said almost in unison. But one of the ring leaders, 28 year-old Folobor Sesay, admonished the angry folks as he approached me with civility: “gentlemen, if some of you don’t want to leave this life, others want to do so. We are tired living like this. So, if this man is coming to hear our stories and share them with kindhearted people, it is a good idea”. Suddenly, an atmosphere of calm set in. Folobor then told this online magazine how he was forced to adopt such lifestyle by a friend. “I am a driver by profession.
I started taking marijuana when I met a friend who had spent most of his life doing the same thing,” he said. Although many drug users are perceived to be men- tally challenged, Folobor spoke with unusual alertness and understanding of the danger associated with the act. “We are making the drug sellers rich and it is spoiling us. So, I am really praying for someone to help me to flush this thing from my body. I have a wife and a three year-old child. When it is in us, we can steal and take people’s things. I don’t want to go to the mental home,” he explained. Following my brief conversation with Folobor, I was led into one of the inner shanties of the drug users.
I met 31 year-old, Mary. A mother of four but pregnant again, Mary faked no smile and didn’t hide her emotions. She is obviously addicted. But the greater concern is about the three year-old baby boy seated close to her. It is certain that he would himself grow to become an active drug user if nothing is done urgently to save him. “I can sit here and smoke the whole day, ain’t get time for anybody, as nobody got time for me,” Mary declared in a cracking voice.
She would soon confirm the fear of this news outlet that the young boy is on the way to becoming an addict himself. Mary’s words: “That’s my son, he is three years old. I can give him marijuana tea every day and at times he can chew the marijuana seed. But whenever he takes it in, he feels dizzy and falls asleep”. The revelation was so disturbing I thought she might have been so brutally affected by the drugs that she was going insane. Unfortunately, it was a bold face honest admission, coming from a very troubled woman. Mary said she was introduced to drugs by her fiancé. “He told me taking drugs would make me sexually active.
I am seven months pregnant now but I will not stop until I give birth. Even when I deliver, I will take some that same day “. To compound her situation, Mary disclosed that she still engages in prostitution despite her pregnancy just to be able to fund her smoking habit, which she claimed is only limited ‘tie’ because adding cocaine would wear her body down. “Imagine I am pregnant but I can’t stop. I don’t know what will happen to me but I am just doing it. As pregnant as I am, I can still do commercial sex to support my habit”, she said in a worried tone.
For 32 year-old Edwin Jacobs, alias “car washing-too short”, ghetto life started eleven years ago through his girlfriend who cajoled him to take cannabis to make him sexually potent. “We went to the club one night and when we got back, she gave me some of the substance and said it would increase my sexual potency. I started with marijuana first. When I tried it the first time, I started to feel very dizzy. I even vomited. Thereafter, she told me that the only way the vomiting and bad feeling would stop is when I take it again.
And rightly so, I started to feel better after taking it for the second time”. But little did Edwin know that, that was the beginning of a ruinous life that would keep him away from his family and two children. The last time “Car wash-too short”, a second of five siblings saw his kids was four years ago. Edwin always felt bad whenever his kids saw him in such dreadful condition. “The last time I saw my children was four years ago when I stole good amount of money and took 300USD to them for Christmas. I am very tired! Very tired!
I am willing to leave this lifestyle but every time people would come and c o n d u c t interviews like you are doing and will never come back to help us out. We got information that there is a hospital in Duport Road, Paynesville where drug users who want to leave this way of life can go to get treatment free of charge but that is a pure lie,’ he said. He has made some efforts to leave but they proved futile because the hospital is very ex-pensive.
“Somebody has to take you there and be willing to pay the hospital bills. Even if you go there voluntarily, they will make fun of you once there is no money. Going to hospital to flush the substance is the first step. After that give us something to keep us busy,” said Edwin. Edwin is aware that his current way of living would erode the faintest chance for anyone to entrust him with anything but he is adamant that those are mere perceptions.
“Trust us and see what we can do. We are human beings that were cajoled into this way of life. If you re- ally want to help us, do not just give the assistance and turn your back: come and monitor the progress we are making and then when you are pleased, you can serve as guarantor to our families that we are indeed no more what we used to be. Our families get money from some of us, but they don’t trust us to get close to them,” he sobbed. Over the left shoulder of Edwin stood a lady with swollen lips (angular cheilitis) and scarred face resulting from riots that usually characterized activities in the ghetto. Victoria Morris or Sano, as she is affectionately called, could hardly look at me directly as she softly spoke to me: “I have been living in the ghetto since I was six years old. I have two children now.” Like the others, Victoria was deceived by a friend that taking narcotics would make her feel superior to her peers. “I have stayed long in this drugs business.
The first time my friend told me to try it, I felt good but my skin itched a lot”, she explained. Notwithstanding her long stay in the ghetto, Sano still believes that she can be revived. “At least if I can get something to keep me busy after the drugs are washed out of my body, I will be able to start the process of leaving this lifestyle. I am a mother of two children. I had them while in the street. I am tired with this life … bruh.” On the heels of the interview with Victoria, Loretta Miller, alias Lovetee, a 38 year-old mother of a 16 year-old son, showed up to share her story too. She said: “I started this life through my boyfriend in 1996. He told me that if I take it, I will be active in sex. After he had succeeded in putting me into this, he left me”. With tears running down her cheek, Lovetee said she is open to any assistance that would reunite her with her family. “I want to go back home to my parents in Nimba.”
Sitting atop a rock between two almost joined huts, 14 year-old James Flomo, alias “naddy dumboy”, was very keen to tell his story. With head bent over in disdain, he told me: “I was very small when I started through friends. I started with grass (marijuana). When I take it, I can be active to go look for money by any means even if it means stealing. I am tired with this life but leaving it is very difficult. I have one brother and two sisters. Family members are rejecting me because they are afraid that I am a criminal.” At his present age, James is still hopeful that he can make amends. “I want to go to school first to learn mechanic work. I don’t want to continue living like this. I am tired but there is no hope that normal society will accept me again. This is why I am just still in it. But if I can get someone to help me out, I want to quit because it is not good. I don’t have money to take myself to hospital for the doctors to flush the substance out of my body. And if I don’t take it after one hour, I can get sick until I put new one there, then I feel better.” There are many others in the ghettos with similar stories to tell. They yearn for help and deserve to be helped. The government is not oblivious of the drug-driven ghetto life and the danger that they pose to the society.
The Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, told M-News Africa that government was trying to source funds to deal with the situation. “The challenge is that we do not have anywhere to put people especially the kids to save their future that would be ruined as a result of this habit. I am sending my social welfare people to the specific area you mentioned to see what they can do in the interim. Lack of funding to establish homes for these kids is a serious problem for us. Turtle wants to box, but its hands are short.
Notwithstanding, we will make effort to arrest the situation whilst looking out for funding because if we don’t these children would get addicted to drugs and that will make matters worse”, the Ministry stated. But action has to be taken fast. It must be realized that drug abuse inflicts immeasurable harm on public health and safety around the world each year, while posing a threat to the peaceful development and smooth functioning of many societies.
Though analysts believe Liberia is not a significant transit country for illicit narcotics, the country’s weak law enforcement capacity, porous borders, and proximity to major drug transit routes has contributed to an increase in drugs trafficking, according to the United States Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). The country’s vulnerability has exposed the youthful population most of whom are inveigled by small-time crooks and well-connected professionals smuggling cocaine and cannabis for overnight economic gains. The scars of the Liberian civil conflict compound the situation even more. The Drug Enforcement Agency, the now semi-autonomous agency of the government dealing with this crisis, says it is making progress under very difficult circumstances.
“We are making progress gradually as we now have the Drug Law passed and with our partnership with the Americans through the Colombo Plan, we are training our trainers on dealing with ‘demand reduction’, the major area of emphasis if the war on drugs is to succeed. Demand reduction entails working around prevention, rehabilitation, after care and treatment, an area that much emphasis hasn’t been accorded”, said the Liberia’s Drugs Enforcement Agency spokesperson.
On why so many drug users were roaming the streets despite repeated arrests and detention, he said the drug situation required urgent attention as the problem was very serious, especially due to the porosity of the borders. As he puts it: “Traffickers are eyeing the African West Coast. With limited success on the Mexican side of the Atlantic Ocean we are easy target for transit.
A transit country can easily be turned into a user country and this is where concerted efforts must be put to bear to ensure we avoid this scenario. Drug use brings violence and creates a climate of volatility which in turns affects the economic and business climate of any country”. Liberia’s drug problem goes beyond just users. Farmers are tempted to grow cannabis rather than other crops because profits are higher and the drug can be trafficked relatively easily throughout the region. This explains why farmers in Bong and Nimba counties are constantly planting cannabis to trade regionally, ac- cording to the INSRC report.