The Sunday News
Simba Jemwa, Sunday News Correspondent
ON the streets of Bulawayo, Eric Mhlanga is trying to get to meth addicts before they punch that ticket.
He is the founder of Street Care in Action, an organisation that he describes as a “street medicine” team made up of medics, mental health care workers and social workers who have come together with the vision to visit homeless encampments.
His personal focus is to reach meth users.
“I have been working on starting an Non-Governmental Organisation called Street Care In Action whose focus is to fight drug addiction.
It will comprise volunteers from the health sector, mental health experts and we will endeavour to work with security services,” Mhlanga told Sunday News.
Mhlanga ( 41), worked in South Africa as a restaurant manager before a decade of meth abuse that culminated in him becoming homeless before he was deported to Zimbabwe. He steps into the drug crisis with a lived-in authenticity and survival story few can rival.
“Meth addicts will listen a bit more to a recovering drug addict than they might to a doctor who’s never walked in their shoes,” Mhlanga said.
He plans to spend the rest of his days walking through encampments, the streets all over the city, having chosen to spend his time with meth addicts, even as he concedes many see them as the least sympathetic of drug abusers.
Sober since June 9, 2020 on his return from South Africa, Mhlanga offers an unvarnished take on how meth is fuelling some of society’s worst problems.
The streets of Bulawayo, just as in Harare and other urban centres, have people living on them, some driven to homelessness by drug use.
“With this dope, the damage is instant.
There are no euphoric feelings.
It isn’t a party drug.
It isn’t a social drug.
When you did that stuff, you are weird.
You get weird.
And I started to be the weirdo.”
Mhlanga recalls hearing voices, having delusions, and intense feelings of paranoia.
He believes his meth use caused the mental health problems that he manages today with the help of medication.
And more directly, Mhlanga draws a line from meth to his homelessness.
“It’s definitely fuelling it.
Everyone wants to blame mental illness on the depressed economy.
But this stuff is causing the mental illness.”
Mhlanga says the impact of the meth that’s been coming out of South Africa for the last few years, “accompanied by terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia, severe paranoia, and vivid hallucinations.”
He describes it as, “people living as if the world is out to kill them.”
Mhlanga calls meth the “worst face” of addiction.
“When people die from opioids, there’s memorials, heartfelt posts on Facebook.
There’s some way of connecting with that person.
But meth decays you.
And meanwhile, you’re absolutely out of your mind, unable to live with anybody.”
And these people usually end up on the street.
On the streets of Zimbabwe, only a few tools to try to help the meth users — arrest, an offer of a rehabilitation program, or the days to sober up in jail.
“Somebody who is in possession of meth or is a user, if I can arrest them and try to get them into a rehab programme, that’s my goal.
I want to see somebody who’s constantly high on meth change their life and become a productive citizen.
I think they want it as well.”
Mhlanga says the words “help” and “programme” repeatedly, even as some users berate him.
Mhlanga said since he began working towards establishing Street Care In Action, his upbeat demeanour cracked just once, when a teen gang member left a needle on a car seat after getting a lift from Mhlanga.
“I told him ‘Man, you gotta tell me’,” Mhlanga revealed visibly irritated about the incident.
Mhlanga said accidental needle pricks can lead to addiction.
Mhlanga said the needle was empty, along with a baggie that had held crystal meth. Mhlanga also found a torch pipe, but no drugs.
Mhlanga says he knows what it’s like to be clean: “I went from being a crazy lunatic to just a normal guy,” he says. Though you don’t ever feel normal.”
He says while in South Africa, he was sent to prison three times and to police cells so often he’s lost count. But having stayed out of serious legal trouble since his return to Zimbabwe in 2018, perhaps he justifies the Zimbabwean society’s optimistic outlook.
“I’m trying to stay straight so we can have our kids straight,” he says.
But for now, his plan is to try to keep the meth away from youths. @RealSimbaJemwa