TANKE, ILORIN – Zacheus’ father stressfully shouldered the burden of his family’s daily sustenance alone as his wife was a full-time housewife. So when he died in 1989, he left behind a family that did not know where their next meal would come from.
Zacheus was only 15.
Seeing his mother struggle to pay their bills daily, Zacheus considered how he could support her. One morning, he walked to a sawmill near their home in Ganmo community in southwest Nigeria’s Kwara State to work as a labourer.
But that was the beginning of even more problems for him.
“After the day’s work one evening, I was coaxed by some men in our workplace to taste cigarettes, assuring me of how vigorous I would be after taking it,” Zacheus, now 49, recounted.
Later, they introduced cannabis and cocaine to him.
“They asked me if I could have a sniff of a powdery whitish substance on paper, not knowing that it was cocaine. But its potency made me realise eventually.”
Soon, Zacheus was addicted to drugs.
Millions more trapped
Millions of young Nigerians are struggling with drug addiction. A 2018 National Bureau of Statistics report says one in seven people aged 15-64 years had used a drug other than tobacco and alcohol in Nigeria.
The report shows that 10.6 million people use cannabis (marijuana), while 14.3 million use other drugs, including teenagers using psychoactive medicine for non-medical purposes.
“Parents need to be sensitive to changes in their children, the kind of friends they keep, and also be sensitive to tell-tale signs of drug abuse,” James Obindo, a professor of psychiatry and president of the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, told Prime Progress.
No matter how much Zacheus tried on his own to stay away from drugs, he failed until late 2018 when a church member told him about the Mental Health Rebuilding and Restoring Initiative.
The nonprofit uses documentary recordings to help youths struggling with addiction.
Mental Health Rebuilding and Restoring Initiative gathers people who use drugs and gets them to watch projected documentaries of people who had been into drug addictions, their lives before addiction, how addiction destroyed or nearly destroyed them, and how they regained freedom from addiction through determination to never return to drugs.
After watching the documentaries, some consciously try to stop drug use. The foundation follows up, monitors, and encourages those who make such decisions.
“With that method, they feel sorry for themselves, understanding that they are in bondage and desire freedom,” said Gbenga Adekeye, the founder.
But the approach is only used on those whose conditions do not require full-blown rehabilitation. To decide who needs rehabilitation, the initiative records the basic history of the person – from when the addiction began to how it started to what triggers it to its severity.
The nonprofit does not rehabilitate, so it refers severe cases to rehabilitation centres.
When the foundation assessed Zacheus, it found he did not need rehabilitation. And sure, after he watched several documentaries the initiative played in September 2018, he went home remorseful – and that was the beginning of his healing.
“I am no longer taking weed [or drugs], but I was as lean as a broomstick when my body was transitioning. Their repeated encouragement helped me,” he said.
Like Zacheus, it took the initiative’s documentary-watching method for 25-year-old David, an Alagbado community resident in Kwara State, to come out of addiction.
David was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone in 2010, leading to severe joint pains. He started taking tramadol, a prescription painkiller that some Nigerian youths sometimes abuse to gain some perceived euphoric or narcotic effects.
Soon, David was abusing tramadol.
“I started taking it two times a day. Everywhere I go, I take it along with me because the pain can just come at any time until I get addicted to it. I became restless and abnormal,” he said.
“[But] with the [initiative’s] approach, I have stopped taking the drug, though it took some time.”
Responding to a community-wide problem
Adekeye, the founder, said he started the nonprofit in early 2018 when he saw growing numbers of young people in Kwara communities deep in drug addiction.
“We see a whole lot of glorious destinies being destroyed; we cannot just sit and watch,” he said.
As a starting point, he wrote to leaders of secondary schools, religious organisations, and communities in Kwara, requesting a chance to talk to worshipers, students and community members about the effects of drug abuse.
That began a campaign that has reached 30,000 people across the north-central and southwest regions of Nigeria through seminars and awareness programmes.
Specifically, with its two staff and 12 volunteers, the initiative has used the documentaries-watching approach to help 50 people come out of addiction.
Now, it receives several request phone calls monthly from people struggling with addiction or their relatives. The group appears on local radio stations to raise funds, soliciting donations from groups and individuals.
But the initiative does not offer its service entirely free. Candidates pay at least N10,000 (about $22.5) to cover part of their medical assessment.
However, as little as the amount, some candidates cannot afford it, so they never return after the initial contact. And not everyone who watches the documentary decides to change.
To this end, the initiative might need to consider adding other approaches, Obindo, the professor of psychiatry, said, adding that the initiative’s single approach might be why it has helped only 50 people out of the 30,000 it has reached since 2018.
“I don’t doubt the metric of their success, but they need to subject their method to scientific scrutiny,” he said.
Notwithstanding, some of those the approach has worked on say they now have an out-of-bondage feeling.
“I am relieved,” Zacheus said with a smile.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.