Naima considers her work with perspective. “It’s not that bad,” mutters the 31-year-old self-taught beautician, frowning in frustration. Gently rub your client’s eyelid gently with a soft makeup sponge, and with your eyebrow pencil in hand. Keep rubbing – it’s not over yet.

A few years ago Naima used YouTube to learn how to do everything from how to color hair to how to do a pedicure. Now he is in charge of Beauty Corner, a small, albeit perfectly designed, beauty salon in Mombasa. On weekdays, from eight in the morning, he has his tools and waits for the women to cross the threshold of his establishment.

In front of her, a three-meter mirror next to a jumble of bright eyeshadow palettes and baby pink baskets laden with curlers. But this is not just any beauty salon: Women seeking Naima’s services are addicted to heroin or are recovering. Located at the Reachout Center Trust, which helps Mombasans fight drug addiction, the salon opened last year to attract more women to its services, including HIV testing, counseling, methadone treatment and diagnosis. of cervical cancer.

Naima Said at home. Tom Bottom

Illegal production

Naima herself was addicted to heroin for 10 years. When her father could no longer afford Naima’s private school, she remained idle and did not know what to do. At the age of 17 he started smoking marijuana with his friends. At 21, she was completely hooked on heroin. “I was half alive, half dead,” she recalls. “I became a sex worker so I could pay myself the next shot. On the street you need to be pretty, but I looked horrible. She was a junkie. People saw me and were scared. ”

Until relatively recently, hard drugs, especially heroin, were rare in Africa. But since 2010, heroin use across the continent has grown faster than anywhere else in the world, according to the 2015 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). English).

Naima herself was addicted for 10 years. At the age of 17 he started smoking marijuana with his friends. At 21, I was completely hooked on heroin

There are two causes. Despite the millions of dollars that the United States and its allies have allocated to curb poppy production in Afghanistan, there has been a steady increase in the amount produced, according to Simone Haysom of the Global Initiative against Transnational Crime (GIATO, for its acronym in English).

In 2017, opium cultivation reached an unprecedented level (jumping to 87% in one year). Despite being reduced by 20% since then, Afghanistan continues to produce 82% of the world’s heroin, making it the world’s largest producer of opium.

Trade routes

Meanwhile, Africa has become an increasingly attractive transit route for drugs. Traditionally, most of the heroin that entered Europe from Afghanistan did so via the so-called Balkan route.

The conflict and the growing police presence complicated traffic on that route, according to the GIATO report. However, the traffickers decided to go to sea. Since 2010, the southern route, also known as the horse route, has grown in popularity, in which heroin travels from Afghanistan through the Indian Ocean and enters eastern and southern Africa.

Next, the drug makes its way through Europe, Asia, and North America. As heroin floods East Africa, the number of drug addicts is increasing. “Instead of the drug passing through the region, this is now its destination,” says Haysom. In 2015 UNODC warned that heroin addiction was increasing in Kenya, especially on the coast. Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa, is the worst hit area.

“On the streets of Mombasa it is easier to buy heroin than sugar in a supermarket,” says Taib Abdulrahman, executive director of the Reachout Center Trust. Since then, heroin use has spread to other parts of the country, including Nairobi and Kiambu. While the data is disparate, an estimated 18,000 to 55,000 Kenyans use heroin.

The main problems

Help is available to drug addicts in more than 50 treatment and rehabilitation centers registered by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, but access is difficult. Although prevention services such as counseling, the syringe exchange program, and HIV testing are often free, hospital rehabilitation can cost between 15,000 and 200,000 Kenyan shillings, about 130 to 1,700 euros.

On the other hand, women are left out of these services. “Drug users have very specific needs,” explains Faiza Hamid, director of the Reachout program. “And their needs are not being met.” Stigmatization is also a problem. Many are engaged in sex work to pay for their drug addiction: a single dose of heroin costs around 150 or 200 Kenyan shillings, around 1.5 euros.

Elizabeth Yieko, a 34-year-old ex-addict, fixes her hair. Today, she helps find other clients for the beauty salon.

Elizabeth Yieko, a 34-year-old ex-addict, fixes her hair. Today, she helps find other clients for the beauty salon. Louise Donovan

This is one of the reasons that heroin users are less likely to access rehabilitation treatment. Concerns about guaranteeing childcare, difficult access to centers and problems related to relationships – women often live with couples who also have problems with drug use – are also factors to consider. If they do not seek treatment, they are likely to be marginalized sooner and have an increased risk of becoming infected with HIV. Women may be a minority among drug users, but experts say few cases have been reported and there are likely to be many more.

Address human needs

And that’s where Beauty Corner comes in. “I’m talking to these girls,” says Naima, the first methadone-treated patient in Reachout, who was chosen to head the clinic to run the beauty salon after attending several counseling sessions. It takes five years without trying the drug. “I tell them:‘ What you see from the outside is drug addiction and aversion to yourself. You are beautiful. You are mother, daughter and sister. ’ As I paint their nails, I tell them: no Why don’t you start with methadone? Why don’t you get an HIV test? ‘ When it works, it’s wonderful. ”

I tell them: ‘What you see from the outside is drug addiction and aversion to yourself. You are beautiful. You are mother, daughter and sister. ’ Why don’t you start on methadone? When it works it’s wonderful

For years, only a handful of addicted women showed up for Reachout services: they just didn’t see any point in going there. “The women told me that everything seemed designed for male drug addicts in the attention center,” says Faiza. “They already knew whether they had HIV or not, what else did they need?” So he came up with the idea for the Beauty Corner salon. The first goal was to get women in to make them feel special, even if only for a little while before tackling other more difficult issues.

It seems that the thing works. In less than a year, 453 women have tried beauty salon services and, according to Faiza, there has been enormous acceptance among women who have used clinical services.

Safe space

The number of tests for uterine cancer, for example, has increased by 34%. Naima sees an average of 15 women daily. Even so, there is an evident lack of services that meet the needs of women (most rehabilitation centers are specifically directed at men). Although research on drug-dependent women in Kenya is limited, studies show that women enrolled in specific treatment programs for them achieve better “results and improvements” than those who are not, according to UNODC.

Esther Ingolo, Mombasa’s director of Gender, confirmed to the Daily Nation that the delegated unit does not assign specific safe places to women, despite the fact that there are some sustainable programs from which they can benefit. So the beauty salon is filling a much-needed gap. And there are others too. Not far away is Mewa Health and Harm Reduction, an organization whose goal is to reduce the negative effects of drug abuse.

“Most women are homeless, have children and lack help,” says Abdalla Ahmed, program director at Mewa. “They are sick – many have hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis – and have been isolated by their families and communities. There are more male heroin users than women, but the number of problems women face is greater,” she points out. “We must analyze the causes of the problem, “says Ingolo.” We need a long-term solution so that the women leave the stream and do not return to it. “

Social pressure

As it fills up with women, the heat begins to tighten. Three seated women chat quietly. One of them is Elizabeth Yieko, 34 years old. He left his home in Luanda when he was 14 years old and lived on the street until two years ago. Like Naima, he started smoking marijuana. “It was terrible,” he says, remembering his first heroin shot. “I said I would never do it again, but my friends convinced me. I did it a second time, then a third time, and after that, it wasn’t so bad anymore. ”

From that day on, her decisions were dictated by heroin. He took to the streets and made a living stealing and doing sex work. 2,500 Kenyan shillings (just over 20 euros) were spent daily, an amount that doubled after several years. In the end, he spent three years in prison for drug possession and robbery. However, in 2013 his life changed. After being beaten and raped three times on the street, she decided that she had had enough. She lived in one of those conflictive places often called “drug dens” and a friend of hers told her about Beauty Corner.

“When I saw my friend after her visit to the beauty salon, I couldn’t believe it. She was very clean, made up, her hair well groomed and her lips painted red. I saw that women who had sold their lives to drugs could start a new life. I felt that I had been transformed. ”

Reach out

Elizabeth no longer smokes heroin and recruits women for the salon. Visit troubled areas where women drug users hang out in order to spread the word about the room. So far, he has brought 10 women. However, Naima wants more. “I’m happy to be helping people,” he says.

“But that is not enough for me. I think about the future. What happens to our life after methadone? Where are we going to go? For people who were born in the dens of the drug, their home is in those dens. We have to find a place for women. Why do we have to die? Why do we have to waste our lives? ”

This story was originally published in The Daily Nation of Kenya and co-produced by reporters for The Guardian and The Fuller Project, a non-profit journalism organization specializing in information on women’s rights.

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