Zimbabwean youths find cheap highs in used diapers, sanitary pads

Experts say the prevalent drug abuse and innovative new ways of it highlight a lack of social nets as Zimbabwe’s economy continues to tank.

Youths lie down by the road in a suburb of Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, after inhaling sodium polyacrylate
Youths lie down by the road in a suburb of Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, after drinking sodium polyacrylate or muto we ma pampers (Shona for "juice of pampers"). [Courtesy: Calvin Manika]

Harare, Zimbabwe – In Kuwadzana, a high-density residential suburb in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, the day begins as early as 5am for many of the working class – from vegetable sellers to bus conductors, like 19-year-old Thomas Gundawo*.

For loading a seven-seater vehicle after soliciting passengers at the top of his voice at the bus stop, Gundawo makes 100 Zimbabwean dollars ($0.45). By 8am, he would have pocketed only about $3, insufficient to buy food and either broncleer – a street drug mixture of cough syrup with alcohol and codeine – or dagga (marijuana).

So, he and his friends have resorted to a far cheaper alternative – adding water to the white residue found in used diapers and boiling it.

“After boiling, it forms a greyish substance and we drink the mixture,” Gundawo told Al Jazeera. “It’s semi-solid, it smells and tastes bad but we just drink. It helps us to get high [at] less cost.”

“I need a little drink in the morning to have energy and confidence as I attract passengers,” said the teenager who has been abusing drugs since his third year in high school – six years ago.

Since October 2018, the Zimbabwean economy has been on a free-fall characterised by high inflation and low investor confidence, leading to high levels of unemployment as the local currency plummeted in value.

Data is not readily available in Zimbabwe but sources from the country’s Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education told Al Jazeera that more than 25,000 students graduate annually from the country’s universities and other institutions of higher learning.

But unemployment is also prevalent and the pool of the jobless swells every year.

New lows, cheap highs

Experts say all of this has led youths to find coping mechanisms – including drugs. While the southern African country has no national database to track drug users, anecdotal evidence points to many users among the population – more than half of whom are below the age of 30.

Eva Chandawengerwa, a Harare-based sociology lecturer at Midlands State University, said the prevalent drug abuse highlighted a lack of social nets.

“As a lecturer, I have seen students coming to lectures high and some of them admit that they are abusing it because of low morale,” she said. “The state is the first parent and it must look into it so that people’s needs are catered for.”

Amon Chinya, 25, said depression led to him inhaling sodium polyacrylate with his friends in his back yard and open spaces in the neighbourhood.

“Because we are unemployed, and facing a lot of challenges, we sometimes drink to forget problems but alcohol cannot take us high,” Chinya told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, we have opted for street drugs. But they are also getting expensive [so] we have resorted to cheap diapers.”

A longtime friend introduced Gundawo and Chinya to the science of drinking the diaper residue and like an increasing number of young Zimbabweans, it is now their favoured way of getting high because of accessibility and affordability.

‘Juice of Pampers’

Several drug users told Al Jazeera that sodium polyacrylate or waterlock is found in new and used diapers, as well as stain removers, bleach products and some detergents. It is the absorbent for blood on sanitary pads and urine on diapers and dissolves once boiled.

In street lingo, it is also known as “muto we ma Pampers” meaning “juice of Pampers” in the Shona language and referencing Pampers, a popular brand. Most youths prefer used diapers as, having been discarded, they are cheaper to find or procure.

“With the filthiness of most of the illegal solid waste dumping sites, we don’t always scavenge for the used ones,” said Gundawo. “Sometimes we have a local vendor who supplies us at the base. We don’t want to be seen buying diapers, it raises eyebrows.”

Mertha Mothema Nyamande, a Harare-based psychotherapist, told Al Jazeera that her findings concluded that “it is not particularly the substance in the diaper alone, but the gas released when the urine becomes mixed with atmospheric pressures.

“The mix-up creates the effect sought by drug addicts … the impact of the substance is numbing and more of a psychedelic [feel], and gives an out-of-body experience,” she added. “The cases are isolated, but it is mainly that people are not very open about this method. We see a lot of these guys on the streets. In the streets, it’s very common.

“Additionally, the addiction goes way beyond the psychoactive substances, into activities like gambling and work, which are equally damaging in terms of impact on relationships and health issues,” she said.

A national disaster

Zimbabwe currently has no national policy meant for drug abuse but is instead operating with a National Drugs Master Plan 2020.

On February 21, during National Youth Day commemorations, President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched a National Anti-Drug and Substance Abuse Campaign.

He also issued a stern warning to drug producers, peddlers and abusers, saying that the long arm of the law will soon catch up with them. His government has also declared drug and substance abuse a national disaster.

But experts say none of these moves caters to evolving trends and have called for policy reforms, as well as traces of the usage and user chain of products.

For Chandawengerwa, anti-drug abuse stakeholders are being reactive instead of proactive. “In the case of the youths taking a substance in diapers, it’s a manifestation of how youths are researching substances which make them high while we are not researching on the countermeasures to discourage our youths,” she said.

It is a perspective shared by Wilbert Jena, executive director of For Youths by Youths, an organisation that says it is working with the Zimbabwe Republic Police to monitor drug abuse in communities and facilitate the arrest of drug lords.

“The Dangerous Drugs Act of Zimbabwe is not contemporary with the trending drugs”, he said, adding that arresting abusers is ineffective because there are no convictions or deterring measures.

“There are legal gaps which the youths are taking advantage of and they are sidelining drugs which attract court action for these ones,” Jena added. “The gap becomes wide in sodium polyacrylate because diapers or pads are legal products found everywhere in public.”

Donald Mujiri, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Childcare, said the issue has been brought to the ministry’s attention and asked Al Jazeera “to contact our scientists on the progress”.

Al Jazeera tried to reach the Medicine Control Authority of Zimbabwe by phone but was told the spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

While the debate continues, Gundawo and his friends say they are having a good time – and have a code of conduct.

“Unlike dagga which is abused by many people, waterlock is still confined to few people and we have made a disciplined team,” he said. “We are non-violent or either involve ourselves in theft but work for our food. And I have maintained this friendship for a long time compared to the time I was taking various drugs. So far, I have no intention to quit.”

Source: Al Jazeera