HARARE – Jimmy Gata, 19, recites an anti-drugs poem at “Theatre in the Park” in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, jumping and gesturing on the stage, as spectators clap and cheer on the former addict.
Before finding his passion for the spoken word, Gata regularly took BronCleer, a cough syrup often smuggled in from South Africa that contains codeine, a painkiller similar to morphine. If enough is drunk, it also intoxicates like alcohol.
“Since Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association took me in to learn about film-making and acting and poetry, I have had no time for (BronCleer),” said Gata, a trained motor mechanic.
There are no accurate figures on the number of drug users in Zimbabwe. The Ministry of Health and Child Care says about 3,000 people nationwide are suffering mental illness directly related to drug abuse.
For 19-year-old Innocent Ndaramashe, an emerging R&B and hip-hop music star who was addicted to substances like BronCleer, the performing arts came to his rescue just in time.
“My music encourages my peers not to consume drugs because they damage our health,” Ndaramashe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “As a young man who has been taking drugs, I decided to preach against the abuse of drugs through my music career.”
In a country where many people struggle to earn a living in the informal economy, the theatre association has also helped out the poor and hungry.
“(It) gives food parcels, groceries to the needy in my community of which I am also a beneficiary because I am very old,” said 73-year-old Tambudzai Mlambo, a resident of Mbare township in Harare.
As Zimbabwe battles drug abuse made worse by a shortage of jobs for young people, the government acknowledges the contribution of the community arts scene.
“Groups that have of late emerged have helped to keep former drug addicts focused on theatre or art. This diverts their attention from drugs to concentrate on something new and positive for their wellbeing,” said Dorcas Sithole, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s mental health department.
The state is doing what it can to fight drug abuse in tough circumstances, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are trying to prevent drug users from turning into addicts,” she said, explaining how the government puts them on withdrawal programmes in hospital and is also planning to open rehabilitation centres.
In addition, anti-drugs activists say there is a need for occupational therapy such as theatre, which also helps young people build their self-esteem.
“Nurturing talent provides an avenue for accomplishment as opposed to helplessness which is associated with the onset of drug use,” said Hilton Nyamukapa, programme coordinator for the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network.
Established seven years ago, the national network advocates for strategies to address problems linked to drug use in Zimbabwe and across Southern Africa.
A pioneer of the idea of using theatre to tackle drug problems, Ernest Nyatanga, founder and president of the Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association, said his organisation pays former addicts for their acting.
“Rewarding former drug users for their performances in theatre helps to motivate them and cultivate in them a desire to work for themselves,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Recently the association shot films highlighting social and economic issues facing the country, such as “The Delinquent” which depicts a misled young man who takes drugs while in school. The films are shown at Harare’s “Theatre in The Park”.
Nyatanga said the association donates some of the proceeds from its performances – which it stages in townships in remote areas too – to local orphanages and poor widows.
And it has helped feed people going hungry when drought hit food supplies in rural and urban areas.
It also recruits community members to sell recordings of theatre productions on a commission basis by the roadside.
“We are an association that lives amongst ordinary people, and we care for their needs,” Nyatanga said.
So far, the theatre association has helped more than 340 individuals change their lives for the better, 30 percent of whom were hooked on drugs, he said.
Parents like Linda Masarira, 36, whose 18-year-old son was an addict but has now resumed his secondary-school studies, are grateful for its work.
“It is a miracle – my son is reforming; he is now an upcoming hip-hop star while he is also into theatre and as a result he has… stopped using drugs,” Masarira said.
Faith and football
Community religious groups like the Christian Youths Fellowship Association (CYFA) based in Chegutu, a farming town 100 km (62 miles) west of Harare in Mashonaland West Province, have also joined the fight against drugs.
Patrick Imbayago, founder and director of the CYFA, said his group has shown anti-drugs films in urban and rural townships.
“After seeing these kinds of films, few would return to drug abuse because… drug abusers are shown as eventually losing their marbles, going mad,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The CYFA also funds football training for young people. “The more we occupy them with social activities like soccer, the less our youths turn to drug abuse,” said Imbayago.