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Rhythms of Addiction in Kwelerha

Written by Kamvalethu Miza

In the calm village of Kwelera, Tuba village, there exists a rhythm that transcends the ordinary. It is not just the rhythmic melodic sound of birds at dawn or the sound made by chickens in the morning. Instead, it is the subtle yet persistent beat of addiction that echoes through the community. As I delved into my ethnographic study of Kwelera, I found myself immersed in a landscape where addiction had submerged itself deeply into the fabric of daily life. From the marketplaces to the quiet alleyways, the presence of substance abuse was intense, like an ever-present background shaping every interaction and experience. I found that as youth became embedded in this lifestyle their everyday lives were shaped by rhythms of addiction which both fractured and focussed their sense of time. 

Figure 1: Image of Tuba Village (Taken by Kamvalethu Miza April 2024)

Residents: Sipho, Mzwethu, and Thando 

Sipho, Mzwethu, and Thando—three residents whose stories exemplify the struggles faced by countless others battling addiction. Their narratives provide emotional insights into the persistent grip of substance abuse and the enduring resilience of the human spirit.

Sipho’s Struggle with Addiction

Sipho's journey into addiction began with peer pressure and the desire to fit in. As a young man seeking acceptance from friends, he made the fateful decision to try drugs, never imagining the hold they would come to have over him. Each day for Sipho begins with a deep emptiness, a distressing hunger for something to fill the void within. His mornings are marked by a ritualistic search for his next fix, whether it be a hit of tik or a puff of mandrax/ipilisi. As Sipho's story unfolded, it appeared that addiction creates a form of prison, trapping its victims in a cycle of craving and desperation. The pursuit of drugs becomes an all-consuming obsession, blurring the lines between desire and necessity until they are indistinguishable. This will come clear in Thando’s story. 

Mzwethu’s Battle with Demons

In contrast, Mzwethu’s path into addiction was shaped by a different set of circumstances, rooted in the challenges of his environment and the traumas of his upbringing. Growing up in the shadow of his father's car workshop, Mzwethu found himself pushed into the demanding world of manual labour at a young age. The pressure to keep up with the demands of his job, coupled with the toxic dynamics at home, created a huge deal of stress and anxiety for Mzwethu. In search of an escape from the persistent pressures of his reality, he turned to drugs as a means of temporary relief—a decision that would ultimately lead him down a path of addiction and despair. However, though he still uses drugs he claimed that now he is more in control of his actions and no longer smokes as he used to. This came after his father’s passing and from the realization that he is the oldest son and left alone at home.

Thando’s Fall into Darkness

Thando, similar to Mzwethu, grew up very close to his father, however his life took a turn for the worse after a string of bad things happened. When his dad died suddenly, he felt like he had nobody to turn to and nothing to hold on. Feeling lost and sad, he started using drugs to try and feel better. But instead of helping, the drugs just made things worse. Thando got hooked, and his life spiralled out of control, as his life is still controlled by his addiction to drugs. Every day follows a similar pattern, driven by his desperate need for a fix. 

Daily Struggles: a routine defined by addiction

Thando wakes up consumed by thoughts of where he will get his next hit. Despite the concern of hunger in his stomach, he knows that the drugs will fill him up with air, making him feel full even though he has not eaten. With no money to buy food, his only option is to hustle for drugs. Thando spends his days stealing whatever he can find, from clothes on washing lines to valuable items in his own community. He sells these items to buy drugs, only to find himself hungry again after his first hit. Desperate to quiet the growling in his stomach, he steals more items or begs for food from fellow addicts. If he cannot find anything to steal, he resorts to robbing other drug users or raiding homes when nobody’s around. 

After smoking, Thando often retreats to hiding, consumed by guilt and fear of getting caught. He only returns home when it’s time for supper or stays away for days to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. Sleep comes irregularly for Thando, often crashing wherever he can find a place to rest, usually at a friend’s house. When he wakes, he seeks out other addicts to join in their schemes, the new group offers him tips on who to rob and where to find valuables since his face is not familiar in that particular community for example Gonubie. In the grip of his addiction, Thando’s mind becomes clouded, and becomes willing to do anything to feed his habit. The cycle repeats endlessly, each day filled with the same desperate search for drugs and food.  

Weekends and SASSA Grant Days

During the week, Kwelera maintains its peaceful demeanour, with residents going about their daily lives. However, when the weekend arrives, particularly on Sundays, the village undergoes a remarkable transformation. The local shebeens, informal drinking establishments that dot the landscape, become vibrant places of activity. From Sunday mornings till sunsets on Sunday afternoons, intense energy fills the air as people from all walks of life converge on these establishments. Among the customers are foreigners such as Nigerian residents who have made Kwelera their temporary home, working in farms and town, and renting accommodations within the village. Often accompanied by young local girls seeking companionship and adventure. Together, they form a lively dynamic of laughter, conversation, friendship, and the streets get crowded. 

The scene intensifies during Sassa grant days, special occasions when individuals receive their social welfare grants. These days mark a significant influx of people into Kwelera, with the taverns and shebeens overflowing with customers. From the elderly seeking comfort in the company of others to the youth embracing the thrill of the moment, the atmosphere is marked with excitement and anticipation. The influx of customers during weekends and Sassa grant days also has significant economic implications for Kwelera. Local businesses, including shebeens, and shops experience a surge in revenue as customers spend money on drinks, food, and entertainment.   

The Dark Side of Partying

However, amidst the partying lies a darker reality, one marked by the dangerous grip of addiction. While the scene may appear jolly on the surface, the consequences of excessive alcohol and drug consumption are profound and far-reaching. During my informal conversations about consequences of alcohol, I learnt that families bear the brunt of addiction’s impact as relationships strain under the weight of substance abuse. Parents and children are left to navigate the dangers of addiction, grappling with feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and despair. The substance is able to break the once-close bonds of families, and create a sense of loss and emptiness. 

Moreover, addiction takes a heavy toll on the economic and social fabric of Kwelera society. Jobs are lost as individuals struggle to maintain employment in the face of addiction challenges. Kwelera only has one clinic located in the nearby community of Jongilanga which makes it difficult for people to receive help for addiction-related illnesses and injuries. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a serious issue here, young people are getting into trouble. Young girls boast about having many children just so they can receive more SASSA grants and spend it on alcohol. Young men, in particular, are stuck in the cycle of substance abuse, with daily drug use exacerbating their unemployment status. Despite being unemployed, they resort to any means necessary, including criminal activities, to sustain their drug habits. This dire situation perpetuates a vicious cycle of addiction, poverty, and crime, further exacerbating the community's struggles.

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