There’s a whole generation of teenagers in Gabon who are growing up addicted to Tramadol, a powerful painkiller similar to morphine that is known locally as "kobolo". There are so many young addicts in the capital, Libreville, that they even have a nickname: the "goudronniers". A high schooler reached out to FRANCE 24, worried by increasing numbers of his friends becoming addicted, dropping out of school and getting involved in dealing themselves. He’s also seen high-school addicts have seizures in class.

With a dose costing no more than 250 CFA francs (or 0.40 euro), teens in Gabon have been selling and trading Tramadol during recess or in the back of the classroom for more than two years. This drug, which is all the rage in Libreville, is a powerful opioid painkiller used to treat extreme pain or given to patients after surgery. The pills can be swallowed or mixed with juice or alcohol.

The drug is available in pharmacies, but only if you have a prescription. Moreover, you can only get 50 mg doses. However, on the black market, you can get up to 250 mg. These high doses are extremely addictive and disrupt your nervous system. Their effects are intensified when the drug is mixed with alcohol.

In the past year, the use of this drug has become so widespread amongst teens that the Gabonese government decided to organise prevention campaigns in high schools in big cities. One of the most recent events was held in Bessieux High School in Libreville.

"A student had a seizure in the middle of math class”

Our Observer, Lubin Martial, is a junior at Bessieux High School. He reached out to FRANCE 24 to talk about this worrying trend amongst his peers.

I often see students suddenly collapse in class or in the halls and start having seizures. It’s quite startling – they shake, convulse and drool. If you see that happening, you have to put a stick in their mouth so that they don’t bite their tongues. Recently, it happened to a kid in the middle of maths class.

This teenage girl clearly in a bad way was filmed by a passerby in Libreville. Another teenager, who said she was a friend, claimed that the girl had overdosed on Tramadol. (Screengrabs of a video published on Facebook.)

 
This has been going on for the past two or three years, but it is particularly bad this year. You can find Tramadol easily in school. One student told me he got it from his big brother, who works in a psychiatric hospital.

"They sell pills for 250 CFA francs CFA each (0.40 euros)", says our Observer.

 
I tried to buy some because I wanted to secretly film the exchange, but it’s risky. Dealers can get really violent. The only time that I managed to film drug dealing at my school, the dealer had already run out of pills. It was 11am.
Video filmed discreetly by our Observer on March 9, 2018 at his high school.
 
 
I’ve seen a lot of my friends drop out of school and start hanging out in the streets, dealing. I didn’t want to stand around and do nothing about it. I want to alert the authorities, so they see that they need to take action.

 

"Poor kids sell it to get money”

Lubin’s friend Jean-François is a senior at Paul Indjendjet Gondjout High School. He says the same thing is going on at his high school, where the students tend to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It’s like an epidemic. Some people start and then everyone wants to try it. I’ve noticed major changes in the behaviour of people who take Tramadol. Some people can’t stop scratching themselves, while other people get aggressive. Others become more withdrawn.

I think that the spread of Tramadol is linked to poverty. Kids like me who come from poor neighbourhoods don’t have money, so they are ready to do anything to make some – including selling drugs.

I’m in a public high school, where a lot of the kids are from poor backgrounds, and I’d say that at least 40% of students are taking this drug. The other problem is that some famous singers and rappers sing the praises of these pills and that makes more kids want to take them.


One example is the rapper Don’zer and his song "Goudronnier" :


The chorus of this song, by rapper Donz’er, includes lyrics like "we take kobolos" and "we pick pockets because we live for it”. Other musicians, however, have composed songs denouncing the use of this drug.

"I take kobolos for fun and to motivate myself”

Our Observer Lubin grew up in Avea, a low-income neighbourhood in Libreville where "kobolos" are everywhere. Some of his friends have become dealers. One of them agreed to speak with us, though he wished to remain anonymous.

Like the rapper Donz’er says in tolibangando [Editor’s note: a Gabonese urban slang] in his song, we’re “goudronniers” [bandits]. This video is us. It inspired us, me and my friends, to organise a group of people to sell kobolos in the street and in high schools. In his song, he encourages us. We make up a community. That’s how we make money.

Personally, I take kobolos two or three times a week, to have fun, get me motivated and warmed up. We get the drugs from well-established people in the neighbourhoods and then we go sell it to the weaker people in poor neighbourhoods or high schools. We don’t know where the people who sell to us get the drugs from.

Another user interviewed by FRANCE 24 says that he gets his drugs in Kembo market: "When I take it, that gives me strength, I feel good. I know other people take it to go work or to get more strength before they go play football. Some say that girls take it to have sex…"
 

Worry amongst headmasters and authorities

A lot of headmasters at Gabonese high schools are becoming increasingly concerned, says Nguema Oyame Celestin, the headmaster of Bessieux High School.

Since January, we’ve expelled six students for possession of Tramadol. We’ve also had 10 to 20 students have seizures at school since last October. We bring these students to the nurse’s office and let their parents know that they’ve taken drugs.


Police arrested several students who were caught selling Tramadol in a high school in Libreville. (Screengrab of a video posted on Facebook.)
 

The main problem is that this drug affects students’ grades. The young people fall asleep in class and can no longer follow along. Drug dealing also makes the school unsafe. Sometimes, dealers can get aggressive. They rob their classmates and rebel against their teachers.

We are trying to raise awareness about the dangers of this drug amongst the kids and their families with the help of campaigns and conferences organised by the government. We held the last event on February 16.


The Minister of Education told FRANCE 24 that the ministry was working on measures to address this issue. However, he couldn’t give an estimate of the number of students or high schools affected.

"We are working on it and are currently collecting information from school officials,” says Patrick Mbonguila, an analyst who works for the ministry.

Gabonese police say they confiscated more than 5,000 pills in 2017, according to French news agency AFP.


A global trend that's spreading in Africa

People all over the world are taking Tramadol as a sort of “cocaine for the poor". More and more people are reportedly using it in the United Kingdom, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt and in the Palestinian territories.
 

According to researcher Antonin Tisseron, the consumption of this drug is on the rise in Africa, where many of the suppliers are powerful mafias – most of them Nigerian – that control drug dealing in the region.



>> SEE MORE FROM THE OBSERVERS: "Cheap and deadly: Inside Canada's opioid crisis"
 
Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas