The camera zooms in close on a man’s hands. With a precise gesture, he drops a small, white pill onto a thin sheet of aluminium. Fire springs from a lighter and the camera moves to show his mouth, breathing in the white smoke. This sequence, which shows a man using heroin, is from a mini-documentary called “Letter from a Junkie”, which was created by the Yaga Collective, a group made up dozens of bloggers from Burundi. This film has garnered more than 37,000 views in the past two weeks and is starting conversations about what many see as a nationwide epidemic.

This mini-documentary was made as part of the #BurundiSansBoost (#BurundiWithoutBoost) campaign, which was launched by the Yaga Collective in 2018. The bloggers who make up the collective wrote a series of articles [in French] about the risks associated with using “boost”-- the name that Burundians use for heroin cut with anti-inflammatories or paracetamol. Boost can be smoked, inhaled or injected.

A boost user tells his story in this mini-documentary made by the members of Yaga.

"The lack of information plays a huge role"

Armel Uwikunze is a member of Yaga. He has written blog posts about boost.

Not so long ago, I spent some time at a “hotspot”, which is a place where young people get together to take boost. I was brought there by a friend who knew the owner of the house. I spent a lot of time with the young people there and we talked a lot about their drug use.

One dose of boost costs 5,000 Burundian francs [around 2.50 euros]. An active user might spend around 25,000 francs a day. That’s crazy considering the average monthly salary here is only about 40,000 francs.

I asked one of them if he would show me where he bought his boost. He brought me to a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bujumbura. He bought his dose, then we went and sat down together and he told me about his life. That was the first interview that I did.

The other Yaga bloggers and I agreed that everyone was talking about boost and we started wondering how young people like us fell victim to it. We think that a lack of information plays a huge role in this crisis so we decided to do something. We decided to go and talk to people affected by boost and publish a series of articles about it on our blog.

We got a massive response from our readers, which made us realise how widespread this phenomenon was – much more widespread than we had originally thought.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the consumption of heroin in Africa “appears to have increased more than in other regions” since the early 2000s.

This trend can be explained by the increase in drug trafficking through East Africa, which was nicknamed “The heroin coast” by the ENACT project, a European programme aimed at enhancing Africa's response to transnational organised crime. According to ENACT, this “southern route” through Africa was a much easier way to get heroin that had been produced in Afghanistan and processed in Pakistan to Europe than through the Balkans.

"We need to talk about it"

The Yaga bloggers wanted to do more than just write articles. That’s how they came up with the #BurundiSansBoost campaign.

We realised that young people in Burundi had very little information about the dangers of this drug, the stigma that users face, and the government’s failure to manage it.

Good Internet coverage can be hard to get in our country so the “offline” aspects of our campaign were extremely important for reaching people who don’t have access to our online content. We went to different schools to raise awareness about the dangers of this drug, to talk about the stories that we had heard from users and to provide information about boost, what's in it, and the consequences for users.

As part of the #BurundiSansBoost campaign, the bloggers from the Yaga Collective carried out workshops to raise awareness about the dangers of this drug in schools.
After we had met more than 2,000 students in nine different schools across the country, we made quite a few observations. We realised that, in the capital, Bujumbura, lots of the students knew what boost was. However, at the schools in the countryside, the kids who had heard about boost were afraid to talk about it and the others just thought that the people around them who had become addicts had simply fallen ill. What everyone wanted to know is if there was a cure for this addiction.
A leaflet handed out as part of the #BurundiSansBoost campaign.
A leaflet handed out as part of the #BurundiSansBoost campaign. 
We also reached out to the authorities to involve them in the discussion. We hosted three different debates that brought together close to 300 people, including governmental advisers, doctors, teachers, health workers, social workers and parents.

We used the video testimonies, like the one in our mini-documentary, to give our argument a bit more credibility as there are still people who refuse to believe that boost is a real problem.

We wanted to open up a national debate about this drug because we think we need to talk about it. It is similar to the situation that we had with AIDS. At first, people didn’t want to talk about it because they thought that it would promote sexual promiscuity. However, as AIDS ravaged the population, we changed our strategy and started talking about it.

In our future articles, we want to start talking about people who managed to break the cycle and stop using, to give our readers a bit of hope.

"There are no doctors specialised in treating addiction in Burundi"

As part of the #BurundiSansBoost campaign, the Yaga Collective brought in members of the Burundian Association of People who Used Drugs (BAPUD), which is a group made up of former addicts, especially those who used intravenous drugs. People in this organisation now seek to reduce the harmful effects of drugs on society and work in pairs to stay clean. BAPUD’s coordinator, Richard Nininahazwe, viewed this campaign as an unprecedented opportunity to get people in Burundi to have important conversations about boost:

As former users, we are in the best position to warn people about the risks, to tell our stories and to tell people that it isn’t something we can just try once and then we won't be tempted. The fact that this campaign is led by a group of journalists has really helped to spread the message. I think that hearing about our bad experiences could really help young people to stay away from drugs.

#BurundiSansBoost made us open our eyes to an epidemic that we were trying to ignore. There are no doctors specialised in addiction in Burundi and there are no treatment centres. The Kamenge psychiatric hospital in Bujumbura does accept addicts but it’s not really set up to respond to their needs.

Last year, we managed to open two spaces that we call 'friendly centres', one in Bujumbura and another in Gitega, with funds given to us by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. They are prevention and screening centres, with a lot of work done on preventing HIV transmission through injecting. However, there is no treatment program for addicts.

In June 2018, the minister for public security promised to consider the idea of a rehab clinic. For now, we are trying to get methadone legalised, which can be used to treat heroin dependency.

“You only win when you die clean”

Richard Nininahazwe himself was an addict.

Like all teenagers, I smoked weed. Then, Rohypnol pills [a powerful sleeping pill] swept East Africa. Many young people became addicts.

When those pills were pulled from the market, I turned to boost, mixed with weed and tobacco, like many other people. Then, I started smoking pure boost and, soon, an acquaintance showed me how to inject it. It destroyed my friendships and tore apart my family. I had to give up my studies.

A friend from Tanzania, which is a more advanced country than Burundi in terms of awareness about drug use, helped me to stop. I used antidepressants to get through withdrawal. I’ve been clean for six years. But I don’t think I've conquered it yet. You have only conquered it when you die clean.

This article was written by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi)