“There were times I smoked 10 sticks of cigarettes a day,” says Godfrey Deogratius Ouma, 25, who smoked regularly throughout his six years in high school.
Ouma started smoking in 2009 after joining Senior One at Kitgum High School. At the school, there was a group called the Lost Boys School that had been formed by fellow students.
“I heard about the group and decided to be part of it,” he says. One of the practices the group was known for was sneaking illegal items (mostly cigarettes) into the school.
“I also started smuggling cigarettes into the school just because other group members were doing it,” Ouma says.
Ouma would do this in a cunning manner so as not to get caught by the school administration. For instance, during the beginning of the school term, he would cut holes in his mattress and hide the cigarettes. He says to smoke, he would hide in the toilet or other places around the school where he knew it was hard to be caught. And whenever he ran out of cigarettes, Ouma had other tricks to acquire more.
The institution, a boarding facility, faced water shortages. Therefore, students were often allowed to fetch water from boreholes and wells within the community. Ouma and his friends often seized this opportunity to run off to the nearby trading centres to buy cigarettes. After smoking, they would sometimes take alcohol before finally making their way back to school.
But Ouma’s sins eventually caught up with him and he was indefinitely suspended while he was in Senior Four, first term, due to a cocktail of indiscipline issues including smoking. He sat his Uganda Certificate of Education Examinations at St Noa Mawaggali Senior Secondary School in Buikwe District.
One day, during his vacation, Ouma had gone to buy a chapatti at one of the stalls in Kitgum District where they have a family home. And while at the stall, he noticed a whitish substance on the tip of the chapatti maker’s nose.
“Is that glucose?” Ouma asked. In response, the man slapped Ouma and cautioned him never to ask such questions loudly and publically. He later told Ouma that it was not glucose but cocaine. He went ahead and pulled a paper from his pocket, containing the whitish substance and offered some to Ouma telling him to sniff it through his nose.
“I gave in to temptation and sniffed the cocaine,” he says adding that a few minutes later, he felt different. “I suddenly attained this aura of confidence. I felt powerful and energetic,” he says.
Ouma adds that he started chatting and laughing uncontrollably for about 30 minutes before heading back home. After his admission to Kitgum Comprehensive College for Senior Five, Ouma continued feeding his cocaine addiction and since the college was a day facility, it was easy.
Breaking school rules
When his parents learnt of his addiction, they enrolled Ouma at Rhome Care College in Namilyango, Mukono District, hoping that the new environment would enable him break free of the habit. At the school, the football team, which Ouma was part of, often went outside the school for competitions. “I sometimes sneaked away to buy either cigarettes or cocaine. Afterwards, I would quickly head back and join the team,” he says.
On other occasions, Ouma called the supplier using a mobile phone he had sneaked into the school to deliver to the grounds where the matches were taking place. He says he was able to pay for the cocaine using his pocket money, get free cigarettes from other students and during holidays, he would offer casual labour and save the money for drugs.
In case the cravings surfaced during class time, he would often excuse himself and would seek permission from the dormitory warden by lying that he urgently needed to pick an important item from his suitcase.
“And whenever I was let into the dormitory, I would utilise a few minutes to either smoke or sniff cocaine and then return to class,’ he says.
Ouma was not able to sit his Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education exams at the school because of his unruly character. Instead, he sat his exams at Kitgum Town College in 2015.
Ouma smoked cigarettes and used cocaine mostly to appear cool before his peers. “I wanted to fit in and feel appreciated and loved,” he says. But then, his addiction came at a cost, healthy-wise.
For instance, it reached a point where he substituted smoking for food and in the process, lost a lot of weight. Then, his skin starting darkening. Sometimes, his eyes appeared red rather than the normal brown colour.
And what was scarier was the persistent cough, wheezing and difficulty in breathing as a result of the continuous smoking. In fact, during a visit to Kitgum Hospital, a doctor told Ouma that smoking was damaging his airways.
“I was told that if I did not stop smoking, there were chances that I would die early,” he says. Sometimes, Ouma contemplated committing suicide, especially when he did not have any cocaine to snort.
Meanwhile, some of Ouma’s friends and community members began distancing themselves from him. “They did not want anything to do with me. In some instances, they would not allow me to talk to or play with their children for fear that I would lead them the same way of addiction,” he says.
As time went on, Ouma started to realise how wasted he was, throwing his life away, embarrassing his family and missing out on several opportunities.
In December, 2016, he visited a church in Kitgum where he talked to a clergy man. “That man of God did not judge me. Rather, he counselled me and said that I still had chance to completely turn my life around,” he says.
“In order to stay sober, I had to distance myself from certain people, especially smokers and other addicts. I had to make new, sober friends,” he says.
The other tactic he is using to stay sober is to focus on excelling in his studies. Ouma is currently studying for a diploma in law at the Law Development Center (LDC) and a Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Pentecostal University in Fort Portal, Western Uganda. He will complete the diploma this year and the bachelors in 2021.
What to know about addiction
Albert Louis Elwa, the director of Recovery Uganda, a nonprofit organisation formed by individuals recovering from substance addiction, says there are several effects of abusing drugs including affecting one’s personal relationships, health and judgment. But also, substance addictions are always expensive to maintain.
“Alcoholics need to identify their triggers including people, places, and items (such as cigarettes), then, try to avoid them as much as possible.
“For health issues, there is the threat of cancer for example; nicotine can easily cause lung cancer and the end result could be death,” Elwa says.
To those battling substance abuse, Elwa advises them to seek help from different recovery organisations including Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital. He also advises addicts to identify their triggers including people, places, and items (such as cigarettes), then, try to avoid them as much as possible.