Les Mamelles (Seychelles) (AFP)
In a simple suburban street in the Seychelles, far from the idyllic coast and the luxury resorts where honeymooners and paradise seekers are pampered, heroin addicts are concerned about their daily dose of methadone.
It's a scene that few outsiders would associate with the tropical nirvana that floats in the Indian Ocean, and you rarely, if ever, see it when tourists travel from the airport to five-star luxury drive white sandy beaches.
But life in many Seychelles is far from perfect: the tiny archipelago nation is battling the world's highest rate of heroin addiction.
Almost 5,000 people are addicted, as government figures show, which corresponds to almost 10 percent of the national workforce. Statistics that put the government in action.
In comparison, 0.4 percent of the world's population consumed opioids in 2016, half of them in Asia, according to a United Nations report. The Seychelles are among the top consumers alongside producing countries such as Afghanistan.
The heroin boom in the Seychelles, which began in the last decade, affected young and old alike and across class boundaries.
Among those who line up for methadone in the city of Les Mamelles – a substitute narcotic used to wean heroin users – are parents with young children, an old man leaning on a stick between shifts, and a taxi driver.
Graham Mustache, a 29-year-old father of two, described how the arrival of affordable, high-quality heroin in the Seychelles affected his entire family.
"I have four brothers and two sisters, and we all have I was addicted to heroin once," he said to AFP, running his fingers over the needle scars on his arms.
"I was in prison twice," he said, adding that his mother had given him up as "She didn't know what to do anymore."
"Sometimes I didn't have enough to eat and had to choose between eating and buying heroin. I chose heroin."
– Soaring addiction –
The rise New trade routes through East Africa in the late 2000s, combined with porous borders and a relatively high purchasing power under the Seychelles, paradise flooded islands with heroin.
The average salary in the archipelago is $ 420 (390) – high compared to other African nations.
The World Bank considers Seychelles the only high-income country on the continent of the island thanks to the growing tourism industry.
But around 40 percent of the population still live in poverty.
Up to 2011, around 1,200 people were addicted, which led to a legal crackdown.
"We made no distinction between the victim and the trafficker," said Patrick Herminie, director of the State Agency for Prevention and Rehabilitation of Substance Abuse (APDAR).
By 2017, addiction had quadrupled and placed the Seychelles among the world's most drug-dependent nations.
The government, which recognized its war on drugs, had failed, changed direction, and declared an emergency for public health.
"The extent of the problem is simply that we reacted a little late," said Herminie.
Money went into combating the scourge, and government funding for drug prevention and rehabilitation programs rose to 75 million rupees in Seychelles in 2020 ($ 5.5 million) – almost ten times the 2016 budget.
APDAR, a specialized drug agency founded in 2017 to address the problem, employs four times as many people as the previous position.
A state methadone program has reached 2,500 people. with medical follow-up exams that help track their progress.
However, the free availability of methadone has also led drug dealers to lower their prices.
Mobile clinics offer methadone for addicts and offer free health checks and advice.
"I've been clean for more than a year. I've found a job as a fisherman and can see my two children," Mustache said proudly as he lined up on the white methadone van, which has medical personnel was occupied.
Others tried to keep the course.
"Methadone helps me a lot, but it's hard not to take heroin at all," said Gisele Moumou, an emaciated 32-year-old addict who breathes and sweats irregularly while on her little cup of methadone wait.
– Stop the Scourge –
School children are informed about the damage caused by drugs in classrooms through awareness campaigns and billboards.
But there is still a lot to be done, especially among children from families affected by drug use, says Noellie Gonthier of CARE, a local damage reduction organization.
"Sometimes four or four five-year-olds at school mimic the injection of heroin," she said.
"Our challenge is to make it clear to them that what they consider normal due to their family context is not at all."
Auf Mahe, a small mountain island with lush vegetation , most of the population lives near the water. Life here is quiet, with no traffic, and the streets are mostly clean.
Poverty is largely hidden and is concentrated in a few quarters behind faded walls or in the hills.
Why do so many Seychelles take drugs? The authorities admit they haven't quite figured it out, but say that while poverty doesn't fully allow people to live well, it does give them enough money to buy drugs to forget their ailments.
"The Root We are still working on it," said Hermione.
Early studies show that health and social problems associated with heroin use have decreased since the government changed its response from punishment to prevention.
Crime has almost halved and annual cases of new hepatitis C infections have decreased by 60 percent.
Youth unemployment has dropped from 6.5 percent to 2.1 percent in recent years.
A recovery addict, a taxi driver who did not want to be named, offered a grim assessment waiting for his daily methadone in his empty parking lot in Les Mamelles.
"We are a small island in the middle of the ocean. What else is there to do here?" he said.
© 2020 AFP