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Friday, July 30, 1999 Published at 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK

World: Africa

Children high on sewage

By Ishbel Matheson in Lusaka

At the Lusaka sewage ponds, two teenage boys plunge their hands into the dark brown sludge, gathering up fistfuls and stuffing it into small plastic bottles. They tap the bottles on the ground, taking care to leave enough room for methane to form at the top. A sour smell rises in the hot sun, but the boys seem oblivious to the stench and the foul nature of their task.

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They are manufacturing "Jenkem", a disgusting, noxious mixture made from fermented sewage. It is cheap, potent and very popular among the thousands of street-children in Lusaka. When they cannot afford glue or are too scared to steal petrol, these youngsters turn to Jenkem as a way of getting high.

"It lasts about an hour", says one user, 16-year-old Luke Mpande, who prefers Jenkem to other substances.

"With glue, I just hear voices in my head. But with Jenkem, I see visions. I see my mother who is dead and I forget about the problems in my life."

Symptom of poverty

Sniffing sewage is a symptom of the desperate plight of Zambia's street-children. There are thought to be some 75,000 in the country as a whole - a number that has doubled in the past eight years.

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With the Aids epidemic affecting an estimated one in four adults in urban areas, and the government's harsh privatisation policies throwing thousands out of work, it is the children who have suffered the most.

Sikwanda Makono is an education specialist at the Ministry of Health. "Now that the economy is going down, we see more and more of our younger boys going into the streets.

"And girls too. If you drive around at night, you see very young girls looking for men, to merely get something to survive."


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The children can also no longer rely on the extended family, once the backbone of African life. This traditional safety net is now on the verge of collapse.

Children are sent out onto the streets to earn a living, or treated cruelly by relatives already struggling to support their own families, or simply abandoned by parents, who cannot afford to feed and clothe them.

Victor Chinyama of the United Nations Children's Fund in Lusaka says it is imperative that the Zambian government gets to grips with this problem.

"So far, one doesn't get the feeling that this has been recognised as priority, or as a problem that needs to be nipped in the bud," he says.

"This problem is on the rise and the sooner it is dealt with, the better."

Temporary respite

Substance-abuse offers a temporary respite in an otherwise harsh world.

Nobody knows exactly where the idea for making Jenkem came from, but it has been used by street-children in Lusaka for at least two years. Nason Banda of the Drug Enforcement Agency is not proud when he says that it is unique to Zambia. He shudders when he sees the boys at the sewage ponds, scavenging for faecal matter to make Jenkem.

"It's unimaginable" he says. "It hits right at the heart to see a human being coming down a level, to be able to dip his hand into a sewage pond, picking out the material and not caring about anything but the feeling of getting high."

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