Thursday, September 1, 2011

Heroin in East Africa: Poppy Returns to Zanzibar

During the British Raj (Britain's 1858-1947 occupation of much of the Indian subcontinent) many Parsis    took advantage of the business opportunities presented by the Pax Britannica.  Refugees from 10th century Islamic persecution, these Persian Zoroastrians had long been a prosperous merchant class in India.   Since 1773 the British East India Company had controlled Bengal's poppy fields and sought out new markets for Indian opium. The Parsis followed this trade, setting up shop - and one of the Parsi diaspora's largest communities - in the East African island nation of Zanzibar.

With the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 the Parsis, and the Omani Arab/Persian aristocracy which had ruled the island since the days of the slave trade, were driven from power.  Fleeing violent mobs, the Zanzibar Parsis made their way back to India and other formerly British states.  (One Zanzibar refugee, Farrokh Bursala, would become England's first South Asian rock star, Freddie Mercury).  But though the Revolution, and a similar anti-Indian pogrom in Uganda, drove away an important professional class, it did little to smuggling routes which had existed since the Sumerians.

Today, as Reychad Abdool of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says, "Zanzibar has been established as a major heroin-consuming island." Carried on the dhows which have traversed the Persian Gulf for centuries, a great deal of Afghani heroin finds its way to Zanzibar and from there to Europe.  A fair bit also remains behind for local consumption: among the 1 million people living in Zanzibar, an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 are intravenous users.  Where once Zanzibar attracted well-heeled tourists drawn to its quiet beaches, it has begun to attract visitors who are more interested in the $15/gram heroin.  And while this may be a cheap sum for visitors, it is a hefty price in a country where the average annual income is less than $1 per day.

Addiction has fueled a steady rise in crime, particularly sex work.  Because needle exchanges are non-existent syringes are widely shared and reused.  A 2006 survey of IV users in Zanzibar found 26% were HIV-positive, while 22% had Hepatitis C and 15% syphylis.  These rates are not likely to shrink in the face of "flashblooding," a common practice whereby addicts inject syringes full of their own blood into withdrawing friends or acquaintances to alleviate their suffering.

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