Zimbabwean youths find cheap highs in used diapers, sanitary pads

Harare, Zimbabwe – In Kuwadzana, a high-density residential suburb in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, the day begins as early as 5 am for many of the working class, from vegetable sellers to Thomas Gundawo (last name changed on request), a 19-year-old bus conductor.

For loading a 7-seater vehicle after soliciting passengers at the top of his voice at the bus stop, he gets ZWL$100 (US$0.45). By 8 am, he would have pocketed only about US$3, insufficient to buy food and either broncleer – a street drug mixture of cough syrup with alcohol and codeine – or dagga (marijuana).
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So, he and his friends have resorted to a far cheaper alternative – adding water to the white residue found in used diapers and boiling it.

“After boiling, it forms a greyish substance and we drink the mixture,” Gundawo told Al Jazeera. “It’s semi-solid, it smells and tastes bad but we just drink. It helps us to get high [at] less cost.

“I need a little drink in the morning to have energy and confidence as I attract passengers,” said the teenager who has been abusing drugs since his third year in high school – six years ago.

Since October 2018, the Zimbabwean economy has been on a free-fall characterised by high inflation and low investor confidence, leading to hyperinflation and high levels of unemployment as the local currency plummeted in value.

Data is not readily available in Zimbabwe but sources from the country’s ministry of higher and tertiary education told Al Jazeera that more than 25,000 students graduate annually from the country’s universities and other institutions of higher learning.

But unemployment is also prevalent and the pool of the jobless swells every year.

New lows, cheap highs
Experts say all of this has led youths to find coping mechanisms – including drugs. While the southern African country has no national database to track drug users, anecdotal evidence points to many users among the population – more than half of whom are below the age of 30.

“As a lecturer, I have seen students coming to lectures high and some of them admit that they are abusing it because of low morale,” she said. “The state is the first parent and it must look into it so that people’s needs are catered for.”

Amon Chinya, another youth, said depression led to him inhaling sodium polyacrylate with his friends in his back yard and open spaces in the neighbourhood.

“Because we are unemployed, and facing a lot of challenges, we sometimes drink to forget problems but alcohol cannot take us high,” the 25-year-old told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, we have opted for street drugs. But they are also getting expensive [so] we have resorted to cheap diapers.”

A longtime friend introduced Gundawo and Chinya to the science of drinking the diaper residue and like an increasing number of young Zimbabweans, it is now their favoured way of getting high because of accessibility and affordability.

‘Juice of Pampers’
Several drug users told Al Jazeera that sodium polyacrylate or waterlock is found in new and used diapers, as well as stain removers, bleach products and some detergents. It is the absorbent for blood on sanitary pads and urine on diapers and dissolves once boiled.

In street lingo, it is also known as “muto we ma Pampers” meaning “juice of Pampers” in the Shona language and referencing Pampers, a popular brand. Most youths prefer used diapers as, having been discarded, they are cheaper to find or procure.

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