Community awareness needed

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Le Mauricien

November 5, 1994

– Port Louis, Mauritius.

In addressing the drug issue, we keep on asking the wrong questions. We focus on imposing simplistic criminal questions to curb antisocial behavior, failing to realize that the interventions must be as comprehensive as the problem. Picture a boy standing in the doorway of a dark room. He is staring at an intriguing, but despicable creature inside. It’s a shell of a man undergoing convulsions as he craves for more drugs. We are so consumed with slamming the door shit that we forget to ask why the child would want to walk inside in the first place.

Too often, the child enters because it’s the only door open to him. He knocks on his parents’ door, but they’re too busy with work and life’s stresses to attend to his needs. The school door won’t answer either – he failed his CPE. As he acts out his frustration, he beings to gain a less than stellar reputation in the community. Another closed door.

Soon, the only interaction is with youth in the same predicament – some more advanced than others in their anti-social progression. In time, drug dealers will prey on his vulnerabilities, and open the door to the world of drugs.

As a peddler, the child is told to sell a certain amount of drugs – keeping half of it for his profit. Seeking an escape, the child snorts his portion, and that of the drug dealer. The drama escalates as violence comes into the picture, and the boy progresses down the vicious path of drug addiction.

This scenario repeats itself in Mauritius – and it’s on the rise. As more money and people move through this paradise island more and more drugs will find their way.

As the nation rapidly industrializes, the side effects of progress also materialize: family members spend less time together as more hours are consumed chasing the elusive goal of being financially comfortable.

1994 le mauricien

Over dinner, my hotel’s deputy manager, a 33-year old Hindu, used his family experience to describe this national metamorphosis. As a boy, his family lived in the home of his grandfather, a sugar cane field worker. If he had a problem he could readily access his parents – or one of the eight adult family members who shared the rural home. On religious occasions, a bus would be hired to fit his five brothers and sisters, the cousins, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. At dinner time, the kids would sit on floormatts and eat with their hands. Grandmother would come by and give each a farata; the aunts would follow in procession with curries, chutneys, vegetables.

Meat and fish were hard to come by. And Coca-Cola was rare: every quarter, eighteen children would have to share a single bottle! Times were hard, but they ate as a family; supporting each other, commenting on the day’s activities.

Today, he’s nostalgic. After a fourteen hour work day, six days a week, he drives his own car home and talks to his television set. His wife, four months pregnant, is asleep in the modern home they built in Quatre-Bornes. And as for dinner, elegant entrees are brought by bow-tie clad waiters who busily arrange the multiple pieces of silverware. And they bring him a glass full of Coca-Cola with lemon wedges! But he’s dining with a total stranger from America, and he feels alone. Things aren’t the same for Mauritius: “Society has changed me. . .I have to go where the wind blows.”.

Unfortunately, the winds can be overpowering – but we must preserve. Mauritius must decide how to best proceed with changes. Industrialization is better but how can we diminish the side-effects?

We must structure our interactions, making time to be with and support one another. We must resolve to strengthen our faith, foster revered values, promulgate cultural traditions, and create a sense of community in this exasperating world. We must make choices about our life-styles, cognizant of economic realities. We must adapt to change.

Or we will be changed in unexpected ways and seek an escape.

With all the changes Mauritius is undergoing, it’s little wonder there’s an addict in the dark room. I spoke with dozens at the various therapeutic centres I visited in the island. These days, drugs are the vehicle of choice for escape. All drugs. Starting with alcohol and marijuana, progressing with the more addictive heroin and other illicit drugs that transform human beings into horrible creatures. How can we bring them back?

More problematic is the child standing at the door. He represents a generation of future addicts. Why does he opt for this path – and how can we stop him?

It appears that slamming the door shut will neither help the addict recover or address the needs of the child at the door. Yet, how tax chose to spend their money? Granted, interdiction and other means aimed at curtailing the supply side are part of the solution. However, if we want to start making a dent in the drug effort, we must develop more responsive strategies to reduce demand.

The response must necessarily open new doors – it must provide youth with alternatives to drug use and anti-social behavior, and the addict with opportunities for recovery and integration. Prevention. Treatment.

In Mauritius, the group with the most immediate need for prevention services is the sea of eleven year olds who have failed their CPE exam. For them, the only open door is one leading to anti-social activities.

Mauritian tax-payers should start saving up for more prisons, more judges, more police officers, and the other costs associated with having multitudes of dysfunctional, marginalized citizens who have no role in an industrialized society. Or, they could save millions by investing in programs like Teen Hope which provides youth who fail the CPE with informal education, job training and placement, community service and recreational components. That is opening new doors.

Similarly, Mauritius gravest treatment need is in its prison populations. I met with seventeen inmates receiving drug treatment at the Prison’s Lotus Centre. Upon departure, they won’t be returning. Recidivism drops because the incentive to commit crimes, drugs, disappears from their equation.

Not so lucky are the other 350 prisoners who need but have no access to drug treatment – hardly addressing the rehabilitative aspect of a correction system. What do we expect from these men and women upon release? Perhaps Mauritian tax-payers should create a drug treatment court: Drug users would be diverted from the criminal justice system and placed in treatment. If the user doesn’t comply with treatment, he faces prosecution at the Criminal Court, as he would have originally. Strict monitoring would ensure that manipulative drug users would not abuse the system. Again, Mauritius may find this to be a more cost-effective and humane approach.

I keep insisting that Mauritius citizens get involved because problems are best solved by those most affected. Communities’ impetus to respond is greater than any other stake-holder or actor. No one knows this better than the Cassis neighbors who handed together to form Group “A” de Cassis in 1986 to address the scourge of drugs in their community. Today, this group of volunteers runs a neighborhood-based, family centered neighborhood center that does more than just fight drugs. It brings together parents and children to rebuild a sense of community in this rapidly industrializing society. Efforts like those of Teen Hope, Lotus Center, and Group “A” de Cassis open new doors and provide alternatives to drug use. Mauritius should invest in programs like these and other similar ones assisted and coordinated by the Trust Fund for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts – if they want real answers to the drug problem.