Credit: Almudena Toral

Tanzania’s Heroin Fix

Journalist Almudena Toral shares her experience reporting on the rise of injectable drug use in East Africa. It’s about hope and love, she says.

By Almudena Toral

When I was growing up in Madrid, Spain, my mother had a good neighborhood friend whose son was addicted to heroin. I remember the stories about the lies, robberies, beginnings and relapses. She forgave and trusted him many times, doing everything she could to get him treatment.

Twenty-something years later and far from home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I’m filming a sweet, wiry woman named Stamil Hamadi. She’s a 34-year-old heroin addict, one of the unlikely victims of a drug trafficking route that travels from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe. The drug has been arriving by boat through Dar es Salaam’s harbor since the 1990s, and the worst quality heroin — brown instead of white — makes it into low-income neighborhoods such as Temeke, where Stamil lives. HIV statistics here are horrible. There’s medical help, but not enough. Life or death, recovery or relapse, often depend on how much family support an addict can get, from receiving $0.88 daily in order to commute to the methadone clinic to emotional support.

A dose of brown heroin costs as little as a dollar. Credit: Almudena Toral

I like Stamil immediately: she has a calm demeanor and is naively, shamelessly honest. The more I listen to her and see the world through her eyes, the more it strikes me that what’s truly remarkable about her story is not the heroin, the HIV, the desperation or the poverty; it is love. The type of love that helps a family survive no matter how dire life seems.

On a warm afternoon in October, Stamil carefully puts makeup on, including nail polish on her left hand only. She puts her beauty products back in a salt sack and starts walking toward her grandmother’s house. She passes by a store, a semi-torn shipping box used to dispose used syringes, and a bunch of curious children. She’s proud to introduce me to her grandmother, Zaituni Ally, a grumpy yet welcoming woman who guides us through her pitch black home to a rectangular patio between two buildings.

Zaituni raised Stamil, and sometimes cares for Stamil’s 15-year-old son. She spares her meager savings for Stamil to buy heroin when she’s feeling sick. Both women are shaped differently, but they look alike. “She was as beautiful as an Arab!” gesticulates Zaituni, imitating with her arms the shape of a fat body. It’s difficult to imagine Stamil being curvy after more than 15 years of addiction has wasted away her body. Zaituni’s relationship with Stamil may not have been that different from that of my mother’s friend and her son. She shifted easily between rage and love, between profound sadness and humor. More than once, I would catch them smiling at each other.

Credit: Almudena Toral

Stamil’s son is also here this afternoon, wearing a blue Samsung T-shirt, sitting in the patio while the women melt plastic to feed the fire. He is silent, listening to his mother talk about the future and his great grandmother talk about the past. Stamil is pretty removed from his life, having taken a step backward due to her addiction. Zaituni, however, is adamant about wanting him to continue with school — that’s where Stamil fell through the cracks.

Despite her daily challenges, Stamil’s dream is to reunite with her son and to support them both by opening a second-hand clothing store or a cafe. She sees methadone as her best chance. Although she’s been unsuccessful twice already, she thinks she can finally kick her addiction.
Sitting in Zaituni’s patio, looking at her family, I’m reminded of how much we tend to see the world in terms of good versus evil, forgetting the nuance and the complexity.

My mother’s friend’s son who was addicted to heroin died of HIV before treatment could take hold. His mother blamed herself for a long while, and a few years later, died of cancer. My mother is convinced that all her suffering made her immune system more vulnerable.

Stamil and Zaituni’s odds may be different. I hope they are different. While reporting on another story in the north of the country, I came upon a tiny barbershop whose door reads: “Everything in the world is done by hope.”

It is difficult not to see hope here.

Al Jazeera America has more on the methadone clinic in Tanzania.


Almudena Toral is an award-winning Spanish visual journalist and filmmaker. Her work has been published by The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, VICE, Marie Claire, Canal+ and other outlets.