Armed with just K200 back in 2009, a primary school dropout disguised as Limbani Chulu opened a shebeen in Area 36, a densely populated township on the southern plain in Lilongwe City.
Selling cheap liquor sachets one at a time, the business has become a busy meeting place for young people yearning for liqour spirits, cigarettes and opaque beer. Now, the overcrowded tavern squeezed deep in a busy marketplace, where the youthful faces are seen as early as 8am, openly vends Indian hemp, an illegal drug mostly abused by the youth without a steady income.
“With the little profits from the small business, I had to find other ways to fend for my family,” he says. “Shebeens are here to provide people with entertainment and some customers need weed to make them happy. So, I give adults what they want. As for children, I chase them out.”
Chulu has found a potent market among young Malawians who drink and smoke to forget pangs of the country’s massive youth unemployment. According to the International Labour Organisation, about a quarter of Malawians aged 18 to 35 remains unemployed, though they actively search for jobs.
“I have never stolen from anyone and I don’t smoke marijuana. Some take the stuff for evil desires, but it is their business,” he says.
Chulu urges the youth to keep hands off marijuana because it impairs their thinking and damages their lungs.
“I live in peace with everyone and respect what the community wants. I run the liquor spot because I have a family to feed. Given more capital, I will stop selling booze and marijuana because it is not doing the youth any good,” he states.
However, without any skill and certificate, he finds economic opportunities too few.
“I dropped out in Standard Six due to poverty. Now it’s a matter of survival, not waiting for decent jobs that may not come,” he says, delivering a roll of banned hemp worth K200.
At least 20 people buy the widely available drug every day.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) national programmes officer Maxwell Matewere says it is high time the government urgently and decisively stepped up the fight against drug and substance abuse pushing the youth down the drain.
“Government needs to tackle the issue in the same manner it has been fighting against HIV and Aids, gender-based violence. It breeds crime and affects both personal health and national development,” he says.
Child and youth advocate Fred Nyondo says it is sad that minors as young as 12 abuse drugs and banned substances, especially hemp.
He says: “It is alarming and we need to join hands to combat the problem. From households to communities, everyone should take part in ending this malpractice.
“Those who sell liquor, cigarettes and marijuana should not allow children to buy from them.”
Nyondo commends Parliament for outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons aged below 18, but is concerned about sloppy enforcement of the restriction.
“As usual, our policies are good, but implementation isn’t inspiring. Still we find adults drinking comfortably with young people. Some even send children to buy alcohol or cigarettes for them,” he states.
When asked about a breakdown in law enforcement, National Police deputy spokesperson Thomeck Nyaude says the war on drug and substance abuse begins in the home with guardians policing the youth.
He says: “Due to lack of patriotism among Malawians, human rights issues are not well understood. We had a culture where the elderly used to counsel the youth on a wrong lane, but it is no longer there.”
However, this does not whitewash police laxity to keep the youth away from drugs when sellers desperate for profits bring the contraband where young people live and meet.
When it comes to stopping drug abuse, the lines are blurred by ambiguities and conflicts in terms of who is responsible for its genesis and ending.
Child activists say there is a need to intensify life skills lessons taught in school to groom children for a drug-free future.
Mental health experts say laxity in the push to combat the silent scourge is fuelling cases of depression and anxiety, among other mental illnesses and disorders.
However, scanty efforts to roll back unemployed young people and lack of initiatives to keep the youth busy is the reason most of them troupe into marijuana shells as early as 8am, when adults are beating traffic jams to get to work on time.