In his mid-thirties, Gift Zembo was a successful writer who was financially sound and doing everything he pleased.
However, he was insecure.
Somehow, Zembo found the world depressing and alcohol seemed to offer the best, and sometimes the only, relief from the awful way he felt.
“I grew up in a wealthy home, but I felt under-valued. I did not care much about my family, so I left home as soon as I got my first job after graduation,” he says, adding: “I started drinking alcohol and it changed the way I felt. Life was more bearable.”
With time, alcohol became more important to Zembo than anything.
As his perception of life began changing, his understanding of honesty and truthfulness were increasingly damaged and distorted.
He could justify all his actions and easily talked his way out of various situations.
Ultimately, Zembo became depressed and lonely despite his consistent and increasing alcohol intake.
He says: “Alcohol was not working for me anymore. A few times I stopped drinking—which seemed easy—but maintaining that seemed impossible.”
Unlike many, Zembo lives to tell the story of what alcoholism did to him, which is not the case with many who died from Aids because they slept with multiple partners without protection while drunk; or are imprisoned for crimes they committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Some of his peers are also in mental health facilities receiving help, whereas some have died from the weakened immune system caused by drugs and alcohol abuse.
Drug Fight Malawi describes alcohol and drug abuse, particularly among the youth in the country, as threatening.
The organisation’s executive director Nelson Zakeyu observes that many young people are falling prey to alcohol and drug abuse because of easy access and affordability of the substances.
He further blames it on myths among young people who believe that consumption of drugs or alcohol makes them intelligent and popular.
Zakeyu notes that the number of drug abusers keep rising following lack of interventions to deter the malpractice.
He says: “Both the government and civil society organisations are not doing much to control the problem, probably because the issue doesn’t fall in the country’s priority areas.”
Zakeyu reckons that effective community action would positively change people’s drinking behaviour, adding that this would likely benefit children as well.
“We need to mobilise ourselves as a community to reduce the harms of substance use. This is very beneficial in addressing a broader range of related problem areas in our villages and cities.
“More importantly, the government should critically look into alcohol and drug issues and consider it one of its priority areas and start funding the implementation of related programmes to curb the problem,” he says.
Like Zakeyu, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) programme officer Lawrence Ching’oma says Malawi needs to do a lot more.
He says: “Firstly, the legal and policy framework in the country is fairly weak. The National Alcohol Policy was launched in 2017, but nothing much has been done to implement it.
“This is one of the reasons NCA is working with the government to ensure that the policy gets on the ground because if it does, it means that even at district council level, by-laws will be made to help implement it.”
The National Alcohol Policy was developed to set a platform for comprehensive implementation mechanisms to ensure efficient and effective enforcement, prevention, advocacy campaigns, treatment, and monitoring mechanisms for reducing alcohol harms.
The Liquor Act, introduced in the 1970s, is also outdated. A lot has happened over the years, and now the government has the task to marry what the National Alcohol Policy says, with the Liquor Act.
Ching’oma says more development partners need to help in research and information dissemination whereby they will be presenting facts regarding the ills of drugs and alcohol abuse to Malawians.
However, despite the challenges, public mental health specialist Michael Udedi says that some gains have been registered in the alcohol fight since 2017 when the National Alcohol Policy was launched.
For instance, he cites the ban of alcohol sachets.
Apart from that, Udedi notes that some communities now have committees monitoring alcohol use around them.
He adds that some district councils in the country have also been oriented on the National Alcohol Policy and are trying to implement some of the activities in it.
However, the mental health expert admits that there are several challenges too as some stakeholders which are meant to implement a part of the activities in the policy are not coming forward to do that.
Says Udedi: “Again, it seems that few people and institutions are aware of the policy, thereby making it difficult to implement some of these activities.”
As a way forward, he agrees with the others on the need to create awareness on the harmful effects of abusing alcohol and drugs.
“We should know the harmful effects of substance and alcohol use so that we can avoid their usage and help those who have problems resulting from the use of alcohol and other harmful substances.
“We have facilities that assist those that have secondary problems related to substance abuse; and helping those who are addicted, to come out of the addictions,” says Udedi.
He says there is also a need to engage and empower various stakeholders, especially local authorities, traditional authorities, local councils, and to monitor the brewing, distribution, selling and consumption of alcohol within the communities.