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Cough syrup for kicks

 Street News Service 18 March 2019

In Zambia’s capital Lusaka, a new drug is gaining popularity: cough syrup. Downed by the bottle, it makes people feel high, and many addicts claim it makes them work harder. Innocent as this may sound, this deliberate overdosing is not without risk. (1268 Words) - By Jorrit Meulenbeek and David Mwanza


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DJ Popa drinking the cough syrup that he buys in bulk from pharmacies in town and sells to in the area where he lives.

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Yellow Man opening a packet of Benylin, the codeine-containing cough syrup he uses every day to get high and deal with the pressure of his job.

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Yellow Man pooring a lid of cough syrup, which he uses every day to get high and deal with the pressure of his job.

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A cough-syrup user downing a lid of syrup at a local bar in one of the shanty compounds around Lusaka.

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Cough syrup users sharing a bottle of Benylin in a local bar in one of the shanty compounds around Lusaka.

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DJ Popa sipping a lid of the cough syrup that he buys in bulk from pharmacies in town and sells to in the area where he lives.

"When I jab myself with medicki, I feel like I am not getting tired," says bus driver Demuru Kabamba. "Medicki is my magic." When Kabamba talks about 'medicki', local street-slang for medicine, he means Benylin or Histalix, two popular brands of cough syrup that are widely available in Zambian pharmacies.

Originally intended to be taken in small dosages to give a sedative effect and depress the so-called ' cough centre', taking larger quantities of Histalix or Benyling at once appears to give many users a feeling of euphoria, aggressiveness, being more focused and getting tired less easily.

"I make more money now than before I started taking it," bus driver Kabamba continues to explain. "Some of my fellow drivers will go into the hood to drink beer for a few hours, to feel aggressive on the road. But not me. I do not rest. Even when my route dries up, I become creative and just use another route, to make more money for the boss, and myself of course."

That is why Kabamba now uses it every day.  A demanding habit, as the bottles do not come cheap at about 25 000 Kwacha (5 US Dollars). But the high cost of this addiction only motivates Kabamba more. "It is not affordable. That's why you need to be aggressive, so you are able to work hard and buy more."

The cough syrups, also known on the streets as 'nyelele', were introduced in Lusaka from Zimbabwe, where Histalix is manufactured. 'Nyelele' means 'ants' in the local language, as the first users described the effect as ants crawling in your bloodstream.

Yellow Man (a local nickname for albino's) has Zimbabwean roots, and stays near Marapodi, a compound where many Zimbabweans live. "Back in Zimbabwe we consume nyelele like no man's business," he says. Yellow Man sees the religious beliefs of the so-called Hosanna's, followers of prophet Papa Johanne who discourage the use of alcohol, as one of the reasons for the drug's popularity back in Zimbabwe.

In Lusaka he works as a Zam-cab, as the wheelbarrows that transport heavy loads around town are popularly called, and also doubles as a call-boy, shouting to attract customers to buses at Mandevu bus station. "Working here is not an easy thing," he explains his reasons for taking the stuff. "When you are not aggressive and strong, you end up knocking off with nothing at the end of the day."

As pharmacist sometimes ask for a doctor's prescription, and most serious addicts require at least a bottle every day, a lively trade has sprung up in the city's poorer compounds. DJ Popa is one of the people who sells nyelele in his area.

"I used to feel like I was in America," he remembers his first nyelele-experience 7 years ago, when his brother-in-law introduced him to it.  "For real, when you fix yourself with nyelele, it takes you to America, and you can even speak with Obama, the president."

He enjoyed the feeling so much that he wanted to enable others to feel the same way too. "Many friends have started consuming it because they see me taking it in the club. When they ask for a lid, I give them two. It will take them to America, and soon they will call me for a bottle."

As he sees it, the cough syrups are much better than alcohol, which just makes people lazy.  "In the ghetto where I live you see youths drinking as early as 6 in the morning, but many of my buyers are hard-working."

Though Popa does his dealings in private, he is not very scared of the Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) officers, or 'December' as he calls them. "They are just concerned with dagga (weed), not medicki."

For Chiyeso Phiri, a carpenter in Chaissa compound, that is the big advantage over weed, which gave him the same creative vibe before. "The December are all over the ghetto, arresting smokers and sellers. I was afraid of getting arrested and leaving my family suffering. But with nyelele no one can follow you."

What about the reported side-effects? And the rumors of people going crazy, or even dying as a result of overdosing on Histalix or Benylin?

Yellow Man has heard that people in Zimbabwe have died as a result of overdosing, but he does not seem too worried by it. "You need to overdose for you to have fun," he says. "You need to drink a half or a whole bottle at once. But I think too much of anything can be dangerous. Even nshima (maize porridge), while it is a nice staple food, you can die if you take too much."

Dealer DJ Popa also heard the disturbing stories about the first generation users of Histalix. "Some of them developed puss in their lungs," he says. "But for Benylin the only effect I know is reliance. Some hardcore businessmen have to buy three bottles a day."


Sidebar - The unhealthy effects of a medicine

The usage instructions for Benylin and Histalix cough syrups prescribe a dosage of 5 to 10 ml every four to six hours, but addicts easily use more than twenty times this amount, consuming a whole bottle or more per day.

CAPS, the Zimbabwe-based producers of Histalix, already put a warning in the manual for the physical dependency that can be developed by prolonged use and overdosage.

People who become addicted to these medicines will suffer withdrawal symptoms when they do not get their fix in time, just as with many hard drugs. Codeine, one of the ingredients of Histalix, is a narcotic with similar effects to morphine.

The list of possible side-effects mentioned in the usage instructions of both Histalix and Benylin is endless. Nausea, drowsiness and headache are the least serious, but hallucinations, spasm and even coma can also occur.

Abuse of these medicines is not a new thing, and has not only been reported in Southern Africa. Canadian doctor Joseph Walker and some of his colleagues already wrote about a severe case of Benylin-abuse in the early 90's. He reported that one of his patients took up to 400 ml of the syrup in times of stress for almost 8 years, and eventually was admitted to hospital suffering from severe psychosis and mania.

While US-trained doctor Dalila Zachary, now based in Zambia, has never come across a case of cough syrup abuse herself, she has heard of the practice among American teenagers. "What people should know is that all of these chemicals are dangerous when taken at these high levels", she warns.

"Paranoia, confusion, out-of-body experiences," Zachary  names a few reported effects of overdosing. "One of the most serious effects of taking an overdose can be hypothermia, high body temperature, which can even cause death."
What about the people who say they are not having any side-effects from consuming the syrup in the amounts they do? "That's simply not true," she says.

"You may not be aware of these effects, especially when you are under the influence, but that you do not feel it today or tomorrow does not mean the negative effects are not there. Even alcoholics will often say they have no problem."

Zachary advises people who have become addicted but want to stop to seek professional counseling, just as they would for other drugs and alcohol.

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