The Opioid Trail: Tramadol Abuse in Sierra Leone

It was a bright day with blue skies, sunny with just the right amount of soft winds. One of the rare blessings of residing in the coastal city of Freetown in the dry season is the beautiful weather at that time of the year. I was riding shotgun, a friend at the wheel, a Drake song blaring on the stereo.

Destination: Tokeh Beach.

Stuck for over half an hour in the notorious traffic jam between Wilkinson Road and Lumley, frustrated about the delay, we were accosted by one of the street hawkers peddling his goods. He approached the car window on my side , peered in then tapped me by my arm , then laughed and shouted our nicknames. It may have been that there was no sign of recognition on our faces. I did a double take when I recognized that resounding laughter, then slowly as I stared at him, it was as if the years fell away from his facial features layer by layer.

This was an old friend from high school. It had been years since we last saw him.

We located a suitable parking space, pulled over and kick start conversation. We reminisced about school days and the funny shenanigans we masterminded. All the while we laughed, I noticed the premature wrinkles and hardened features on his once gentle face. It was obvious the years hadn’t been kind to him. He explained to us that a string of family issues and financial problems had led him down the path to the depths of drug abuse.

Tramadol he said was the only reprieve he had from an otherwise cold world that had turned it’s back on him. We offered advice and assistance to him but he only shook his head and remarked that the pills had no addictive tendencies. After several prodding from us, he became withdrawn and said he had to return to his trading. We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch and went our separate ways.

I called his number a few times with no response.

It would be the last time I ever saw him again.

This was two years ago.

Since then, the onslaught of Tramadol has continued unabated amongst the youths of Sierra Leone like a vengeful succubus.

Tramadol is an opioid drug that is prescribed for relief from moderate or moderately severe pain by medical doctors. It was considered as a better alternative to most narcotic analgesic medications.

Somehow, along the lines this drug became the go to drug for quick highs and mood enhancing. The myth that followed in it’s wake was the deceptive talk of it’s non addictive qualities.
In Sierra Leone, the ghettos, slums and even in club scenes, it has assumed many other attributes. Many non-prescribed users boast of it’s nature to boost their sex drive, others claim that it is the cure for their work stress and other problems.

These non facts are spread by quacks, and charlatans who sell these drugs from their stalls, and petty traders who have no medical qualification in that regard. The department of health regulation in the country is ill-equipped to tackle the issue as they are under funded and lack the necessary man power to tackle these illegal and counterfeit vendors.

Children as young as 9 have been known to take Tramadol.

I once encountered a scuffle that had just been separated, it was a teen who purchased the drug with the intention of taking it so as to give him the “bravery and heart” to stab a friend whom he had quarreled with over different views after a football match. If not for timely intervention, it would have been a lethal saga.

Stories like these and more are abound in the neighborhoods of Sierra Leone. Tramadol is especially popular amongst female street walkers and ‘Okada’ bike riders who claim it keeps the wind and cold away from them on cold nights because it numbs their senses.
You are bound to see either of the two popping tramadol like bubblegum or altoids .

In a country that has a considerable number of it’s denizens still clinging onto to superstitious beliefs, combating mental health issues and drug abuse is an up hill task. There’s a high chance of an addict to be taken to a church or voodoo shrine for supernatural delivery and demonic exorcism than to the hospital for medical assistance.

Indeed, there are stories of many individuals who when rehabilitated from abusive lifestyles by either a result of distance from it or when medically treated are bound to believe and accept the brainwashed superstitious narrative of family members that it was divinely manifested rather than their actions.

Surely, faith in a supreme deity goes with a strong understanding of care for ones health as is echoed in most religions.

Addiction to Tramadol causes a dependency which lead many young individuals to resort to theft as a desperate measure to satiate their high. The higher the dosage they take, the greater it elevates their mood which makes them to increase the dosage they consume. It’s not surprising that most tramadol addicts from impoverished backgrounds are identifiable at first glance when they are in withdrawal.

Mostly sweating, nervous, periods of swooning due to nausea, and a tendency to twitch as if restless. Developed stages of tramadol addiction are bound to make addicts, paranoid, delusional and subject to hallucinations.

During the just concluded election, this drug was in vogue as many politicians parceled it out in droves to supporters to use as a means to stimulate violence. It was not uncommon to see youths go berserk and self harm themselves or others before having fits of seizures. Yet no politician has ever been held accountable for the negative acts of derailing the future of scores of young men.

The lack of rehabilitation centres nationwide is another issue. What we have are a few institutions that have more in common with 17th Century asylums and madhouses like Bedlam and rife with questionable techniques of treating patients than they do with the modern methods of diagnosing and treating them.
There are very limited centres that offer adequate inpatient treatment with around the clock supervision that lasts for over a month.
Coupled with the fact that outpatient programs are almost non existent in this side of the world for evening or late therapy sessions after patients have been discharged to their homes.
It’s no small wonder that most addicts deteriorate beyond saving.
The taboo with which mental health is associated with makes it a hassle for the existence of peer group organizations to thrive in.

The health sector is in dire need of boosting and much adequate funding, to not only to treat the patients but also to police and regulate the influx of this drug into the borders of the country.

A nation is only as strong as it’s human resource.

We all must all do more to aid in the sensitization on the dangers of tramadol dependency and drug abuse as a whole.

Save lives. Regain friends.
Restore Families.

#Conundrum

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12 thoughts on “The Opioid Trail: Tramadol Abuse in Sierra Leone

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  1. Ha KK, this Tramadol thing na wah oh! Let me start off by that. I just discovered the extent to which some in Douala – Cameroon are succumbing too while doing my internship at the lone public psychiatric ward in our city. It is sad what I saw and even sadder how the patients and families tend to deny an addiction and prefer to think it is witch craft, spiritual attack etc. The stay on the average is 10 days, hardly enough to help someone, and no outpatient programs exist. Maybe in private facilities but the price there I here is high.In the long run, I can only do my might. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. I thought the Nigerian government’s approach (banning the sale of Tramadol) is fire brigade. After all the drug is original for a health purpose. I am of the view that it requires a holistic approach – family, schools, community, government, etc. over a period of time for effect. Just my thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Tramadol…mm… it was the same in my country, Serbia, at the beginning of the 2000s. teenagers could go into a pharmacy and say they are getting it for their grandma/grandpa, and at the time the pharmacists were so clueless and there was no control, it was as easy as that. Then heroin came to be imported in large quantities into the country and for 5-6 years we had an epidemic that ruined most of our generation. Some died then, some later, many fled the country. It is a cure for pain, and it eases the pain of the soul as much as the pain of the body. But as the effect wears off, it all comes back multiplied. It is really a trap we need to keep our youth away from! But the only way is to show them how to deal with pain and overcome it, not by focusing on combating the drugs. You get rid of one drug, another comes, and a lot of casualties along the way. We need to educate ourselves and our people about mental health, as much as we educate them about hygiene. That is my opinion, at least.

    Liked by 1 person

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