By Nokuthaba Dlamini
Loveness Dhliwayo is having sleepless nights agonising over her eight-year-old son’s addiction to an intoxicating powder known as Jolly Juice that school children sniff as some form of recreation.
Dhliwayo, a 39-year-old mother from Victoria Falls, says her son who is in Grade 3 at a government school in the resort city started behaving strangely at the height of the lockdown that was imposed to control the spread of Covid-19 last year.
Initially, she could not believe it when one of her neighbours informed her about his son’s dangerous habits until they started noticing a drastic change in his behaviour that included bouts of violent outbursts.
Dhliwayo was devastated when she discovered that the boy was in the habit of sniffing Jolly Juice powder, a craze that is said to have hit most schools around the country during the lockdown.
The Jolly Juice powder, which is sold openly by informal traders in Victoria Falls, contains acidifiers, artificial flavours, colour additives and sweeteners.
“I have beaten him several times trying to discourage him from the habit, but it seems like I am fighting a losing battle.
“It appears like he is now sniffing this powder everyday and I am at a loss as to what would become of him.”
Dhliwayo believes her son became addicted to the powder due to peer pressure during the lockdown as he spent most of his time playing with his friends in the high-density suburb of Mkhosana’s Mfelandawonye section.
Schools were forced to close down most of last year after the country went into lockdown in March to slow down the spread of Covid-19.
“He sniffs the powder with his friends, including some who are older than him,” she added. “I can no longer control my own son because once he sniffs the Jolly Juice powder, he becomes violent and smashes things around the house.
“On two occasions he tried to bite me.”
According to parents that spoke to CITE, the Jolly Juice powder craze has hit most of the public schools in Victoria Falls as pupils are idle most of the time due to a go-slow by teachers that began at the start of the term in March.
Pupils attend lessons twice a week because teachers say they are incapacitated to come to school every day due to poor remuneration.
Schools say they also need to reduce the size of their classes as part of measures to control the spread of Covid-19.
A local headmaster admitted that the sniffing of Jolly Juice powder by pupils at the institution had reached crisis levels.
He said what worried him the most was that children were becoming hooked on substance abuse at a very early age.
“This began during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown and we started witnessing it when schools opened this term,” he told CITE.
“Through our investigations, we established that the problem is more prevalent among Grade 3 up to Upper Six students.
“We visited a nearby tuck-shop and they told us that those powders are in high demand among students at my school and that explained the whole addiction problem.
He added: “For those in high school and even private colleges in town have reported that students snack on popcorn sprinkled with mbanje (marijuana), but monitoring them is difficult as teachers report for work twice a week due to incapacitation”.
A sachet of jolly juice powder costs $15 at local tuckshops while drug peddlers sell a twist of mbanje for US$1.
Another school head said the abuse of Jolly Juice powder at the school was getting out of hand.
“The students are engaging in all these activities from children as young as those in the Early Childhood Development classes, who have their senior brothers in the upper grades,” he said.
“The biggest challenge, however, in trying to solve the crisis is the issue of teacher’s absence due to incapacitation and poor remuneration while on the other hand, reducing this crisis has been hampered by the laws governing children’s protection rights.
He added: ” We have been warned against punishing or beating a child, so even though we are constantly reminded of how these laws work, we have not been given practical solutions to reprimand the children.
“In the end teachers and the whole administration end up doing nothing to avoid situations like losing your job, jail sentences and community rejection. “
Jabulani Mpofu, Matabeleland North provincial education director, said he had received reports about the abuse of Jolly Juice powder in schools in the province and investigations would be carried out to establish the extent of the problem.
“I was contacted by my ministry in Harare to look into this matter,” Mpofu said.
“I gather that primary schools like Chinotimba and Baobab have the highest cases of sniffing and smoking of jolly juice.
“So that’s what we will be investigating.”
Taungana Ndoro, the Primary and Secondary Education ministry spokesperson, said they were aware of the crisis in schools, but said it was the responsibility of parents and guardians to fight the scourge.
“We have heard about the issue of learners who smoke Jolly Juice powder, but we can’t ban it as the ministry because it’s something that is bought by the parents,” Ndoro said.
“Our policy is clear that we will never support such substances and alcohol or marijuana smoking.
“So now it’s going to be up to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to monitor (the importation of) those substances such as jolly juice that come through our border posts, which are described as legal, but with toxic and harmful substances.”
He added: “The issue of monitoring the children does not fall on the shoulders of the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
“Discipline starts at home, so if you as a parent do not monitor or discipline your own child when they engage in such mischievous behaviour to make them pure and responsible citizens, l think that is expecting too much from the government.
“It is the parents, the community and the guardians who are supposed to be fully involved in monitoring their children’s behaviour before they report for school.”
Jolly Juice powder contains chemicals such as sodium cyclamate, colouring agents such as tartrazine and sweeteners among other ingredients that are said to have harmful effects on the body, including the brain.
One study revealed that tartrazine once sniffed ” is reduced to an aromatic amine, which is a highly sensitive substance producing reactions such as urticarial (skin rash), rhinitis (runny nose), asthma, purpura (purple skin bruising) and systemic anaphylaxis (shock).”
According to the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drugs Network (ZCLDN) survey, drug abuse has become a serious problem among youths who in 2019 made up 45 percent of the patients admitted into the country’s mental health institutions.
ZCLDN said the number of youths reported to engage in drug abuse in 2017 was pegged at 43 percent and the figure rose to 45 percent in 2018 and 57 percent in 2019.
A 2020 study done by Zimbabwe Open University on drug abuse in secondary schools found that most students become addicted to drugs due to peer pressure and notorious behaviour that is driven by academic failures, stress and limited freedom.