By Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
It was as a child in 1983 that Mark Owori first began using drugs. He started by supplying them to his sister, Lucky, who was a soldier in Uganda’s bush war. Eventually, he also became both involved in the war and an addict.
This was under the rule of Ugandan independence leader Milton Obote and during a conflict in which Owori says that everyone had a role – from spying to looking for food. His was to keep soldiers supplied with drugs.
Even now, he says, he doesn’t regret it and he considers his contribution was important to Uganda’s liberation from British colonial rule. But today he is using this experience as a child soldier to ensure that other children don’t go through the same.
Today Owori is 48 and still a drug user, but he is also part of a small group of men known as the “street uncles”, who rehabilitate addicts in Kisenyi, a slum in the capital, Kampala, that is infamous for high levels of drug use among its estimated population of almost 24,000 people.
“People look at the drugs and not the person or the humanity that they have,” he says. “We look at the talent we have and not the drugs we take.”
Owori, or “Uncle Mark”, as he is known, says his own experience in rehab inspired him in 2001 to open a centre in Kisenyi where street children and adults with addiction problems could find other avenues of self-expression beyond using the cheap and toxic drugs available in the slum.
The other street uncles helping to rehabilitate drug users are Musa Ssebagala, 36, Matua Francis, 31, Sam Mugadi, 20, and 25-year-old Kyikabi David. They advocate against the criminalisation of drug users and encourage responsible use among adults.
Hasifa Nakibuli, a 17-year-old who uses cannabis and “jet fuel” [aviation fuel], is one of the estimated 500 children and adults who either live at the centre or visit regularly. For her, limiting her drug use to just two substances is progress.