Tony Kibet Choge, the third born of four siblings, is a visionary gospel musician and an eloquent speaker. He is also behind the ‘Drugs si Swag’ campaign that targets youth faced with drug addiction challenges. He understands their plight too well having walked that road, as he narrated to MWAURA MUIGANA.

The best gift a parent can give to their child is love, proper guidance and upbringing. And that is what Tony Kibet’s parents attempted to provide to their son while adopting the biblical wise counsel, ‘train up a child in the way he should grow, and when he is old he will not depart from it’. Tony had that and much more – a good basic education at Silver Gate Academy in Nairobi’s Saika estate and Light Academy in Karen for his high school education.

The castle started crumbling in 2008 when Tony was transferred from Light Academy to Highway Secondary, a public day school in Nairobi South B, when he was in form three. Being out of the parental wings and the security of boarding school, the new environment radically changed his life as he tried to cope. He made friends with students of varied characters. Peer pressure added salt to the simmering pot.

A friend in the school introduced him to bhang smoking but luckily parted ways with him in 2009 after taking the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams. But having experimented with bhang and although not an addict, the damage had already been done. He enrolled for a three-year hotel management course at Utalii College in October 2010, from where his new-found independence drew him to drinking cheap alcohol. He harboured the wrong perception that he had freedom to do as he wished. Together with his new friends at college, they designed ways of balancing class work and social life, which often took them to drinking dens in nearby Mathare slums. Within no time, his drinking went out of control.

Guilt and embarrassment overwhelmed him for betraying himself and his family’s trust and guidance. After each drinking spree, he had to contend with serious anger management issues that would lead him to throw tantrums over minor issues.

He narrates one example: “One time in June 2011 while traveling back to Nairobi from a class trip in Mombasa, a male classmate jokingly lifted and held my girlfriend in his arms. A jealousy-triggered lunatic fit swept through me. I took off a ring my girlfriend had given to me and threw it to her, signifying the end of our relationship. Hurt and embarrassed she accepted my decision to end the relationship. When I calmed down, I realised my actions were out of control and apologised profusely, but in vain. She would hear none of it. I became very bitter at my actions and her refusal to forgive me. Feeling sad and rejected, I drowned my sorrows in more alcohol.”

When he could no longer cope with his anger and drinking, he sought medical help from the college clinic. The nurse was deeply concerned and shared her fears with Tony’s mother who works at the Utalii College Hotel. His mother took him to a psychologist who diagnosed him with severe depression. The doctor recommended admission in the psychiatric ward at Nairobi’s Avenue Hospital.

Confinement in the caged psychiatric ward gave Tony the impression that he was mentally ill. This deeply disturbed him and resulted in low self-esteem. He was put on anti-depressants and confined in hospital for two weeks.

Addiction rears its ugly head…

“The experience at the psychiatric ward was psychologically and emotionally tormenting and just won’t go away even after I was discharged. I felt like I was being judged as crazy. My self-esteem nose-dived and I took alcohol to numb my feelings of worthlessness. By the time I was in my second year in college in 2012, I was a complete addict and completely out of control,” Tony explains his road to addiction.

He was the leader of his gang of chang’aa drinking and bhang smoking college buddies. He identified the dens in Mathare slums where they could find chang’aa and bhang. This led him to develop a false sense of being popular in college. He financed his habits by stealing electronics and other items from his home, which he sold cheaply to any willing buyer. Tony was high on drugs or nursing a hangover most of the times and he played the game of avoiding his parents and siblings so that his addiction would not surface. But they soon found out and were disheartened.

Tony was in denial and challenged anyone who questioned his habits to prove he was an addict. He became irritable, unruly, violent and unpredictable. He displayed uncharacteristic suicidal behaviour at the least provocation. He often slept with a knife under his pillow. After a heated argument with his mother one night in September 2012, Tony smashed the coffee table. When his younger sister attempted to intervene, he threatened to kill her.

“I dread to imagine what would have become of the situation had the college security officers not intervened. Though it was my entire fault, I sensed rejection and concluded there was nothing for me to live for. I was always at loggerheads with my lecturers, security officers and some students and assumed they all hated me. Those students who reached out to help me faced my wrath. I told them outright I didn’t have a problem and they should back off,” he explains.

“To satisfy my addiction, treat my friends and remain their admired leader, I stole mum’s ATM card and gradually withdrew money from her bank account. She reported the matter to the police who investigated and arrested me for stealing over Ksh 100,000. Though regretting my actions, I felt mortified as the black sheep of the family. I spent a night in the cells but mum dropped the charges, hoping I would learn my lesson and reform. She was damn wrong. I was back in the cells a few days later on a more serious crime,” says Tony.

He explains events leading to his second arrest. “After a night out in the city with my new girlfriend who worked at Utalii College, she bought me a bottle of Vodka to take home. I planned to smuggle it to the hostels to enjoy with my friends. As soon as I boarded a matatu to college, I began sipping from the bottle. By the time I was dropped near the Utalii College gate on Thika superhighway late at night, I had emptied the bottle. I was so drunk to the point of losing my mind. I started stoning motorists and one stone smashed the window of a matatu, seriously injuring a passenger. The enraged commuters subjected me to mob justice and I was luckily saved by a police officer on patrol. I was locked up at Muthaiga police station where I blacked out as soon as I was dumped into the cell. I spent the night there, totally unaware of where I was.”

Nothing beats a mother’s love. When Tony’s mum visited him at the police station the following day, he told her he was falsely accused for a crime he did not commit. Believing her son, she picked a quarrel with the policemen accusing him of wrongly confining Tony. But there were so many witnesses that Tony could not get away with this one. His parents parted with a lot of money to buy him freedom after ‘an-out-of-court’ settlement was agreed upon.

After this incident, Tony was admitted for the second time at the Avenue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Doctors recommended that he be checked into a drug rehabilitation facility. However, Tony was not ready to give up drugs or alcohol and he played a hide and seek game with his doctors and parents for the next three months to avoid going to rehab.

“The reality of my addiction dawned on me on August 19, 2012 when I was caught, together with four friends, smoking bhang at the hostel’s roof-top. We were all suspended from college for a year. I had a hard time accepting what had become of me. I started living with the false hope and illusion that I could relocate to Germany to live with a relative. In an effort to save me from complete ruin and indications that I was going crazy, my family forcibly took me to a rehab in Limuru in September, 2012,” explains Tony.

“At first I resisted the programme but later started appreciating that it was aimed at curing my alcoholism disease. Sharing experiences with others at the centre made me aware that I was sick and needed help. As soon as I embraced the principles of acceptance, humility, willingness, honesty and open-mindedness, I started on the journey to recovery. I completed the programme in December 2012, determined to walk the straight path,” adds Tony.

Though he returned home a changed man recovering from addiction, those who knew him treated him with suspicion. He found it difficult to make new friends and his life became one lonely journey. He needed to keep away from his old friends to live to his own promise of not relapsing. He is slowly making new friends who are a positive influence to his life. He is grateful for the support he continues to get from his loving family. He was allowed to go back to college in November last year and is looking forward to graduating next year.

Becoming an anti-drugs advocate…

While in rehab, Tony revived his talent in writing and performing music. This led him to write songs with messages for people struggling with addiction. One of his songs – Rock Bottom – is inspired by his own experience and encourages those going through similar experiences that they can still turn their lives round.

He explains, “When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. You have to come face to face with your problem. You must have the courage to confront addiction as that is the only way to get out of it.”

He performed the song during a function organised by his former classmates on January 17, 2013, at the Carnivore Restaurant. The excited cheers from the crowd inspired him to record the song and a video in June 2013 with help from his parents. He has released another song  Revive, which gives a message of hope to drug addicts and urges parents not to reject their children but instead help them out of the problem.

Tony co-manages the ‘Drugs si Swag’ campaign, which reaches out to young people to discuss issues related to various kinds of addiction. They encourage those suffering from addiction to accept it is a disease they are not in control of, and therefore seek help in rehab centres. The campaign targets schools, colleges and churches. They have visited various towns including Mombasa, Machakos, Nakuru and Kisumu and hope to reach more areas this year.

“My personal motto – ‘don’t drug me down’ – has helped me take responsibility for my recovery and my goal is not to go into relapse. I know I can stay clean and I encourage those suffering from addiction to seek help,” Tony concludes.   mwaura@parents.co.ke

Published July 2014