It is a cold morning in Naivasha. Tens of students rush to the dining hall for a cup of porridge and a piece of loaf before heading for their classes ready for the day’s lessons.
It is, however, the second group that attracts more attention, as it holds a discussion near the main office before heading into a laboratory. The group of about 10 students cleans the lab before setting out various equipment and chemicals on the table ready for various tests.
To a visitor, the tests look like a ritual, as one student, assisted by a female teacher, uses scissors to get pinches of hair from some students, and places them into marked test tubes.
What follows is a series of tests and recordings, as the students and the teachers carefully and expertly sample the specimens left behind.
Welcome to Father Abraham High School in Naivasha, where they have discovered a ‘Marijuana testing kit’ that can easily tell students who have been smoking bhang in or out of school. With cases of students taking drugs in the country rising by the day, the school located in Nyonjoro area of Naivasha has literally decided to take the bull by its horns.
The school was incidentally on the news last year when it confirmed that it had installed surveillance cameras in various sections of its compound to monitor the activities of students. The CCTV cameras are placed in strategic locations, including the dormitories, and have been handy in dealing with disciplinary cases in the school that opened its doors in 2011. This time the school has gone an extra mile and discovered the testing kit in a bid to deal head on with drug abuse among students.
Principal Gatehi Njoroge, the brain behind the kit, says they have 129 students from various backgrounds. He says in the last two years they had serious disciplinary problems, forcing them to install CCTV cameras mainly to catch those smoking bhang.
“This curbed the problem to an extent, but we could not control the students during their holidays and on days out in the nearby Naivasha town,” he says. Mr Njoroge, who is also the chemistry teacher, tells how they sought marijuana testing kits from the US, but abandoned the idea after learning that a disposable kit was going for Sh12,000 per kit.
But with the support of the school director Andrew Chege, they used over Sh100,000 in a six-month research, which has borne fruit.
Njoroge says once a person smokes marijuana, the elements of the bhang (cannabinoids) are excreted and remain in the hair for 90 days. Bhang gets out of the body’s system through the hair. And with the test, the school can easily know who has taken the drug in the last 90 days and this has seen cases of drug abuse in the school reduce. “The process involves taking strands of hair from the students and mixing them with various reagents. We then observe the results for three hours,” he says.
If the colour turns purple it means the student has been using the drug. Such a student is put under watch and counseling and the parents informed. Since the random tests were introduced, 16 students have been found to have traces of the drug.
“Those who were positive were found to come from Nairobi and are senior students” said Njoroge.
Unlike other schools, where the student is sent home, things are different in this school, as the student is embraced and taken through the hazardous effects of using drugs.
“The CCTV and marijuana test have helped us to maintain high level of discipline and also improve the academic standards among students,” he says. Njoroge says they are in the process of patenting the test and handing it over to the Government chemist for certification and approval. “Parents in recent years have abdicated their parental responsibilities to teachers and hence the sharp rise in drug abuse in our schools,” he says. According to results from the test kit, students in Form Two and Three were the most affected, but the percentage of exposure is on the decline since the tests started.
One of the Form Four students, who declines to be named, admits that he was using marijuana before he arrived in the school.
“This is my fourth school. I was expelled from my previous school after I was caught smoking bhang in the toilet,” he says.
He says he was shocked when he was tested early in the year and results turned positive. He expected another suspension. “Instead, I was taken through counseling and I have vowed to stop the habit of smoking marijuana,” he says.
The National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) Chairman John Mututho says the authority is aware of the testing kit and is ready to support the school. The former Naivasha MP is full of praise for the initiative, saying many schools and parents have tried to wish away the problem.
He terms drug abuse in learning institutions in the country as very serious and points to secondary schools, colleges and universities in towns as the most affected. “We know of cases in some colleges where drug prevalence is over 60 per cent and the number of those abusing drugs is on the increase,” he says.
Mututho says the authority is seeking more equipment that will help fight drug abuse in schools and the increasing number of drug peddlers.
“The biggest challenge in fighting drugs has been what to do with those using the drugs. We should consider setting up rehabilitation centres,” he says. He says the country has put so much focus on alcohol abuse among drivers and forgotten learning institutions, where drug abuse is at its highest. Naivasha sub-county Education Officer Mbugua Kabaki says he is aware of the testing kit and that NACADA officials had visited the school. He says cases of students abusing drugs and alcohol are there, though minimal.
“I have heard of the testing kit, which is analysing hair to determine whether a student has smoked marijuana, and we are still waiting for it to be certified,” he says. Cathy Wanjohi, a counselor, admits that many youths are using drugs. She blames this on peer pressure and lack of parental guidance.
Lifebloom International’s Ms Wanjohi says many of the students engage in drugs either on an experimental basis or to show that they have ‘matured’.
“Many of the students start with smoking cigarettes before moving to hard stuff like bhang, cocaine and even heroin,” she says. The counselor points an accusing finger to parents who leave their children at the mercy of teachers, fellow students and the world.
“The students also want to be identified with a certain group or class in their school and this has led to an increase in cases of drug and alcohol abuse,” she says.