KAMPALA, UGANDA — A small bottle containing 500 milliliters (about 1 pint) of murky, brown aviation fuel is cheaper than a meal.
Sam, 14, knows this fact because he faces it every day. And on many days, he makes the same choice: He inhales and sometimes even sips the fuel from a bottle.
(Global Press Journal is not publishing Sam’s full name because of this publication’s ethics standards.)
A meal costs between 2,500 and 5,000 Ugandan shillings (about 66 cents and about $1.33), Odong says. He collects and sells scrap metal to support himself, but he often doesn’t earn that much.
A 250-milliliter bottle (about half a pint) of aviation fuel costs him 1,000 shillings (about 27 cents), he says. That’s plenty of fuel to stave off his hunger pangs.
“It can take me for two days without eating,” he says.
Aside from the health consequences of inhaling or consuming fuel – and the challenges that children such as Sam face for cognitive and social development because they struggle to ensure that their basic needs are met – local officials in Kampala say those children are causing problems on the streets of Kisenyi, a busy area in the capital’s downtown.
“I believe the aviation fuel gives these children courage to get involved in petty theft and violent fights, which makes the public perceive Kisenyi as unsafe,” says Adam Kasimu Kyazze, a local council chairman.
Some of the children have been arrested and taken to rehabilitation centers, Kyazze says, but those efforts haven’t effected long-term change.
The number of children on the street in the Kisenyi area has grown from about 400 to about 2,000 in the past four years, says Jafari Ssali, an information officer for that neighborhood. Some of those children are involved in crimes and violence, Ssali says.
It’s not clear how the children are getting the fuel. Two women were arrested in May for selling the fuel to children, says Luke Owoyesigyire, a Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman, but he adds that police still don’t know where those women got the fuel.
Aviation fuel contains substances that have mind-altering properties, says Brian Mutamba, a psychiatrist at Butabika Hospital.
The fuel might “act as a depressant of the brain activity and limit certain control of the brain, inhibiting its proper functioning, which can result [in] lack of appetite and influence behavior,” Mutamba says.
Those effects are temporary, Mutamba says. A person’s body is likely to continually adapt to the fuel and become addicted to it, he adds.
Some children who consume the fuel acknowledge that it spurs them to petty theft and other crimes.
Apollo, 17, says he no longer feels cold or fear when he consumes aviation fuel, and he is more likely to steal from people walking in the area.
Apollo is far from alone in touting the fuel’s effects.
“With a sniff at my fuel, my mind gets creative, and I start having plans and strategies on how I would get my next victim,” says Yasin, a 15-year-old who says he came to Kisenyi from Uganda’s Lwengo district two years ago to look for work.
Yasin says he inhales the fuel’s fumes when he can’t find scrap metal to sell.
Like the other children, he doesn’t reveal all the details of how he gets the fuel – he says only that he buys it in the neighborhood.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.