“I really need a beer,” he said. It was true, he was showing signs of withdrawal. He had consumed enough beer over enough time to become an alcoholic. According to Webster that means someone affected with alcoholism, a chronic disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines it as a disease. That is a lot of baggage for a six year old to carry, which was why he was crying on my father’s lap.
One year ago Samweli and Emanueli were in a stable home, equivalent to the Tanzanian lower middle-class. Their parents split in June last year and Samweli moved with his mother, Mariamu, back to her home. When school started he was sent to live with his fathers relatives in a better school district. Samweli’s aunt was an alcoholic, and she started giving him beer. A family friend of Samweli’s explained that “She is used to giving some to her children when she buys. She shares with the children.”
But the sobbing child did not seem to appreciate it. The concept that it is a moral obligation to protect children is as old as motherhood; the idea alcohol is potentially dangerous for children began to take shape in the 1950’s. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 1954 that the French Government had “launched a nation-wide inquiry in the ravages of child alcoholism”. This story by the Sydny Morning Herald told shocked parents that “drink is causing delirium tremens – and sometimes death” when at the time it was thought to be safer than tap water. Samweli thankfully avoided alcohol poisoning, a very real threat to the smaller bodies that consume alcohol. His drinking habits put him in danger of hypothermia, hypoglycemia, metabolic acidosis, reparatory depression, seizures, and coma, and we do not know how much Samweli’s brain was damaged.
Still the scariest part is that Samweli will walk into adulthood carrying a history of addiction, carrying a body that is walking the line of falling into dependency. The NIAAA says, “People who start drinking at an early age-for example, at age 14 or younger-are at a much higher risk of developing alcohol problems at some point in their lives compared to someone who starts drinking at age 21 or after.” This unseen scar is evidence of a horrible abuse, one that will impact Samweli as much as any abuse received when its the adult drinking. And he is not alone.
In 2011 Briton was shocked that a three-year-old from the West Midlands was treated for alcoholism, becoming the youngest to be treated in British Hospitals. Record setting perhaps but research showed he was not an anomaly with four five-year-olds having been treated in the previous five years. The year before this came out NBC reported that caregivers giving children common drugs and alcohol was “fueling a dangerous but hidden form of child abuse.” They referenced the first large-scaled study on the subject by Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver led by Dr. Shan Yin. Yin’s 8 year study found 1,439 reports of drug and alcohol poisoning in children under 7 to the National Poison Data System coded as “malicious”. In Africa children addicted to alcohol has been a subject of concern in some journals, but not nearly as widely recognized as it should be.
My family has been a part of Samweli’s life since his birth, our friendship with his mother, Mariamu, goes back to her childhood, and Samweli calls my father Babu, grandfather. Last December during a visit to Tanzania Mariamu expressed worry about Samweli living with his aunt, and Dad asked why she had not taken him back. Crying she told Dad she did not have the money to travel. Dad agreed to help and after five attempts Mariamu finally got her son back.
Dad told me “I went to visit him, sat on the couch and Emanueli came over and just started crying and said ‘my brothers hooked on beer’ and then his brother came over and they both sat on my lap and cried.”
Even though it is a tragedy that brought Samweli, as a 6 year old, to tears begging his Babu for beer, it could have been worse. An American mother, who’s son began drinking at age seven, and became addicted, tells an alternate parallel. After a divorce her husband kept her son supplied with alcohol and before he was 18 he overdosed and attempted suicide. This mother tells a tragic narative of her sons self-destruction which she firmly believes is due to young alcoholism. For Samweli, who is back living with a very caring and now employed mother, the story holds hope that this will not define his life. But he will now have to face his life with the very real threat of an addiction, and one that was given to him from the adult who should have been protecting him.