When wandering through the alleys and byways of Stone Town, every once in a while you’ll come up to a little square, a little breathing space. It’s at one of these that I am to meet Kasim Nyuni and Saleh, the driving forces behind an upcoming art gallery. When I get there – through the able guidance of my fellow AIT volunteer Sue Wagstaff – we find Kasim negotiating with a carpenter in rapid Swahili. The whitewashed house with the L-shaped patio will not only serve as an art gallery, but also as a cafe and Bed & Breakfast, Sue explains, so new furniture is required.
When we sit down to talk, Kasim and Saleh explain to me that this won’t be a regular art gallery. All the art for sale will be produced by recovering addicts and the proceeds will flow back to the NGO that supports their recovery. “Quitting drugs isn’t enough,” explains Kasim, “You need to change your outlook on life.” Kasim, himself a former addict, has devoted his life to helping others recover from their addictions. In the sober houses, recovering addicts can take part in various activities: English classes, computer classes, art classes. “People don’t come to us because they want to be artists, they come to us because they want to stop being addicts. But in the course of their programme, we often discover their talent and help them develop it.”
Sue, who worked as an AIT volunteer at the sober house last year, is back to help them set up the art gallery, as well as teaching art at the sober house. “These aren’t trained artists,” she explains, “They’ve been on the street, on the outside, their art comes from a different place entirely.”
Soft-spoken Saleh is one of the many who have been helped by Kasim. Once an addict, he is now a fashion designer and painter, who in 2013 exhibited his designs at the Zanzibar Fashion Week in front of hundreds of people. “During the show, we shared my story with the audience. It was great to feel their support. It’s important that we fight prejudice against addicts,” he says, “We want to show the community that we can change, that we can be valuable and productive members of society.”
Kasim agrees. “Addiction takes everything from you. Addicts are disconnected from their families, from the community. We help them bridge that gap.”
Through the art gallery and cafe, Kasim and Saleh want to generate some income for the organisation, so they are less dependent on donations and subsidies. Equally important, however, is that they try to involve the Stone Town community. “We want to keep the prices at the cafe as low as possible, so ordinary Zanzibari can come, have a cup of coffee and see what our recovering addicts can achieve.”
“Every morning I wake up and I think ‘What can I change today?’” says Kasim. It seems to me that, slowly but surely, they are teaching the people of Zanzibar that addiction is a disease, not a sin, and that it can be overcome.
An opening date for the gallery hasn’t yet been set, but keep an eye on this blog. (Originally published on Apr 30, 2014)