Note: Jerry Mboweni was the last man to finish the 2009 Comrades Marathon. He was also a recovering heroin addict.
This is his story, as told to Andy Ellis.
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Men’s Health South Africa – and we liked it so much, we’re bringing it back as part of our #MHReads series.
By Andy Ellis
Photographs by Piers Buckle
I gave up four kilometres from the end. There was no point in carrying on. If I ran at eight minutes per kilometre I’d cross the line in 32 minutes. The cut-off was in 24. I had the outline of a speech in my mind, my reasons for failure. I decided to polish it on the sweeper truck. Where was the sweeper truck? The pain was
killing me. I was worried about my wife.
She was alone in an unfamiliar city, waiting for me at the finish. It was getting dark. And then I had a thought… God could shorten the distance. I saw the three-kilometre marker. I had 19 minutes. If I walked at six minutes per kilometre I’d make it. I could make it! At the two-kilometre mark I started running, entered the stadium, heard the countdown, the crowd going crazy. Run. I had to run.
I crossed the line: 11h59m59s. If I hadn’t been the last man to complete the 2009 Comrades Marathon, you wouldn’t know me. We wouldn’t be on this run together. You wouldn’t be asking me questions for a magazine. Perfect timing has brought us together for a reason. And so, I will tell you my story.
With alcohol you can go to the store, buy what you can afford and take it somewhere safe. With heroin you can’t wait. Your body needs it so badly, you are so sick, so debilitated, that you take it on the spot. It’s dire. When you are at that stage of addiction you find your fix in dangerous places. It took me 15 years to get to that point. Maybe the process of addiction takes longer when you smoke the stuff. I have never injected it. I’ve used it every other way – but never the needle.
I took my first hit in Tanzania. I guess it’s a kind of holding country for drugs. The drugs come in from places like Pakistan and cool off before being sent to the rest of the world.
I guess the dealers trade some of the stuff while they are waiting to ship. I can’t remember why I started. I was young and didn’t think much about what I was doing. I only smoked on weekends. Then on Wednesdays and weekends. And so it went. In the end I needed a fix every half hour to stay alive.
Addiction is a thief. It robs you of everything. I owned a successful car wash and carpet-cleaning business. I employed 11 people and drove two cars. That’s all gone. Shortly after my brother died I fell apart. We were close. His death was a tremendous loss, an excuse to move to a different level of drug abuse. I got into crack. I’d arrive at work in the morning, set up the day and get high. Funny, my customers didn’t know that I was on drugs.
Money, any money, is critical to a junkie. When my business failed I drove a taxi for a while. That fell apart. I drifted, conning landlords and avoiding rent. A series of events led me to the house of drug dealer. It seemed like a solution. I decided to live at his house. The only condition to living there was that I’d have to buy heroin from him and smoke it on the premises. I slept sitting up – people came in at all hours and the lights would go on. Then I’d smoke again. It wasn’t long before I realised that the quality of his stuff wasn’t always great. And I would get a better night’s sleep on the street.
I met people, other users, who taught me how to make a reasonably easy buck. Before the grime of the street dirties you, the run-out-of-petrol scam works pretty well. Car guarding also pays, but as soon as your appearance turns you have to resort to begging. I found refuge in a public toilet. It seemed safer to sleep there at night, especially since it was housed inside a cemetery… sorry, you have to stop interrupting me with your questions. Am I talking too much? Let me continue. Where was I?
During the honeymoon of drug addiction, the time when you’ve still got a job and the clothes on your back, you can aim for three big highs a week. It’s – how should I say – more recreational? When you’re on the street you smoke to stave off the terrible sickness. That and your desperate situation. When you take heroin everything is instantly bearable – your situation, the cold, the wet, the hunger. You believe that it’s not all that bad, perhaps only temporary.
Ten in the morning. That was my cut-off time for finding heroin every day. Back then a “starter” would set you back R25. It wasn’t enough to make you feel high, it was just enough to ward off the withdrawal sickness and make you feel “normal” for a few hours. For addicts who live on the street this is a basic requirement for survival. Food comes second. I’d go door-to-door saying that I was a destitute refugee. The stories I told were believable and sad – my life depended on them. Sometimes people would give me food instead of money. If I got lucky it would be something like KFC – much easier to sell for drug money. That is how I lived for a year and a half.
How am I doing? My throat is dry from talking. Let’s think about turning soon. This was meant to be an easy run for me, and I have just recovered from the flu. I don’t want to push it too far. Did I tell you that I’m doing a 10km race next month? I’m hoping to run it in under an hour – just as training. When I was training for Comrades I ran six days a week. Running didn’t get me off drugs, you know. Let me tell about that.
I have a niece, an angel. One day I went to her place to scrounge for money. She told me about this kind woman who sponsored a rehab programme for street kids. My niece gave me money for the train and insisted that I try to get onto the programme. I took the money, used it on drugs, but attended a meeting. They allowed me to stay for a few weeks, even though I was too old for the programme. Things started looking up. I got work collecting fare on a taxi. The money bought more drugs. But my journey towards recovery had begun.
On the evening before I was meant to go to the hospital for evaluation, I blew everything I had on drugs. I woke up late in a den somewhere. One of the dealers pulled me outside. I saw my niece. She had tracked me down, going from dealer to dealer until she found me. Because of my binge I was the last person in line at the hospital. My niece had to leave. I didn’t care. I had a bench to sit on, a stash of heroin and some crack in my bag. I went outside to smoke it and came back to lie on the bench. And so it went. I didn’t mind spending all day there. Finally, a doctor sees me. He confirms my habit. He gives me a long speech about heroin and then says that I must go to the detox hospital. I asked him about transport. He said no.
Detox is a four-day process in which they reduce the chemical addiction. They gave me Valium and methadone in doses until I was clean enough for the next stop – a Christian rehab centre. The people there were “hallelujah this” and “hallelujah that”. I felt like I needed to run from all of the hallelujah. I didn’t want God; I wanted to stay off the drugs. I didn’t sing during the services and kept my eyes open during the prayers. Then, one day, one of the people told a story about a man who was paralysed. Jesus touched him and he could walk. I thought, Wow. That man is like me. And that was my turning point. The more I heard about God the more I came to trust Him.
The magazine you’re writing this story for – I’m not sure they want to hear about Jesus. About God. You said you were more interested in my running. But that is only a part of who I am now. It is not how I stay clean. I have gone from living in a graveyard to living with God. My faith in his control of my destiny is what keeps me clean.
And what of the support of my family? My brother is dead and my mother lives in Tanzania. But I’ll tell you how I met my wife.
After rehab I got a job at a car wash. I love cleaning cars. I got paid R85 a day. The backpackers I slept at cost R35 for the night. That left me with R50 in my pocket. I had started lifting weights in rehab and wanted to get really strong. I decided to use my money to join a gym. That is when I started running. After a few weeks a beautiful woman pulled up at the car wash. We got chatting and I told her that I was looking for a church to attend. She invited me to hers. Guess what kind of church it was? A hallelujah church, a charismatic church. That woman is now my wife. Look here. Look at this SMS she sent me. She wished me luck for my run with you. She knows how important running is to me.
You know, I grew up as a fatty boy. I like to eat and put on weight easily. Food has been one of my challenges since recovery. While I was in the early stages of my addiction I used to train. Later on, food came second to drugs. But now that I am on track I need to be disciplined and exercise regularly to balance my weight. That is one of the reasons I run. Exercise is important to keeping things balanced in your life. Maybe this magazine can get me on a special training programme for my road to the next Comrades. It would give me great joy to have my example inspire others.
Actually, I think my biggest example to others is my faith in God. I have set up a weekly community support group where I speak about drugs, codependency and the wisdom that lies in God’s word.
Did I tell you that training for the Comrades created a financial burden? Well, it did. I needed extra petrol money to get to training sessions before and after work. It may not seem like much. But we did not have the money. God gives us what we need, not the things that we desire out of greed.
I told my wife that He who provided the car, would provide the petrol. He did. Do you see how my life, my faith and my running are connected? Because I know that God will take care of my future I only focus on today. What healthy food I’m going to eat. How far I’m going to run. What I’m going to speak about at the support group. If the men reading this story take anything from me it will be the gift of living in the present moment. Right now, this moment is all that we have. Maybe that future will be as a drug rehabilitation counsellor. Who knows. Will I get my patients to run as a part of their therapy? For sure… look, I’m sorry if what I am saying is not the story you were looking for.
Here’s another thing that might not go down too well. I am meant to call myself a recovering drug addict. But I consider myself a recovered addict. I
am done with drugs. You asked me if I thought addicts could get clean without religion. I said yes. But they are the people who should be termed “recovering” addicts. Without God, they can easily slip back into addiction. Ah, here we go. My car is parked over there. Thank you for the run, it was good. Pardon? You want one last word for the record?
My name is Jerry Mboweni. I am a recovered addict. My faith assures me that my future is not in my past. I will not go back to drugs because God wants me to spread his word and help others. This year’s Comrades marathon will mark the six-year anniversary of my being free from heroin. You could be there with me. I’ll be one of the first people to line up at the start. But this time I won’t be the last man to finish.