Not a dark continent – but a dark story

Archie Bland

I wondered if this New York Times story was just horrifying without telling us anything that matters. It’s about ‘flashblood’, a truly distressing – and rare – practice whereby desperate heroin addicts inject themselves with another user’s blood to stave off the worst effects of withdrawal.

Besides the innate grisliness, the health risks are obvious – particularly because the few places where the practice has any kind of traction, like Mombasa and Zanzibar, have very high rates of HIV infection. On the other hand, it really is exceptionally rare, so far as I can see from the Times piece, and the peg is a recent study that reiterates a fact that the researcher involved first noticed years ago. One of the experts who comments had never even heard of the practice before the reporter brought it up. So is this that all-too-common Dark Continent cliche at work, where any bleak story about Africa gets play, and all the better if there’s a hint of the exotic about it?

Well, no, I don’t think so. For one thing, the story gets at an important and fascinating (and awful) trend in the availability and cost of heroin in eastern and southern Africa, which is well worth drawing attention to. More than that, though, it gives a way of specifying and humanising a situation that might otherwise just be grim and ignorable – a problem that even the noblest of foreign desks have to deal with when they try to get difficult subjects attention. And what could be more compelling than the human explanations for such an unspeakable necessity: “Most of the addicts,”  the story explains, “are women. For them, sharing blood is more of an act of kindness than an attempt to get high: a woman who has made enough money to buy a sachet of heroin will share blood to help a friend avoid withdrawal. The friend is often a fellow sex worker who has become too old or sick to find customers.”

Grim, yes. But engaged in the personal consequences and explanations of the phenomenon in a way that takes the story far from the inhuman shapes who populate the pieces that make Africa seem like an exotic, horror-strewn theme park. And worth reading.

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  • Gaetan Fryer

    A terribly sad situation

  • Gaetan Fryer

    A terribly sad situation

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