The Gambia is a transit country for drugs and our law enforcement is working tirelessly to strike down on every suspect and every hiding place. Unfortunately too much of the drugs are staying in the country, affecting our young people and by that the whole community. It is not easy for anyone to keep up with the development of drugs. Criminal minds have always been very creative, and the inventions of new drugs seem to be a never-ending story. In many countries drugs have become a huge problem, and not only because of the drug addicts, but also because of the sellers who use young boys and girls as their decoys.
These young boys and girls, who run around uncontrolled by their parents, are easy victims for the drug sellers. The kids have no adult role models, they have no money and a low self-esteem. They search for a context where they can fit in, and drug sellers and other criminals are experts on reading the signals these kids are sending. Many times we believe that criminals are stupid people, but it is quite the opposite. They are mostly very smart but they use their intelligence in the wrong way.
They lack impulse control and search for quick money and satisfaction. They are not prepared to work hard for their money when they see others with their pockets full.
Look at the music videos, look at the so-called gangsta rap, and you will see all the temptations young people have if they don’t understand better. Fast cars, cool clothes, jewelry, sexy women and a life style that is fake but they don’t analyze it – they just want it no matter the cost.
To understand why all these ”cool” things appear so attractive to young people, we need to understand some about the human brain. Teenage kids act in a certain way because their brains are not fully developed yet. They really don’t understand better and it doesn’t matter how many times we question their actions.
We need to understand the level of development the teenagers are in, and help them through it. One part of the human brain is a grey substance called the cerebral cortex. Yes, I know, it is hard to get all these Latin names but please don’t give up yet. The cerebral cortex is divided into something called lobes and these lobes have different functions. They mature from the neck and forward, so the frontal lobe (in the forehead) is the last part to mature. That doesn’t happen until a person is between 25-30 years old and that is unfortunate because this lobe is responsible for our cognitive ability. This means that the part of the human brain that is controling planning, common sense and decision making is the part that is the last to mature.
A teenager is liberating him/herself from the parents, this is a normal behaviour and if we keep that in mind we are able to help our kids through that stage of life without damage. When you have read this far you might protest and say that no one helped you through your teenage years and you came out well anyway. I’m happy for you, but we need to consider that times are always changing and our kids have many more temptations than we had before. When I grew up there were no smartphones or internet. The TV only had a few channels and none of them showed anything indecent. For those who were bold there were magazines with more or less nude ladies, but that was it. There have always been drugs, but the speed of that evolution is faster than ever.
Because the frontal lobe is maturing so slowly, the behaviour controling functions also mature slowly. This is why teenagers tend to be more impulsive, lack impulse control and take more risks because they actually don’t understand better. This is why us adults need to be safeguarding them, giving them rules and guidelines for the kids’ own safety. When my sons grew up their father and I had certain rules they had to follow. We always wanted to know who their friends were and where they lived. We were in contact with the other parents so all of us felt secure when our kids met in each other’s homes. Our kids were not allowed to use tobacco and alcohol before they became 18.
We always told them that if any of their friends questioned them about the non-smoking and non-alcohol rule they should blame us parents for it. Every kid knows how angry parents can become if the kids break the house rules, so it was smart to blame the parents instead of appearing as a wimp.
When my sons became older they actually told me that sometimes they had used the method of blaming their parents for what they were not allowed to do and it was efficient. By this method our sons were protected from both the temptations and the peer pressure. At the age of 18 people are considered as adults, they can vote, get a driver licence and have to be responsible for their actions. If we can protect our kids from damaging themselves in different ways before that age, the chances are larger that they will avoid the temptations when they have matured more.
During the teenage years a substance called dopamine is increasing. Dopamine is a part of the human brain’s reward system and is important for the experience of pleasure. Positive experiences like eating good food, having sex, listening to music and having fun is releasing more dopamine in the brain’s reward system. Even damaging behaviour can release dopamine which can lead to addictions. If our kids go unattended they can easily fall for temptations and if the temptations are drugs the kids will become addicts in an instance. Some drugs look like candy so the kids don’t even realize what they have got until it is too late. The drugs will be that masters of the kid’s minds and take over every desire and every action.
During my stay in The Gambia this summer, I got the opportunity to visit Jeshwang Juvenile Prison together with my husband Musa Bah and a young lawyer, Caroline Mendy from Malick Jallow’s law firm. The visit there was arranged by my friend Malick Jallow and he goes there on a regular basis to help kids with legal issues. Malick started a foundation some years ago, Malick Jallow Foundation, and thanks to his committment a lot of Gambian kids have got legal help. The youngest of the boys, who were there when we visited the juvenile prison, was only 13 years old. He is just a kid and as such he should be home with his parents and go to school so he can build a life. I had the opportunity to ask the Prison Commander a lot of questions before we were let in to meet the inmates.
The largest problem among the juvenile inmates seems to be drugs. The parents have noticed that their kids behavior has changed radically and they don’t know how to handle them. Sooner rather than later the kids get in trouble with the law and they end up in prison. The Prison Commander told us about a case when a 15-year-old boy killed one of his friends while he was under the influence of drugs. This kid will stay in prison for many years, and according to the law a kid can even be sentenced to life in prison. We must raise awareness of the risks of drugs in our society. We must safeguard our kids and not turn a blind eye to the tempations in today’s modern society. Being sentenced to prison at a very young age is not a solution. Jeshwang Juvenile Prison is giving the kids there consultation and education, but still these kids are branded for life. Let our young ones spread their wings, but let us protect them from breaking them.