Even before singer Jackie Chandiru talks to you, the scars all over her body tell a story.
It is a story the once popular Ugandan artiste, who made her name across East Africa as part of the all-female trio Blu3, will tell for the rest of her life. You will be forgiven for thinking the marks were caused by a fire. Far from it. They started as one injection to relieve a constant back pain, then evolved into tens of injections that changed her life for worse.
In 2004, Jackie was involved in an accident that left her injured. She developed a severe back problem, which would not allow her to freely move and perform on stage as she used to. It was painful.
The accident happened when Jackie was weaning herself from the popular Blu3 singing trio, which had broken up. The other members of the group that came into prominence after winning a talent show were Lilian Mbabazi and Cinderella Sanyu. Being an energetic performer as she sang the numerous high-tempo songs including the catchy Gold Digger, Jackie did not want her fans to notice that there was a problem. So, she sought the help of a specialist in Kampala who suggested a minor surgery.
She was not for the idea, since it would lock her out of her performances for a while, and she was at the peak of her career. So she requested for more time to think about it. Meanwhile, she was given a pain killer, pethidine, to manage her pain, with a warning that the drug was addictive.
“Unfortunately, I got addicted to it. At the peak of my addiction, I had a sense of false security that I was doing fine. I could not perform without taking the pethidine injection. By the time I came to realise things had gone wrong, I was already deep in the throes of addiction, a dark pit from which it is incredibly hard to climb out,” she says. “This became my life.”
Pethidine is an opioid used in managing chronic pain. Overdose of the drug can be fatal. The drug causes sedation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation and difficulty in breathing. It is available in hospitals and is used by orthopaedic, surgical, cancer and obstetrics patients.
Because of their addictive nature, opioids are classified under the Dangerous Drug Act (DDA). The drugs are always under lock and key.
Every year, the crisis of opioid overdose and addiction grows deadlier across the world, including in East Africa. It is an epidemic that affects the old and the young; the rich and the poor. It stretches across genders and races.
Jackie burst into the limelight in 2004 at the age of 18, with Blu3, after winning the Coca Cola Popstars TV show alongside Lilian and Cinderella.
However, after a year of being together, they separated and each went on to solo careers.
“My journey after separation was harder. And I hoped that we would come back together because we were marketed as three ladies and I really hoped that would stick,” she said.
“Somehow, the other ladies went on their own, I did my own music, though it was not working that much. Later on, I met a producer who helped me compose the ‘Gold Digger’ song, which first came out in Central Uganda,” the musician told Lifestyle.
Before that, Jackie had produced three songs in her native Luganda language, which went big, but ‘Gold Digger’ catapulted her to stardom across borders.
At that point, Jackie was deep into her painkiller addiction and would inject herself even 20 times a day – for the high, not to soothe the pain any more.
In 2005, she started by injecting the veins, using the small insulin injections and would get into the veins easier. This was being done by a friend. After that, she graduated to injecting any part of her body because she had blocked all her veins with her numerous injections.
For five years, she took the drug on a daily basis.
Word was going round that she was abusing hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, since her behaviour had started changing. She would be seen walking around unkempt, for example, which many of her friends and fans found unusual.
Addiction getting worse
“My country was not very good to me, people talked and took advantage of the fact that I had an addiction, but they built stories around my addiction and in the end, I became hopeless,” she told Lifestyle.
“I was tired. Life was meaningless, I felt worthless, betrayed by those I knew and loved and those around me. I wanted no more of Jackie Chandiru. I didn’t want to exist and it seemed like people would be better off without me, and they did a fine job letting me know in the harshest ways,” she said. From the rumour and stories that were written about me by the media – of taking hard drugs, I contemplated suicide.
“I had gone through enough, both physically and emotionally, and the media was not anywhere to help, but made it worse. They were silently killing me. They took everything that I had ever built esteem-wise and killed it,” said Jackie.
What really hurt her the most, she said, was that while stories were being written that she was taking hard drugs, her painkillers had damaged everything in her body and she could not even take the hard substances she was alleged to be taking.
When she was going for her review, she discovered that because of the overuse of the pain killer, she had developed many underlying medical conditions, including low immunity, hypertension, anaemia and low cell regeneration (taking time to heal).
“During that time, I stood up and fell back down so many times because of what people said. I was condemned, I felt lonely, it was the hardest time of my life,” she said.
In 2015, she was arrested by the police, who wanted to know what she was taking after her mother reported her change of behaviour to them.
“I had not accepted that I was an addict. I would black out and stay secluded in my room, not eating and not talking to anyone. I tried on several occasions but my bedroom door was always locked. Sometimes I did not see my mum for days – except when I was leaving to get my pain killer drug. The best way was for her to use the police to arrest me,” she said.
She stayed in police custody for three months. Then she was released and taken to rehab. But her condition got worse because she had found ways to sneak in the drug.
She was taken to another rehab and things seemed to be improving. But when she walked out of rehab, social media was awash with her pictures in a desperate state – with some even speculating she had died.
“The internet ‘killed’ me four times while I was still in rehab, and I also tried to commit suicide four times. I was tired of the rumours, tired of the stories. I am sure you have seen pictures of me, I didn’t care about life, or what I looked like any more. I didn’t want to exist anymore. I was better off dead,” she said.
One day, she went to a pharmacy to get concoctions of drugs ready to commit suicide. She took the drugs but instead of dying she woke up the next day with a terrible headache.
“It is at this time that my family members had given up on me and dug my grave, they wanted to bury me alive. I was a bother to them,” she said.
She got back to her drug and did not want anything to do with anyone. Her drug use spiralled out of control.
She was rushed to hospital one day in a critical state. There were wounds all over her body as a result of injecting herself, and the doctors recommended amputation of her left hand, which was severely damaged by the needles.
When she heard about the doctors’ recommendation, she once again attempted suicide. After that, she decided she wanted to live. She went slow on the drug, though she would still take it. She had been in and out of rehab for three-and-a-half years.
“This is the time that killed me as a person. I was alone, locked up by 6pm, and no one came to see me. I suffered from insomnia, I could not eat and hated myself,” she said.
After the last stay in rehab, she was a little stable.
Fans and family excited
In 2017, she picked herself up and tried getting back on stage. This got her fans and family excited as she tried to revive her musical career. But things were not working out; she simply could not rediscover the magic. This pushed her back to the drug.
Then, she said, she met “one of the nicest men” – a wealthy European – who was determined to help her kick the addiction and have her life back as a vibrant and talented young woman. They got married but after two years, he left her.
“It is my addiction that brought issues. We never fought. It was never about him — he was so concerned about my health, and then word got out that he was married to a drug addict, which was not good for his business.
“It got to a point where I had to accept ending the marriage for the sake of his business and that’s how we parted ways. We had no children, but we still talk,” she said.
With the emptiness that came with losing her husband and an overwhelming sense of failure and rejection, she wanted to change her environment.
She moved to Kenya, where a friend agreed to accommodate her.
“At the time I came to Nairobi, my hands had open wounds – I had one wound that would not heal. I was in pain and wanted someone to talk to, who could accept me and take me through my healing process,” she said.
She went to many hospitals and they could not help her – all they wanted was to have her hand amputated, something she did not want. She was then referred to a stem cell hospital, where she had her first surgery, a skin graft. Skin was removed from her thigh to patch up her arms.
Having gone through a lot, struggling with cleaning the wounds every morning, she did everything to ensure the expensive procedure was carried out. However, healing became a problem given the damage years of addiction had done to her body.
“It was hard for my body to adjust, I was just not healing,” she said.
For two months, there was no progress. She went down on her knees and prayed.
“I was never prayerful, but I knelt down and asked God to help me one more time. I just wanted my wounds to heal. I almost healed but when I felt like I was getting better, part of my skin kept peeling off. All I wanted was for the skin to fit,” she said.
As Jackie continues to heal, living in Nairobi has been like a breath of fresh air, unlike in Uganda, where she could not even walk to the market.
“Uganda was toxic. Ugandans didn’t forgive me and it was hard to get the chance to heal. They labelled me all sorts of names,” she said.
She is now writing a book about her life.
“In this world, it is only God who will never let you down, resent or walk away from you,” said Jackie.
Prof Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist, says abuse of prescription medicines is a bad addiction.
“It is not a matter of whether you have the knowledge of the side effects or not. Addiction affects health workers the same way it does the rest of the population. It is a mental illness,” he says.
Many health workers, including doctors, have died from pethidine overdose.
“I just want addicts to know that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. It does not matter where I had stopped before, but I am starting again. Ugandans have no option but to accept me. I am willing to help anyone struggling with addiction,” was Jackie’s parting shot.