In an abandoned shack in a suburb of Kinshasa a young man slits open a bag of brown powder, blending it with a couple of crushed pills using the back of a spoon, before snorting the mixture, known as “bombe”, with his friends.
“This is really good quality, you know the attraction to the drug is higher than the attraction of being with a woman. We are going to consume everything, we won’t leave anything in the bag. We will add a bit of powder in the cigarette, and the rest we’ll mix with C4 (Diazepam) and Nutriline,” Says the unidentified man.
Within minutes the trio are swaying slowly, scratching themselves in a semi-comatose zombie state that experts in the Democratic Republic of Congo say can cause users to stand motionless for hours, or sleep for days.
“We prefer to take bombe rather than other drugs because it makes us feel good, it slows us down for a long time, in doing so we don’t go steal things and create problems. Before we didn’t know that bombe existed, we used to drink very strong whiskey made by indians, we were agitated and we started to hurt people, but with bombe, it calms you down, you get tired, you stay somewhere standing up or sitting down for a very long time. When you’re done, you go home without bothering anyone,” says Cedrick, leader of the Nzigoula 26 Gang.
Drivers, police, and drug experts aren’t so sanguine.
Authorities are rattled. In August police rounded up and paraded nearly 100 alleged dealers and users of bombe, which means “powerful” in the local Lingala language following a call to action by President Felix Tshisekedi.
Police showed barrels full of exhaust filters pieces which the owners claimed were to be sent to Germany and not for local consumption.
Mechanics blame spiking demand for the drug on a rash of thefts of catalytic converters, the ceramic honeycomb, coated with metals such as platinum, which reduce the emission of toxic gases in vehicle exhaust pipes.
Mechanic Tresore Kadogo says between five and ten clients come to him every day with the same problem.
“You see this is the catalyser, that’s where you find the material for bombe. Often when clients come to the shop, we check underneath the car and the catalyser is gone already, it’s been cut off and the car will have a strange sound. Here in Kinshasa, we don’t sell catalysers for vehicles, so we have to order it in Europe, it’s expensive. This one is lucky, he still has his catalyser,” he said lying under a car showing where the exhaust pipe catalysers are generally found.
Users mix the crushed honeycomb with vitamin pills and typically add sleeping pills or smoke it with tobacco, but nothing is known about how it works, or its long-term effects, said Dandy Yela Y’Olemba, country director of the World Federation against Drugs.
The metals in catalytic converters can cause cancer, Yela warned.
“This is a substance made to be used in an engine, in cars, we have food, we have things to take for our body, we do not have to take substances made for cars. Because if we are announcing that, ok alright, it’s normal and we start taking substances made for cars, the question is are we engines or are we human person?”