The capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo is being overrun by a dangerous new drug called bombé, made from deposits the catalytic converters of automobiles. In a country facing many problems, it helps people forget.
By Heiner Hoffmann and Arsene Mpiana (Photos) in Kinshasa
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The videos appeared suddenly, circulating via WhatsApp and on social networks. And what they depicted quickly got a name: The zombies of Kinshasa. The images showed people completely motionless, or moving only slowly – and investigators quickly figured out what it was: a new drug by the name of bombé.
“It is an epidemic,” a leading investigative official told DER SPIEGEL. And the crisis has also captured the attention of the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Felix Thisekedi held a special cabinet meeting to discuss the new drug earlier this year. He is eager to demonstrate that he is doing all he can.
But the rapid spread of bombé is also symptomatic of a sick country, and of a megacity that has become downright inhospitable for many inhabitants. Statistics regularly show Kinshasa to be one of the least habitable cities in the world, just ahead of Damascus and Baghdad.
In one of the city’s most disreputable neighborhoods, Selembao, four young men are sitting in a concealed courtyard. A pane of glass is lying in front of them with brown powder on it. Next to the powder, they crumble white tablets to dust and then mix both substances. “The tablets need to be mixed in; they stimulate the appetite. If we didn’t include them, we wouldn’t eat anything for two days,” the youths explain.
The youths then form the powder into three short, thin lines with a razor blade, similar to how lines of cocaine are prepared. Most of it is snorted, with the glass pane being passed around the circle. The rest is crumbled into cigarettes and smoked. After taking it, the youths first become euphoric, but then they begin to move more and more slowly.
The four young men know what the powder supposedly contains: deposits and substances from catalytic converters, all of which has been scraped out of old cars and then processed into a drug. “We aren’t worried about it,” they say. Ultimately, they claim, they have nothing to lose. “Bombé helps us forget everything. In the West, they have bank accounts, I have nothing. With bombé everything is easier.” One of the users says it’s like a veil lying over you. And this for only a dollar per trip.
You don’t get much else for that amount in Kinshasa. A meal in a mid-range restaurant can easily cost 30 US dollars, while rents in the better neighborhoods approach those in Munich and Frankfurt. Kinshasa is among the most expensive cities in the world, at least for foreign workers. There are many super-rich residents, who drive through the wide streets of the business district in giant SUVs.
At the same time, though, the economy is in shambles, the country’s raw materials wealth reaches only a small elite and there is barely a middle class. A large part of the estimated 15 million inhabitants of this metropolis has no fixed job and no regular income, a number that has only grown throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
As such, it is perhaps no surprise that bombé is becoming a mass phenomenon. The Kulunas – literally translated as “hooligans” – are at the furthest fringes of society: A huge army of youths who keep themselves above water through petty crime and gang activity. And they love the gray-colored drug that helps them forget.
For the Kulunas, that moment of being completely out of it, whether sitting, standing or lying down – is one of absolute happiness. “In that moment, I’m unapproachable. It is the deepest sleep you could imagine,” says one user. Others report alternating states of euphoria and rest in which they don’t need to think about anything.
Bombé does not trigger hallucinations or colorful trips like other drugs. It is simply a void, users say. That’s enough for them, here in Kinshasa. Countless videos have been shared on Facebook and Twitter of this state, almost zombie-like. Several Kulunas say they also use the drug before gang fights: The sense of indifference is helpful on the street.
“This drug is very dangerous,” says the leader of the Congolese addiction program, Patrice Kapia. “It causes heart and lung problems, and on the long term, cancer.” There have also been reports of deaths after bombé consumption. Kapia says that the ingredients from the catalytic converters could be especially poisonous.
The car parts contain deposits like zinc oxide, platinum and rhodium. A laboratory in Antwerp, Belgium is taking a look at the effect of each individual component. But the experts still face a lot of unknowns. They believe it’s possible that the substances from the catalytic converter set off a chemical reaction with the rest of the drug mixture.
A colonel of the National Police who prefers to remain anonymous points to an initial chemical analysis from a laboratory in Kinshasa. It has found that bombé includes a mixture of different substances like tramadol, dolarene, nitrile, ampicillin and, in some cases, traces of heroin.
“The investigations have revealed more, step by step,” he says. “Consumers led us to the dealers and manufacturers, which is how we learned that powder from exhaust systems was being added,” says the leading investigator. Earlier this fall, the police proudly presented the results of their investigation: Almost 100 people arrested, including the supposed ringleaders – Tunisian citizens – behind the catalytic converter trade. The investigators found plastic barrels full of grayish chunks that had been scraped out of the inside of old car parts.
The accused claimed they had wanted to export the substance to Germany for recycling. But in Congo, the dealers receive up to $200 for a kilogram of the substance, once it has been ground up into powder. The trade in the car-part contents is also flourishing in other countries, especially because of coveted precious metals like platinum and rhodium. The investigators were surprised to learn, though, that the substance was being used to manufacture drugs.
A mechanic in Kinshasa demonstrates how the thieves do it. He holds up a catalytic converter he recently had to remove from a car. Instead of the usual honeycomb, it is filled with fine metal wires, with welded seams visible on the underside. “Mechanics are often involved in the trade,” he says.
“They unscrew the catalytic converter while the cars are parked in the garage for repairs or in front of hotels. Then they remove the contents and fill the catalytic converter with metal wires so you can’t immediately hear the difference.” The mechanic says several cars have been delivered to him in this state – meaning that on top of the serious health consequences for consumers, the drug also produces environmental damage resulting from defective catalytic converters.
Samy Moyo of the National Youth Council doesn’t just want to stand by any longer. He is leading a project offering bombé addicts alternatives. Dozens of former Kulunas crowd into a kind of classroom, while several others – having not found a spot inside – are trying to listen through the window from outside. A teacher is telling the group how to cultivate fields and plant seeds. “We are training the young people in agricultural economics and, at the end, they each get a piece of land from the government,” Moyo says. There is no shortage of farmland in the expansive country of Congo.
The idea sounds attractive: Get the bombé addicts to leave the city and allow them to retain 75 percent of their harvest earnings while giving the remaining 25 percent back to the state – a win-win situation. Even during the training phase, program participants receive a kind of allowance. “I stopped taking bombe, because I now have prospects,” says 23-year-old Plamedi Lama.
But none of them have yet seen the land they have been promised. “If it doesn’t work out, then we’ll go back to bombé. What else should we do?” says Lama, a sentiment his friends agree with. He has a wife and a child at home. Most of the Kulunas here have committed serious crimes – theft, murder, rape. They seem surprised to have been given a second chance.
The government is indeed running large-scale, public campaigns and printing out anti-bombé T-shirts to give the impression the problem is being tackled. But in practice, things are a bit more complicated. “We may have received the land from the government, but no seeds or equipment in to plant them with,” says Samy Moyo, the project leader. “How are we meant to get started?” He and the youths have even slept in a tent in front of the responsible ministry in order to ramp up the pressure. Thus far, it has produced few results. He says that some participants are once again addicted, and one has even died.
The authorities are also taking a more forceful approach in the fight against the new drug. Arrested users and manufacturers are to be jailed for years. When 100 people were arrested earlier this fall, they were paraded before the press, forced to sit on the floor as photographers documented their misery. On the other side, city authorities looked down at the spectacle from chairs protected by sun umbrellas. It was a perfect reflection of Kinshasa’s disparities. One parliamentarian has even promised to pay informants $100 out of his own pocket if they turn in bombé traffickers.
Olga Kithumbu is trying a different approach. With a loud voice, she commands a group of women on one side and young men on the other. The social worker has learned how to impose herself on the Kulunas — who otherwise only listen to their gang leader.
Kithumbu works for the Sober Communities program and helps bombe users overcome their addiction. She says that she has helped 250 users stop taking the drug. Now they collect garbage from Kinshasa’s streets and earn a small wage.
Beatrice* is among the former addicts taking part in the program. “I sold my goods at the market and took bombé. Then I fell asleep really deeply and didn’t notice anything going on around me. At some point, my son woke me up and all of my wares had been stolen. After that I decided to stop,” she says. She said her entire body itched during withdrawal – a symptom shared by many former addicts.
Valentin Vangi, the head of the Sober Communities program, however, points out that “bombé doesn’t just affect street kids and youths. Police officers and businesspeople have gotten in touch with us because they want to quit. They all take bombé to forget their problems.”
And, he adds, there are plenty of problems in Congo. In the northeast of the country, militias are leading a bitter fight against the government, attacking civilians in a complex conflict. There is officially a state of war, whose economic consequences are also being felt in the capital, Kinshasa.
It’s the best of all breeding ground for a cheap drug that makes you forget everything.
With reporting by Steve Wembi
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.