MXit put to some good use

MXIT, the cellphone instant messaging service best known for chatting teenagers, is now being used to help drug users on the Cape Flats kick their habit.

In the service, based in Bridgetown in Athlone, former drug users who counsel tik addicts use the messaging service as a primary method of support.

The project, which has been running for about a year, is the brainchild of a remarkable young man, Marlon Parker.

Parker, now an information technology lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where he’s doing his PhD, grew up on the Cape Flats and directly experienced the consequences of drug abuse when his brother was jailed for dealing tik, a highly-addictive methamphetamine drug.

Drug users can “chat” with the services’ counsellors when they feel the urge to use, says Parker. It is the first step in a rehabilitation programme run with nongovernmental organisation Impact Direct.

The service, which is called Drug Advice Support, has since expanded to include advice on careers, rape and child abuse and an advisory service for those infected with HIV/Aids.

Parker also runs a blog called Reconstructed (thereconstructed. blogspot.com), which won an award in the South African Best Group Blog 2009 competition (disclaimer: I was a judge).

It is often updated by one of the counsellors, Brent Williams, a rehabilitated tik addict and drug- dealer, whose heart-rending story is one of a demented, paranoid spiral into drug abuse, before he managed to break out of the cycle.

Parker says he realised it would be more helpful if counsellors learnt technical skills that could help their drug-ravaged community. He should know: at 17, he was a heavy drinker and lived through his own brother’s descent into drug depravation.

Williams was one of the original 12 participants in Parker’s pilot project, which began as Saturday morning classes in computer and technology skills for reformed drug addicts, or “reconstructed individuals”, as Parker calls them.

MXit is the first platform of support Williams offers, before guiding the roughly 6400 subscribers, mostly from the Cape Flats but as far afield as the Eastern Cape, to trained counsellors and other options. The number of subscribers has soared from only 250 in September.

“We use technology as a first step in the reconstruction process,” says Parker. “We’re not saying that technology should replace human contact, but it’s the first step to tap into support.”

Many people already use the popular MXit, so theymerely need to add the contact details of Parker’s project, and by using this technology, they avoid the stigma attached to seeking counselling.

“Often people don’t want to go to counselling centres, or let people know they are taking tik. Very often their parents don’t know. We use technology to get them to the point where they are ready to talk about it.”

As well as counselling for rape and child abuse, Parker recently launched another service for people who cannot manage their debts, also via cellphone messaging. Though Dell has sponsored some laptops, Parker’s services could do with more support in order to run longer hours, he says.

I first met Parker and Williams last September, when he told this remarkable story at the Digital Citizens Indaba, part of the Highway Africa conference run by Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies in Grahamstown. Last week, I met him again when the Mail & Guardian named him one of 300 influential young South Africans.

Hopefully we’ll be hearing more about how he is inspiring others to change the community.

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MXit put to some good use