Friends reunited: drug users working on a farm in Malaysia
Mohammed Endut, a plantation owner in Kuala Terengganu, employs people who use drugs after a chance meeting with his old school friend. Sulong was living on the streets and in a desperate situation, and Mohammed wanted to help him. When Sulong moved onto the farm, Mohammed asked him if there were other men who could also work there.
Now CAKNA, a community-based organisation in Terengganu on the east coast of Malaysia, is providing clean needles to 20 or so men who work on the 70-acre plantation. Before that, people working at the farm were sharing needles.
CAKNA are supported by Alliance Linking Organisation the Malaysian AIDS Council who receive support through the Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) project, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Netherlands (BUZA).
Mohammed has owned Kampung Plantan for 20 years. He started employing people who use drugs on the plantation after meeting up again with his old school friend, Sulong.
“I just wanted to help my friend who was using drugs,” says Mohammed. “He was homeless and I didn’t want him to have to resort to stealing. I wanted to provide a way for him to work.”
Now at any one time, Mohammed employs up to 20 men. There are no prerequisites. Anyone from the local community is welcome. “The less you restrict people the more they work,” says Mohammed. “I trust them to work and they work really well. The work also lessens their frequency of injecting. They are more stable.”
Sulong, aged 50 years, is Mohammed’s childhood friend. The pair had lost touch but when their paths crossed, he received much needed support from Mohammed.
“We went our separate ways but then we were reunited,” says Sulong. “When I was really down on my luck on the streets Mohammed found me. I was having my worst days at that time. He took me back to the plantation, and asked me to work there. Mohammed asked me whether there were others who I could get to come and work here.”
The plantation now offers Sulong and the other workers a place to stay, access to food and clean clothes and a structured work pattern. Through CAKNA, the workers also have access to clean needles and there are plans to open a methadone centre as well. “My life is not chaotic anymore, it’s peaceful. I’m at peace, much more relaxed as a person. What Mohammed has done is really good. He is like my family, that’s how I would describe him.”
CAKNA is the first community-based organisation in Terengganu, in eastern Malaysia, set up to support people who inject drugs. The organisation is an implementing partner of the Malaysian AIDS Council. CAKNA was founded by Amran Ismail, a former drug user who started using drugs aged 15 and continued for 24 years. He was motivated to help others to overcome the isolation that he himself once felt.
“My worst points were when I was homeless and when I was in prison; I was sent there for six months to two years at a time,” says Amran. “You must be very tough to survive in prison”.
CAKNA is now thriving. It runs twice weekly needle exchanges at various sites in and around Terengganu (including at the plantation above), regularly reaching 200 people. They also run a small farm, where former drug users can go and live free of charge. Around 18 men live and work on the land, selling what they produce and sharing the profits equally. Around 11 of the men are openly living with HIV. Amran says that initially there was a lot of resistance from local villagers to the farm but with support from the state health department and the Malaysian AIDS Council, these divisions with the wider community are slowly breaking down.
“My life is not chaotic anymore, it’s peaceful. I’m at peace, much more relaxed as a person."