He’s on a Mission from God to Tackle Drugs in Africa's First Narco-State

Why you should care

Because if his model works in one of the poorest countries on earth, it could translate anywhere.

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All Domingos Té needs is a building, a Bible and a guitar. Which is good, because as this Catholic priest tackles addiction in the desperately poor nation of Guinea-Bissau, there’s not much more available. The 51-year-old rehab center founder is at the forefront of his country’s crisis, as an unabated flow of drugs going through West Africa is affecting Guineans on an unprecedented scale.

Sitting in a small house at the end of a shaded avenue flanked by mango trees an hour’s drive north of Bissau, the capital, Té alternates between listening and chatting on the phone as one of his protégés, Saco, recounts the first time he smoked cannabis at age 18. Then a student in Portugal, Saco was curious. Many of his friends smoked it, and they said it would make him laugh. That first time was fun; less fun were the robberies, months later, that got him deported back to his native Guinea-Bissau, and the time he sold his cellphone — his only connection to his girlfriend and son — to make quick cash and buy more drugs.

Saco’s story is just one of dozens in Quinhamel’s Youth Challenge center, the only rehab center in the country of 1.8 million. Over the past 15 years, more than 3,800 people have passed through, around three-quarters of whom struggle with drug addiction. Té’s faith-based approach is used worldwide, from the U.S. to Myanmar, and in a country where two-thirds of the population lives under the poverty line and social services are virtually nonexistent, simplicity is central to his success.

Each patient is expected to pay around $2.50 a day, which covers food, accommodation and hospital trips if needed.

A decade ago, the United Nations branded Guinea-Bissau as Africa’s first narco-state. A handy point of entry into West Africa with a chronically unstable government, the country became a darling of Latin America’s drug cartels supplying the growing European market. But if officials now hint at a decrease in drugs going through the country, a significant amount never makes it out, and drug addiction is on the rise. Yet there is no state-funded help for youth with addiction issues and the country’s only psychiatric hospital does not keep patients for more than three days.

“This is an emergency. The state is not doing anything, so we have to,” Té says. The magnitude of the problem dawned on him in a command from God and a magazine advertising faith-based rehab shortly after he saw a friend spiral into alcohol addiction. So Té took to studying. The son of rice and bean farmers in rural Guinea-Bissau, he had not been able to go to university as a young man: There were simply none in the country at the time. He spent three years studying addiction and psychiatry at a technical training center in Portugal and is now getting a degree in social work in Bissau. One day he hopes to finally graduate from university.

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Packets of seized cocaine displayed at a police station in Bissau.

Source Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty

Té’s knowledge allows him to help with counseling and group therapy. Group work helps patients who have often been alienated from their families and friends build social bonds again — a first step toward re-entering society. The center also emphasizes Christian teachings, with Bible study, Mass and religious songs. Té plays the guitar and has been playing the accordion since a British missionary taught him in the 1980s.

“We adapt our model of work to the reality here in Guinea-Bissau,” he says. That means operating on a very tight budget: Each patient is expected to pay around $2.50 a day, which covers food, accommodation and hospital trips if needed. It also means more support from families, and many unwilling patients. “In Europe, drug addicts are on the street. Here, the family supports them and makes them go to rehab,” Té says.

But while a social and spiritual approach to rehab has helped many get their lives on track and find jobs — like Saco, 22, who says he makes “good money” washing cars — Té is no psychiatrist, and experts say the prospects of recovery are limited without medical help. “This should be treated with science, not religion,” says Abílio Aleluia Có Júnior, who heads the country’s Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a research body, and frequently visits communities to assess the impact of drug addiction. He estimates that a quarter of the drugs going through Guinea-Bissau are consumed locally, with marijuana and crack cocaine topping the list.

The center’s director accepts people from all walks of life and religions, or lack thereof, but his aim is clear: “I’m a pastor, so I have to bring people to God.” With limited funds, he focuses increasingly on spirituality, rather than training and education. With more money, Té says, he would like to open a classroom to offer professional training in carpentry, masonry and IT to ensure his patients can start sustainable, fulfilling careers. He’d also like to open two or three more centers in the east of the country to meet rising demand.

Saco, who used to smoke up to 15 joints a day with friends, has been clean for about two weeks when we speak. “I feel like the addiction is at its weakest point now, it’s almost over,” he says, the sweltering heat pushed aside by an old fan. The same cannot be said for Té’s quest to heal his country, and the scale of the misery can be discouraging. But so far, he’s kept the faith.

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