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Ugandan brewers laugh all the way to the bank as all drinks are legal

By Oscar Obonyo | July 12th 2015
a glass of alcohol

BUSIA: The on-going nationwide crackdown on illicit liquor is unlikely to worry the typical Busia border imbiber. Jared Oduor, for instance, has been crossing over to the “no-man’s land” for years to hammer his favourite glass of the local chang’aa. The liquor has been declared illegal in Kenya but on the Ugandan side it is a legitimate drink and a favourite to many.

“No-man’s land” is a narrow stretch between the Kenya and Uganda border, which falls in neither jurisdiction of the two countries. Over the years, Ugandan chang’aa traders have used this space to hawk the drink to thirsty Kenyans.

On this day, The Standard on Sunday team encounters a man adorning a green Gor Mahia Soccer Club T-Shirt, with writings of “Woud Aboke” at the back. With a glass of chang’aa in hand, “Woud Aboke” (literally, son of Aboke — a location in Alego-Usonga constituency, Siaya County) is shouting at armed police officers on the Kenyan side. He even makes obscene gestures at the helpless officers, daring them to arrest him.

Of course they cannot do so in this stateless neutral zone, neither can the uniformed Kenyan officers storm in the neighbouring country — a few metres away — to make arrests. Woud Aboke, or Jared Oduor as he later identifies himself, is just among the many Kenyan drinkers who cross over to Uganda to enjoy alcoholic beverages outlawed back home.

“Here we are special drinkers who enjoy chang’aa in the open and at peace, under additional security from Kenyan and Ugandan forces,” says Jared, with reference to police officers from both countries who keep patrol in the area.

Moments later, with the “evidence” safely in his belly, Jared staggers back to Kenya past the very police officers he has been mocking. Few of the officers take the scolds personal by kicking or issuing threats to the imbibers, but most just laugh off the drama.

Besides chang’aa, Kenyans flock to Uganda to partake in local brews such as busaa and Ako bulee or millet brew. There are restrictions on these local brews as well in Kenya.

“Unlike Uganda, there is no culture of drinking traditional brew in Kenya. Here it is a way of life for our people and we generally ensure that social life is pocket friendly and enjoyable,” explains Michael Mugeni, Mayor of Busia-Uganda Municipality.

Ugandans have fully embraced local brews and many are shocked by the chaotic episodes in Kenya of marauding youth breaking into shops to destroy bottled drinks and leave residential areas flooded with liquor poured from drums.

In fact what is now being classified by Kenyan authorities as second generation liquor, is the most sought-after liquor on the Ugandan market. This is the refined local liquor that has been packaged, including the famous “Uganda Waragi”, which in reality is chang’aa.


And owing to the heavy presence of all manner of local brews and relatively cheaper bottled beer on the Ugandan side, there is cut-throat competition between the commercial brands and local brews.

“Omudigido guli munda” proclaims a catchy advert in for the “Uganda Waragi” at busaa drinking club. The advert in Luganda language roughly means, “feel the pleasure from within”, and it is deliberately placed at the club with the aim of winning over busaa drinkers.

At Pembeni Club, it is a mixed grill affair as enthusiasts of various brands imbibe their stuff, served in huge mugs, glasses or clay pots. Here bottled drinks are served in the main bar while in the backyard, patrons gather in groups to drink from a central clay pot. But the bottled beer and chang’aa drinkers are free to guzzle their stuff from either zone.

“I am addicted to this place because it is pocket-friendly and I can enjoy my millet brew and upgrade to a Guinness at will. Besides, I can have my drink at any time of the day or night,” reacts Lukiri, a high school teacher, from Kisoko area in Nambale Constituency, Busia-Kenya.

Busia County Government Minister for Trade, Industrialisation and Tourism, Hillary Makhulu attributes the emerging trend to a host of factors, including the taxation regime in Kenya, low pricing of beer in Uganda and the infamous Mututho laws. The laws were named after former Naivasha MP and current National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug abuse (NACADA) chairman, John Mututho, who spearheaded legislation to cap drinking hours.

Owing to flexibility of law on the other side of Busia, those working late and wishing to drink for long hours simply head straight to Uganda or cross over from Kenya, once bars close at the officia others along the border, Kenyan tradition is slowly taking root. The hosts prepare nyama choma and switch on Kenyan TV stations during9 O’clock prime news time, among other things. But these are still flavoured by Ugandan delicacies, including tsiswenene or roasted grasshoppers, which sell more like Kenya’s njugu karanga (roast groundnuts) among patrons.

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