Alcoholism could be lesser evil than social instability in Central Kenya

A drunk youth lies on the ground after a drinking spree. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Central Kenya is an economic and social enigma. It has given us three presidents but it’s still ravaged by a number of problems, some unique to this region nowadays labeled ‘the mountain’. 

The region is surrounded by mountains. To the north we have the Aberdares, a name that has refused to leave 60 years after independence, just like Lake Victoria. The name is enjoying a revival. We now have Aberdares Sub-county and Aberdares Teachers College.

It’s not just Aberdares that’s enjoying new publicity. Have you noted many high schools now have new and saintly names? Why 60 years after uhuru?

The other mountain is Mt Kenya, which gave Kenya its name. It’s interesting that despite independence and all the changes the country has gone through, no one has suggested a name change for our no longer young republic - my favourite would be to The Swahili Republic.

Ngong hills and Kilimambogo are other mountains that delineate the central region. Immigration and kinship have shifted the borders of this region beyond the mountains. 

The mountain region is famous for agriculture, entrepreneurship, Mau Mau and - less spoken - a two party system that preceded USA democrats and republicans. Mwangi and Irungu age sets changed leadership after a generation through ‘ituíka’. The last was in 1928.

A few problems define this region, which also has its share of stereotypes like love of money. The pioneering encounter with mzungu made the central natives appreciate capitalism earlier than the rest; that is mistaken for love of money. 

Going through upheavals like losing land to mzungu who employed them in plantations reinforced their affinity to capitalism. They could have learnt a thing or two from being kitchen totos, shamba boys or defending the Empire at its fringes.

Overcrowding and resulting competition, thanks to improved medical services and hygiene, forced them to be entrepreneurs. Where else has overcrowding spawned entrepreneurs? Visited Kisii?

Alcoholism is the most cited problem in the central region. This can be attributed to socio-economic frustration. Post-election violence planted fear in this region confining mostly young men to their villages; in the past they would go seeking fortunes beyond their counties or former districts.  A few now seek fortune beyond the borders.

Add the population growth, subdivision of land and diminished job opportunities. Such frustrations have been exploited by alcohol merchants.  And they know the youngsters have no money; sell it cheap and focus on volume.

This is accentuated by the absence of other symbols of manhood or heroism. Does setting the minimum age for alcohol consumption at 18 create pent-up demand? We should raise it to 25. We hope the war on alcoholism is tied to that on drugs.

The government response to alcoholism has focused on the supply side, leaving out the demand side. Perhaps it silently knows the demand side is a hard nut to crack. Creating jobs is not easy. What of keeping youngsters busy with games, sports and entertainment? Who can contest that taking alcohol is a sport in Kenya? Remember sport bars?

Let’s give credit, the government is taking the right step in trying to turn the tide of alcoholism. Is the high price of ‘normal alcohol’ driving young men into cheap (illicit) brews? A litre of the popular lagers goes for about Sh500. Will muratina sort that out? 

Single parenthood is the next problem in the mountain. Traditions died early in this region, and the cultural vacuum was easily filled by moral relativism. Single parenthood is not frowned upon.

Some argue that lack of economic opportunities ‘degraded’ men, making them less marriageable. Rebuffed, they probably found solace in alcohol. Unable to get ‘quality men’, women in this region choose to go on their own and raise kids. Noted the use of mother’s name as surname in this region?

Others argue women from this region took empowerment literally. Still others boldly suggest that by destabilising families using the legal route, this region’s economic and political dominance will be muted. This is reinforced by appointment of women from this region to ‘big jobs’. Am I stretching the truth?

The other big problem, which is smoldering silently in this region, is women inheriting their fathers. Like women empowerment, this was embraced with open arms. Why not when many are single parents?

One prays that an invisible or visible hand will not use the socio-economic fissures in this region to destabilise it socially and economically and reap political dividends. Remember that beyond religion, fear made it easy to herd this region together last year.

The mountain region needs to rebuild its confidence. It has been eroding since Mau Mau. Trauma of that war? It’s still an enigma why a region that has given us three presidents is suffering from a deficit of confidence.