How illicit brews threaten African traditions

A group of men enjoying busaa at a slum in Nairobi. [File, Standard]

In traditional African society, lots of stories have been told of how our forefathers forged community bonds over shared meals and libations.

I was lucky enough to hear this from my grandmother during her evening narrations. One of her signature tales centred on the brewing of beverages, a revered art - a sacred ritual that brought people together in celebration and unity. In those days, beer was not just a drink; it was a symbol of hospitality, kinship, and cultural identity.

In fact, they even shared straws and brew pots, each sip a testament to the meticulous craftsmanship and assurance of purity and safety of the brew. This has now become a scarce commodity for millennials and later generations. The sanctity of this age-old tradition has been eroded, leaving in its wake a breed of selfish and ruthless criminals, always ready to concoct and sell anything - even poison - for profit.

The vibrant, lively communities of my youth have been replaced by shadows of their former selves. The sight of young men and women staggering with their eyes dull with effects of alcohol has become a norm. Drunkenness is no longer a spectacle but a sad testament to ravages of alcohol and drug abuse.

It is a scourge that has swept through our communities, villages and families, leaving destruction and despair in its wake. As Interior Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo, recently pointed out, “alcohol and drug abuse pose a significant threat to the safety of people and security in form of deaths from adulterated alcohol, reduction in productivity, health complications and fueling organised crime networks, contributing to instability and violence within our communities.”

Worse still, the large-scale manufacture and sale of illicit brews have been intricately linked to organised crime, serving as a lucrative source of funding for nefarious activities, including terrorism. In fact, the trade in illicit alcohol bears a chilling resemblance to the infamous exploits of figures like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo. The purveyors of killer brews operate within shadowy networks, exploiting vulnerabilities in law enforcement and preying on unsuspecting consumers.

Beyond merely lining the pockets of these nefarious entities, this convergence of criminal enterprises poses a grave threat to national and global security. The underground production and distribution of killer brews provide a convenient avenue for criminal syndicates to amass wealth while evading law enforcement scrutiny. Over time, we have lost precious lives to killer brews traded by a complex network of traders and distributors.

In August 1998, more than 80 people died in Nairobi after consuming chang’aa. Over 137 succumbed to methanol poisoning in November 2000 with more than 20 victims blind and others physically disabled. In July 2005, 50 people perished in a similar manner in Machakos. Then in 2015, illicit brew claimed 100 lives, majority of them from Central.

Then came the bombshell revelation by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) in 2020. It announced that consumption of alcohol had resulted in a staggering 30,000 deaths between 2015 and 2020, underscoring the dire consequences of unchecked alcohol abuse. Just a few weeks ago, Kirinyaga County lost more than 17 lives to this menace. What more evidence do we need to recognise the insidious parallels between illicit brews and terrorism?

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki recently noted that these criminal enterprises yield the same devastating outcomes: widespread harm, loss of life, and destabilisation of communities. But amid this darkness, there is still hope. Hope that we can reclaim our communities, that we can restore the vibrancy and life that once defined them. Hope that we can once again walk proudly through our towns and villages, free from the grip of alcohol abuse.

To win, we must support renewed efforts to eradicate the menace. This cooperation must extend to information-sharing initiatives aimed at identifying and dismantling the deadly networks.

-The writer is assistant director of communications at Interior and National Administration Ministry