Sloshed: The ‘Mbangara lullaby’ enslaving Taita men

Security personnel destroying illicit brews impounded during a security operation to rid Taita-Taveta County of illicit brews and second-generation drinks. [Renson Mnyamwezi, Standard]

Stories on illicit brew addictions among the Coastal tribes are legendary.

Local folklore has it that one of the first missionaries to land in Kenya described it as slavery. Other people joke that it was prophesied in the holy books that “the last shall be first, and the first last.”

Taita Taveta was the first place in the country to welcome Christian missionaries in the 1880s, but it appears to be the last to embrace their teachings on alcohol.

But this addiction has also been a subject of scholarly studies.

In an interview, Court of Appeal Judge Msagha Mbogholi, from Taita, said the first study on excessive consumption of alcohol called Mbangara was done by a European scholar in 1907.

“Then, at the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, the researcher concluded that it was an obsession,” said Justice Mbogholi, adding that an obsession is on the verge of destroying a generation.

“It concluded that majority of the men in Taita were addicted to alcohol. It stated that excessive alcohol had rendered many men unproductive,” said Justice Mbogholi.

Forget the folklore and scholarly studies. A walk in the villages in remote parts of Taita sub-county, one comes face to face with the ugly face of this obsession- lives ruined by illicit alcohol.

Some addicts say the Mbangara, local illicit alcohol, is a ‘lullaby’ that enables them to fall asleep at night. Others call it the key to a morning lock.

However, most people, including addicts, religious, political elders and security agents, concur that the liquor has left a trail of miseries, broken homes and deaths.

In 2006, eight members of the one family perished after drinking what police said was a poisoned local brew in Sagala, Voi, in Taita Taveta.

Persistent police raids in the illicit liquor dens have not helped stem the vice. The police complain that their operations always meet resistance from the political class.

However, in May this year, Taita Taveta County Assembly passed a motion to legalise the sale of the Mbangara.

“Our men wake up in the morning to go to drink, saying they want to unlock (sic). They return lunchtime to sleep before they wake up again, saying they cannot sleep without it,” said Silviah Mboje, an activist.

“Some of the local men are lazy slobs who prefer spending the whole day idling around brew dens instead of working,” she added.

Security agents say some illicit brews sold in the area are cocktails of all manner of ingredients to accelerate the fermentation process and increase their potency.

Locals concur that the drink has in the recent past become more lethal. It is suspected that the drinks are laced with chloroquine, bicarbonate powder and formalin.

“Others use other non-conventional means to increase the drink’s potency and attract clients,” said James Mwachofi, a reformed addict.

Cicilia Ngina, a bootleg Mbangara brewer in Voi town, says the drinks are made using legit ingredients which are safe for human consumption, contrary to claims that they use dubious ingredients.

“I have been selling the brew to feed and educate my children. The brew has helped me to make ends meet,” said Leah Iminza, another brewer in the town.

James Mlawasi, a church elder, accused the police of perpetuating the vice by receiving ‘protection fees’ from dealers of the illicit brew.

However, Mwatate Deputy County Commissioner Damarice Kimondo said the government is winning the war against the illicit brews. She attributes this to the deterrent court fines imposed on the brewers.

“The fines imposed on the dealers and consumers have been a deterrent. The crackdown has seen scores of brewers fleeing and hiding in the hills,” said Kimondo.

She said joint security operations by chiefs and community-based raids under the community policing, or Nyumba Kumi initiative in the sub-County has helped in the fight against illicit brew.

Under the new initiative, the administrator said they had been mobilising chiefs and their assistants in several locations and sub-locations to round up the brewers and their customers.

“Consumption of illicit brews is one of the major contributors to defilement among other cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The negative effects are massive hence the intensified war on the vice because we need a productive health population if the county is to realize meaningful development,” said Kimondo.

In the past, the administrator noted that brewers used to fundraise to bail out their colleagues, but this is no longer possible because of the huge court fines.

Voi Deputy County Commissioner Nduti said partaking the illicit brews and drugs was promoting laziness, poverty, and dependency syndrome.

He criticised religious leaders in the region for failing to be at the forefront in the fight against the sale and consumption of illicit brews and drugs.

“Religious leaders are quiet in the war against brews and drugs. They are no longer active as the brews and drugs continue to take a heavy toll on local youth, rendering them unproductive,” said the administrator.