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Genesis of illicit brews and the untold agony

KENYA @ 50
By Njonjo Kihuria | February 13th 2014

By Njonjo Kihuria

Kenya: For the better half of the last century when Kenya was a British colony, Africans were not allowed to drink ‘bottled’ beer because it was the preserve of their white masters. The colonial authorities also put restrictions on the production of traditional beers such as muratina and busaa, which were only allowed for ceremonial purposes.

However, even this ‘generous’ gesture would be withdrawn when the State of Emergency was announced in 1952, leaving indigenous Kenyan with nothing alcoholic to drink. This resulted in people brewing and taking the drinks clandestinely, as happened in America during the Prohibition between 1919 and 1933.

When the manufacturing, sale and distribution of alcoholic drinks was legally banned in America, illegal manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks went underground and became big business. The colonial ban in Kenya had the same effects. Brewing cheap and lethal alcohol to meet the frustrations of the growing population grew into a lucrative, hazardous and deadly culture.

The ban on traditional brews was relaxed after independence in 1963, but the Chief’s Act that had outlawed the manufacture, sale and consumption of the same like many other colonial and archaic laws, was retained in the law books and could be invoked any time.  During independence, the brewing of chang’aa flourished, but the Government did not see the sense of legalising it unlike Tanzania and Uganda, that respectively licensed the hygienic production of Konyagi and Waragi, which are equivalent to Kenya’s chang’aa.

Even in the 1970s, the illegal alcohol business continued booming. However, most of the traditional alcoholic drinks took days to brew and more often than not, chiefs, other junior officers in the Provincial Administration and the police would get wind of the breweries and invade them to extort bribes. But the brewers became clever with time. They stumbled on the more lucrative, non-traditional illicit brews that took a shorter time to make.

In many cases, chang’aa was adulterated and its production time reduced to maximise on profits. In effect, many of these hastily brewed drinks were concoctions of dangerous chemicals including methanol and any other drugs the brewers could lay their hands on. The hazardous trade was being conducted under the ‘watchful’ eyes of the bribe taking police, chiefs and their assistants. The more protection fees these government officials took, the more Kenyans died from the consumption of the killer drinks.

A significant number of Kenyans continued dying and it would not be until the late 1990s that the conscious of the nation was pricked.

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One miserable Monday morning towards the end of 1996, all eyes were focused on Maragua district in Murang’a when stories of people dying and others losing their sight after consuming an illicit brew the previous day, started streaming in. 

Blame game

The ill-fated brew had caused havoc in Kirere, Kangari and Kaharati sub locations and left more than 20 people dead. It was reported that the killer brew was chang’aa laced with methanol. The methanol that had originated from Nairobi’s River Road area, had apparently been used before to make the drinks stronger, but this time round,it was said that  the blender must have added too much industrial chemical.

Ironically, at Murang’a District Hospital, the hospitalised victims were being given bottled beer which was said to counter the effects of whatever they had taken.

That was the first time an illicit brew had killed and maimed so many people. The incident sparked outcry, with Kenyans blaming the police and the provincial administration for perpetuating this vice through corruption. In turn, the police blamed the Judiciary, arguing that every time they took the brewers to court they were given ‘affordable’ fines and released to pursue their criminal activities.

The government made the usual lame-duck assurances of leaving no stone unturned until all the illegal brewers were put behind bars and the trade became  a thing of the past.

But barely two years later, catastrophe visited the Mai Mahiu area in Naivasha, when another dose of a poisonous substance siphoned from long-haul trucks was mixed with an illegal alcoholic drink. 

Total chaos visited the towns of Mai Mahiu and Narok with more than 80 people dead and dozens rendered sightless.  Yet even as his colleagues died or were hospitalised in critical condition, one blinded reveller could be heard saying, “Ona mwahoria matawa no tuguthie na mbere kunyua.” (Even if you put out the lights, we will continue drinking).

The spate of deaths caused by these brews went on unabated, killing 21 people in Embu in 1999 and causing blindness to many others. A contaminated local brew killed 10 in Pokot in 2002 and 12 died in Makueni in 2003.

Biggest disaster

In November 2000, the biggest illicit brew disaster was witnessed in the Mukuru Kaiyaba slums in Nairobi where more than 140 lives were lost and more than 80 people struck with blindness after taking the infamous kumi kumi (ten, ten) illicit brew.

That the brewing and sale of killer illicit drinks had been taken over by people of means as opposed to rural peasants, was exemplified by the “big cars” that brought them to the slums, as reported by residents and the fact that the brewers were sheltered by the police and provincial administration upon paying protection fees. They were also able to post bail with ease and pay hefty fines.

At that time, leaders including clerics called for the legalisation of the traditional brews to ensure they are made hygienically.

Futile crackdowns

Then there was the ‘kuona mbee’ demon drink disaster in Machakos in 2005 where more than 45 people died. Following a public outcry, the government went into full gear and arrested two women who were said to be behind the lethal drink. They were jailed for four years but later released on appeal.

On the dawn of the millennium, the illicit brewers went legit and most started packing their poisonous substances in plastic bottles, but despite the licensing, the drinks continued to kill.

In September 2011, four people died in Mucatha, Kiambu after consuming illicit distillates as did a further 11 in Nyandarua district. Others were admitted to hospital in critical condition suffering from abdominal pain.

Two former presidents, Mwai Kibaki and Daniel Moi and the serving president Uhuru Kenyatta have ordered crackdowns on illegal brews, but each time the dust settles following major casualties of illegal beverages, it becomes business as usual.

Questions linger over the continued sale of illicit brews despite the introduction of tough laws to curb it.

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