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Legalise traditional brews, they are safe

By CORNEL RASANGA | April 7th 2016

If the nationwide crackdown on illicit brews is observed to the letter, Kenya can boast of unequalled sobriety in the region. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s crackdown order on illicit brews compliments other drastic measures in place against the social malaise.

The National Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) is the enforcing entity. Conditional labelling on alcoholic beverage packs and bottles that read “Excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to your health” is another awareness campaign.

These campaigns are exercises in futility without the collection of samples of killer brews for analysis by the Government Chemist. Similarly, post-mortem reports on victims of alcohol-related deaths are yet to be made public for purposes of warning consumers of these lethal brews.

Media headlines highlighting alcohol-related deaths, blindness and impotence merely reinforce fears that the war against alcohol abuse is far from over. The making and sale of life-threatening brews continue underground.

Get-rich-quick quacks have ready market from the patrons who survive on less than a dollar a day. With as little as Sh20, a consumer gulps a tot and feels like a person who has taken several beers.

A bottle of beer retails at Sh200 and above in bars. The process of making quality chang'aa at home is elaborate, long and hygienic. Safe distilled stuff is a product of fermented maize, sorghum or millet flour.

The product is fried, soaked in water, mixed with yeast and left for two days to mature before the distillation process commences.

Waste is removed, water and brown or white sugar added in a thoroughly stirred brew.

The mixture is kept for seven days for further fermentation. Cleaning is done once again to remove impurities before the distillation starts.

Some African ceremonies are incomplete without traditional brews, the same ones that seem to be targeted in the blanket crackdown. And it is not a secret that school fees for some prominent Kenyans were sourced from the sale of chang'aa and other traditional drinks. Long before independence, natives were banned from taking beer but were allowed to make traditional brews.

Fifty years after independence, Kenya criminalised the making and sale of chang'aa, yet in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania it is legalised. Left to fate, the underground industry thrives at whatever cost and remains a toll station where police officers collect bribes. It is the height of irony that Kenyan bar owners stock the chang'aa equivalent from its neighbours.

It was not until a Mombasa court, where the magistrate challenged the prosecution to show statutes prohibiting chang'aa drinking that the harassment of chang'aa drinkers stopped temporarily - thanks for the belated intervention by then Attorney General, Charles Njonjo.But his successor, James Karugu, later introduced a law that made possession of chang'aa-making equipment an offence. Such gadgets have not been displayed in court as exhibits.

In view of the foregoing, blanket raids to smoke out chang'aa drinkers and dealers should be discouraged. The drink should be legalised, standards set, factories established to process it and a levy imposed to cut off quacks in the lucrative industry. Condemnation of indigenous brews denies Government revenue but enriches extortionist law enforcement agents.

Leaders have a duty to address drug-related problems with sobriety and come up with a people-friendly, lasting solution.

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