How colonialism prepared ground for Mount Kenya's alcohol disaster

Kikuyu traditional liqour 'Muratina'. [File, Standard]

There is a common saying that alludes to the idea that, if you are to understand the reasons behind a systemic problem in society, one must simply look towards white supremacy. Unfortunately, this saying is more often than not correct in its assumption as a look into the history behind a societal problem will often point to a white supremacist origin. And this is particularly the case when we look at alcohol consumption patterns amongst African societies and, more specifically, alcoholism in central Kenya.

Alcohol consumption was a mainstay in traditional African societies even prior to our contact with white populations. Traditionally, alcohol was consumed for ritual, ceremonial and cultural purposes, and was commonly made out of local plants that could be fermented.

In West Africa for instance, palms have since time immemorial been tapped for palm wine. In East Africa, sorghum and other grains, as well as honey and fruit, have been fermented to make alcohol. The by-products of these processes were low-percentage alcohol drinks that spoiled easily and so had to be consumed to completion. This was the native drinking pattern – to drink a lot and drink fast – though only occasionally and so with little harm.

Enter the 19th century and the scramble and partition of Africa. All European colonial powers had, as their chief source of trade revenue, the sale of Dutch liquor known as trade gin. For this to be successful, certain legislation had to be passed, including making the production of local brews illegal, touting them as unsafe for consumption compared to the distilled liquor that the Dutch provided for trade.

European liquor was cheaper, contained a higher percentage of alcohol, and was often utilised as a form of payment to the natives for their labour or provided as part of one’s rations. To be seen consuming Western liquor was to be held in high esteem.

Ironically, however, the trade-gin provided for native populations was not the same as the alcohol consumed by the Europeans themselves. It was of lower quality and contained impurities, making it cheaper to produce and make higher profits from.

This combination of factors was an inevitable recipe for disaster for the native alcohol consumer, even without considering the vagaries that colonial occupation would wreak in the mind and carry on epigenetically for generations to come. Also, in the process of fighting for independence, the colonial powers would ensure that they set up a highly successful brewery business in the colony that would carry on the work of local intoxication. Companies rise and fall, but the former Kenya (now East Africa) Breweries has never been one to falter in its profit-making.

Central Kenya provides a unique case study due to the direct, protracted contact that the natives there had with the colonial settlers. One must reasonably extrapolate that the consequences of such contact would worsen the conditions mentioned above, resulting in more access to liquor, greater repression of the local alcohol trade, and more intense trauma inflicted that would exacerbate addiction. These colonial restraints are being felt in the present day.

Successive governments have focused on curbing the production of illicit local brews, not paying attention to the demand they receive from the consumer or the source of livelihood that they provide for the producer.

Passing legislation to criminalise certain activity without digging deeper to understand the root of the problem leads to bad outcomes for those affected. Rather than understand why the central region is particularly plagued by alcoholism, a punitive approach is being taken, with directives ordering for early bar closures and demanding that bartenders not sell to those who already appear drunk.

Examining how other countries tackle addiction before passing legislation is imperative. Portugal is a leading example of how to tackle addiction, with its policies focusing on treating the addict as a patient rather than a criminal. On the other extreme, the untold deaths and prison overcrowding that resulted from drug criminalisation in the Philippines are a cautionary tale.

Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate