As the country battles soaring cases of drug abuse, reformed brewers in the North Rift region have a reason to smile after quitting the illegal practice.
From Makutano in West Pokot through Chepkorio in Elgeyo Marakwet to Kabisaga in Nandi, women who have found wealth in alternative sources tell tales of how they downed their pots and embraced religion and business to change their lives.
Lillian Andiema, 41, who made money from the brewing and sale of illicit alcohol for 21 years in Lityei, West Pokot, says her life has changed for the better.
“I was doing the business in order to educate my children since our background at the time was very humble. My husband was a casual labourer and being in a marginalised and remote area, we felt that selling chang’aa was the only hope for us,” said Andiema.
She went through rehabilitation in Eldoret under a programme sponsored by an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in collaboration with the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada).
Andiema said the area chief introduced her to Empowering Lives International (Eli), an organisation that was training brewers on the negative effects of alcohol in the community.
“I thought to myself that all along I never fell into the addiction of taking alcohol and I would never allow my children to taste the brew which I sold to my neighbours and other clients,” said Andiema.
“I questioned why I was selling this poison to others in order to survive as I watch their lives fall in ruins and with that, I decided to engage in small-scale farming,” she added.
She began by rearing goats and chicken on her half-acre piece of land, before later engaging in sand harvesting and making bricks for sale.
“We were taught to start small, slowly and with what we have, and now I make bricks which I supply to schools that write me cheques. Life is much better now because unlike before, I have a purpose in life and I know that every bit of my sheer hard work is richly rewarded,” she said.
Like Andiema, Yvonne Chepkemboi, a farmer who had brewed chang’aa for eight years, said that although she had started the illegal job in order to raise income to eke out a living, she ended up being a drunkard.
“I began by tasting the busaa I made and ended up being an alcoholic to a point that I would sell about 20 litres of the local brew and take the money to buy myself expensive liquor sold in urban centres,” she said.
The 43-year-old mother of five narrated how she made the brew at her home and often bribed police officers in order to evade arrest.
“My clients, once drunk, would cause chaos as my children watched. I would send my children to school on an empty stomach since I was not responsible, having spent my entire time brewing and selling the illicit alcohol,” she said.
She recounted how she spent a month at Eldoret Women’s Prison for failing to pay a Sh30,000 fine imposed by court. Chepkemboi said after the incident, the area chief advised her to join the Eli training.
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“When I got back from the training, I began going to church without fail and ventured into onion farming and rearing of chicken. I now sell my produce at the local market and my children are going on with their studies as they have a responsible mother,” she said.
Chepkemboi, who chairs Sigunet Women Group, said many brewers who influenced her to start the business have since reformed.
“The group name ‘sigunet’ means saved because the 40 of us are all changed women. Through our table banking group which we began in 2018, we have saved more than Sh1 million and have a project in which we hire out tents,” said Chepkemboi.
Some 40 kilometres from Chepkorio, in Kamwosor, Elgeyo Marakwet we met Pastor Peris Kiprop, a former brewer turned farmer. The 49-year-old who stopped brewing chang’aa and busaa in 2013 is practicing maize, potato and dairy farming after engaging in the illegal business for 17 years.
“Most of us were drunkards in this village and when I began selling the brew, I thought that it would help me stop bothering my husband by constantly borrowing him money.
“However, instead of making progress as a family, I realised we were taking leaps behind. Alcoholism almost claimed my life,” said the mother of five.
Kiprop, who is also chaplain of the Women of Change, a group that was formed by Eli for all the rehabilitated women, recounted how she would risk her children’s lives by drinking alcohol while still breastfeeding.
Samuel Teimuge, the founder of Eli, said the organisation has empowered about 3,000 people since its establishment in 2013.
“We involve chiefs and their assistants who help us identify women who need help, train them and allow them back to their homes armed with ideas. We believe that a problem can only be solved by identifying the root cause. Those who demonstrate good skills are then trained to help others as well,” said Teimuge.
Nacada CEO Victor Okioma, who visited the Iten Rehabilitation Centre, said there is need to further collaborate with county governments and Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) to help in public education and awareness campaigns aimed at sensitising the community and families about the risks and dangers of alcohol and other substances prone to abuse.
Nacada Board Chairperson, Dr Stephen Mairori, said society should also embrace those who have gone through rehabilitation and avoid stigmatising them.