Ruined lives of Mathare's poor as illicit brewers mint millions

One of the illegal distilleries in Mathare Valley, Nairobi. The brew is often adulterated with poisonous compounds, including formalin, methanol, jet fuel, fertiliser and sisal juice. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

In the sprawling Mathare slums in Nairobi, a typical walk within the crime-prone informal settlement for any visitor introduces them to two things; a booming firewood business and a strong smell of fermenting flour that punches your nostrils like a gust of wind. 

Behind the shanties masking the view of a river of raw sewage is the smoke that billows from different points. Haggard youths hover around. Some are part of the network that spies on visitors while others are workers in the open brewers that operate twenty-four hours a day. 

The brewers have caused more pain than blessings to the residents.

Locals talk in hushed tones about this menace. The illegal liquor industry in Mathare is a cash cow for thousands of people who depend on it directly, and indirectly for a living. 

Our investigations started during opposition demos when our team noticed suspicious youths who seemed to jealously guard one area of Mathare No 10. The youths were viciously pelting police with stones to prevent them from moving deeper into the ghetto.  

We returned through our undercover eye and made it through the alleyways to the river.

The locals call it ‘Rowe’. We braved the odds to see what happens where smoke billows from.

Potent drink

The potent drink ruining lives in Mathare and other parts of the city as well as the country is known here by the name Biko.

The making of Biko uses both science the local way and, crime. 

We found several fire points alight. Soot-black drums braved the fire and pipes connected to each drum ran through the flowing sewage to cool it and back to another twenty-litre jerrycan that seemed to be collecting the product.

Workers in their tens are alert. When one crosses the bridge that connects the shanties of Mradi and Shantit on a public road nearby, you’re not allowed to stop at any point to look at what’s happening.

Gangs guard the brewer and are said to have a right over one’s life should you be suspected of being an ‘enemy of the community.’ 

Through our own observation and interviews with locals, some who take part in the illegal brewing trade here reveal that Biko is made from a mix of many things, including flour from maize, sorghum or millet mixed with water.

The mixture is kept in an airtight condition until it ferments and gives a sour odour. The product is again mixed with water, laced with yeast and left for three days. It will then turn into a local brew called busaa.

After this, harmful elements are added to the busaa mixture to make it stronger according to ‘slum standards’ before the mix is subjected to the distillation process.

The additives that our investigations found and have been confirmed by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) include; formaldehyde, formalin, methanol, jet fuel, fertiliser including Dichlorodiphenyl-trychloroethane (DDT) - insecticide used in agriculture banned in the United States in 1972) and sisal juice. All these substances are classified as poison under section 25 of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act.

Sooty drums

At the riverbank, the mix is poured into the sooty drums on fireplaces. The drums are heated and pipes collecting the vapour from the hot mix therein run through the flowing river of sewage to cool it.

The pipes lead into several jerrycans that collect the cooled vapour now in liquid form. That cooled form is Biko in slum lingua, whose effects are dire.

Here, users of Biko; men, women and youth cannot separate day from night. Every household we visited knows the infamous drink. A glass of the drink costs only Sh20.

We moved to an iron sheet structure that is a story building overlooking the valley. We acted as though we were looking for a house to rent. We found one that’s to be vacated by the end of the month and engaged the tenant in a chit-chat. 

She explained that the owners of the multi-million illegal business are well-connected people living in leafy suburbs of Nairobi and Kiambu counties while their customers live a dog’s life in the slums. 

She said the drink that they make is too addictive. That once you experience the first gulp, you cannot stop.

Wangari told us that her marriage went south after her husband got addicted to the drink and failed to provide. His lifeless body was found by the roadside in Mathare months after they had separated. 

Life in these shanties is that of people who are overpowered by the drink. We found many taking a nap by the narrow paths. A staggering middle-aged woman tumbled and fell after a bodaboda hoots behind her. We help her get up and engage her in a chat. Is she sick?

She mumbles words that one can barely understand. Her blood-shot eyes roll in slow motion and her knees cannot support her thin body up.  Samson Makanda, a resident whose son is an addict of Biko spoke of the pain that parents whose children are deep into addiction go through. 

“My son started taking this drink immediately after Form Four. In two years, his appearance changed, his skin started lightening and his face was slightly swollen. The addiction is deep,” he lamented.

Makanda says all brewers are known by their street names.

One is called Kabwere and is claimed to have vied for a councillor seat in Mathare in 2002 but failed.

He is one of the chief brewers. Others have such street names as Goro and his wife Mama Cynthia, Waithaka, Loice, Mama Teddy, Mama Simon and another youth called Boy are some of the feared brewers of Biko in Mathare. 

“All bars masquerade as sellers of legitimate liquor in Kosovo, Mradi, Nigeria and Shanti are all selling chang’aa in branded bottles. This is what is transported to other parts of Nairobi, Kajiado and Central” Says Makanda.

A man who described himself as an addict and gave us one name, Odhiambo said he has tried to unhook himself from the trap of slum liquor but has been unable to. He says his fate was sealed with one gulp.

 “I have never looked back since I tasted it due to influence, but this one is more addictive than any other drug available here, it’s cheap and a quick killer,” said Odhiambo.

Branded bottles

We walked into a bar called Mai Mahiu. It sells liquor in branded bottles.

The drinks are segmented to accommodate all levels of customers depending on their purchasing power. Chang’aa has its own segment. Biko also has its own.  The office of the Mathare Deputy County Commissioner Catherine Kamathai is not more than a kilometre away. The administrator remained tight-lipped when contacted about the brewing menace within her jurisdiction.

She claimed not to have a comment at the time we contacted her.  “I am in an office at Harambee House and cannot talk right now,” was the quick response. 

After several follow-ups through text messages, no reply was provided despite reading our messages. 

Nairobi County Police Commander Adamson Bungei also did not pick up our calls nor reply to text messages. 

To understand the content of Biko, the substance being manufactured in the dirt of dreaded Mathare slums, The Standard took samples of the water that is used by the brewers to the Government Chemist for analysis.  The report we got said the liquor had a chemical called arsenic (a carcinogen) at extremely high levels that are harmful to human health. 

The water had 0.057 level of the chemical which goes against the recommended 0.01 which is the maximum limit allowed in East Africa. The Government Chemist stated that “The value of Arsenic exceeds the maximum limit…” The brew taken from the brewing site had an alcoholic content of 32.7 per cent and tested Arsenic positive at 0.016 level per millilitre, meaning anyone drinking a quarter litre of the same brew is consuming 0.2 against the recommended parameter. 

Arsenic causes cancer and skin lesions. It has been associated with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. When exposed to children, it is linked to negative impacts on cognitive development and increased deaths in young adults. 

Long-term exposure can cause skin changes such as lesions and its consumption in smaller quantities over a long period causes serious illness or sudden death.    Acting Nacada boss Prof John Muteti said the agency has intensified raids working with other government agencies to tame the illegal manufacture of adulterated liquor.

Kill me quick

“Chang’aa, which is also known as “kill me quick”, has a high alcohol content. But it’s often adulterated with other more poisonous compounds, including jet fuel and embalming fluid to speed up the fermentation process,” said Muteti. 

He added that Chang’aa is often brewed in rivers contaminated with sewage. In the Mathare slum, rich businessmen invest in its production but never come into the slum. They collect the money through “runners” who do not care about its effect on their customers. 

According to Nacada’s survey on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, the Nairobi Region registered a current consumption level of Chang’aa of 2.2 per cent, 2.9 per cent consumption of portable spirits and 10.3 per cent of manufactured legal alcohol.

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