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Why I quit brewing ‘changaa’

By Kevin Ogutu | April 28th 2015 at 10:51:19 GMT +0300

Most, if not all illicit brew narratives end in tragedies. People have lost sight and lives after taking illegal hooch prepared in the most unhygienic conditions in the world. Families have broken, breadwinners lost, pupils and students forced out of school... into early marriages. But whenever the brewers and sellers are asked why they do the illegal business, the answer has always been, "I do it to get something to feed my children". And is it the only thing? 

So when I heard of a woman who, out of her own volition, decided to exit this club of illicit brew sellers, I decided to go after her, armed with a lot of questions. 

A waft of unmistakable aroma of fresh fish in deep fry hit my nostrils as I arrived at Domtila Nyachonga’s home. Before me were fresh Nile perch fish of various sizes, washed, dissected and neatly arranged in a row to drain water. It is eleven in the morning and Domtila has already travelled to Lake Victoria (to buy the fish) and back - a distance of about 40 kilometres. 

Next to the dissected fish is a makeshift frying parlor with fire rumbling under a frying pan half filled with hot cooking oil. In the pan I see mouthwatering golden brown deep fried fish. The widowed 68-year-old Domtila has her preparations for Sifuyo market in high gear.

Ten years ago her schedule was quite different; she would either be brewing or serving her customers ‘changaa’ – an illegal moonshine. For forty one years she perfected her brewing skills, always making sure that her alcohol pot never ran dry.

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Arteries of village footpaths, as bald as coot due to hundreds of feet thumping on them daily, crisscrossed but later merged at Domtila’s home in Ralak village, Ugenya constituency in Siaya County. The reason being so obvious: she produced the most potent stuff, never ‘adding water’ as it is said. And because of the continuous flow of alcohol from her pot, the creative among her customers christened her place ‘ka kila siku’ which loosely translates to ‘where you will find alcohol every day’. And with this her loyal customers would come any time of the day or night to quench their thirst.

Due to her engagements at the time of my arrival, it becomes apparent that my interview would have to run parallel with the fish frying business. And the first question I ask is why she decided to stop brewing that hooch and instead chose fish business.

“I grew tired of constant police harassments and the huge bribes and fines that came with their impromptu visits,” she says as she adds another dry wood to the three-stone hearth.

She says the police officers became hungrier with every sunrise making it very difficult to satisfy their appetite for bribe. It became apparent that she would only be toiling for them as she says, a time would come when she would be left with very little not even enough to buy the requisite materials in changaa preparation.

“The business became very difficult to run especially with the entry of the members of the provincial administration into the bribery fray. An assistant chief would come and ask for money and if you fail to give him he would make sure that he brings the police from Ukwala police station the next minute,” she says.

But that is not the only reason why she quit. She says that she found the procedure of preparing the hooch labour intensive. According to her, a time would come when she would no longer have the energy to do the daunting task.

“I had to look for an alternative source of income since I am a widow without anyone I can depend on for financial support. And that is why I chose on fish since I had already got used to preparing a consumable product that was alcohol,” she adds.

Though she would at most times get better returns from changaa sales, she just won't go back to it.

“Despite the lower returns from this fish business, I am able to pay my bills and am left with enough capital to purchase another supply from the lake. With an annual business permit from the Fisheries Department which goes for only 350 shillings, I can go about my business without having to look over my shoulder from time to time,” says Domtila.

She therefore encourages other men and women who are still engrossed in the business to explore other legal means of putting food on the table.

She says that despite the ‘better’ returns that may be coming their way, changaa business is full of ‘curses’. She attributes her only son’s death in Nakuru in the infamous post-election violence to the ‘bad mouths’ that mentioned her name – in a negative light – during her days as a renown changaa brewer and seller.

“When somebody’s son working in town comes home and finishes all his money in alcohol, you as the brewer becomes his mother’s enemy whether or not the son in question came to drink at your place,” she says.

With close to ten years since she called changaa business quits, some of her diehard customers are still hopeful that she will one day return.

“They keep asking me why I decided to take that step. They would really wish that I get back to business but my decision is final. I can’t go back,” says Domtila.

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