Tea pickers turn to bhang to dull pain of grinding labour

Tea pickers

Workers pick tea leaves.  Tea pickers abuse drugs while on duty to enhance productivity.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Life did a number on him and, at only 18, he found himself out of school and harvesting tea for James Finlay, a subsidiary of the Swire Group in London.

Tom* was neither ready for the intense vibrations of the harvester nor the muscle it requires to lug it through thick tea bushes all day long. But there was an “instant solution”, as friends and fellow workers told him. Bhang, it was, code named ‘stuff’, ‘rada safi’, ‘mali’ among other names.

A decade later, Tom needs four to five rolls of the drug to steer him through 10 hours of work.

“Here”, Tom stretches his hand to show us three rolls of bhang; his stock for the day. “You can’t do this job when sober. You have to stimulate your body,” said the emaciated-looking youngster in a matter-of-fact tone.

Now approaching 30, he sounds intelligent and is fluent in English and Kiswahili. He still harbours hopes of going back to school and becoming a politician someday.

Robert* is another user.

“I have severe chest and back pains, which get worse when pulling the machine in the cold at 6:30am. I usually take a break around 8am to smoke bhang to alleviate the pain,” he says.

Supervisors, he said, understand their need to smoke. “It is normal,” he said with a wry smile. Like Tom, Robert looks skinny and old for his age.

The drugs are readily available.

“You can find bhang in the staff quarters or in Kericho town. You can ask lorry drivers to fetch them for you en route to the farm to pick tea,” he said. One roll of bhang costs Sh50 and Robert uses four rolls a day.

He said one needs the drug more than food because food doesn’t guarantee the energy or state of mind to do the work.

“Once you’re high, you forget the hunger and you work tirelessly. You only get to feel body pains later when retiring to bed,” Robert told Nation.

Kenneth*, who lost his job at James Finlay for leading a strike and now operates a boda boda motorcycle taxi, was ready to take us to the marijuana dealer who supplies the workers in Kericho town, but it was time to go and pick up children from school. By the time he was available for the undercover mission, we were on another interview out of town.

In 2020, in what we thought was an isolated case, we interviewed minors who were contracted to weed the tea plantations and they admitted to using bhang, believing it would give them the strength to withstand the work.

“At times, we spend three days covering a day’s job, meaning we’d earn Sh100 per day. That is why we smoke bhang to boost our energy,” one teenager told Nation. Workers have, since 2010, been protesting against mechanisation that has cost them jobs and affected their health due to pulling the heavy machines.

Ekaterra and James Finlay have separately denied any knowledge of their workers abusing drugs while on duty to enhance productivity.

“Our safety policy strictly prohibits employees from operating machines or performing any work under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” Ekaterra said in a statement.

James Finlay equally stated that they do not condone the use of drugs in the tea estates, saying, it “has robust policies in place to protect the rights of workers and we operate in accordance with Kenyan law. Drug use is strictly prohibited.”

A study published in the Global Institute for Research and Education indicates that, despite the anticipated benefits associated with mechanical tea harvesters, it has come with many challenges.

“Findings reveal that the introduction of the machines has generated some negative attributes to the firm and the employees. Specifically, it has led to the direct emission of smoke, noise and loss of employment opportunities as a major challenge. From the study, stakeholders can utilise the information to enhance the development of the technology without impacting negatively on human resources,” says the report.

Abuse of bhang has become a major issue in Kericho and Bomet counties with a number of dealers having been arrested and prosecuted. Kericho County Commissioner Karungo Kamau acknowledged the rise in illegal substance abuse, saying, a crackdown on drug peddlers would continue with the police and administrators urged to be vigilant.

“We are working with members of nyumba kumi committee in gathering intelligence on dealers and cracking down on them,” Mr Kamau said.

Bhang smuggling

Drugs and substance abuse has also become rampant among schoolchildren leading to cases of indiscipline and dropouts. The drugs are sold by dealers in Brooke, Kapsoit, Kapkelek, Litein, Kapkatet, Ngoina Road in Kericho County and Bomet town, Silibwet, Kaplong, Mogogosiek, Chebole and Mulot trading centres in Bomet County. Migori, Nyamira, Kisii, Kisumu, Kericho, Bomet, Narok and Nakuru counties are key transit points for bhang sourced from Uganda and Tanzania and transported at night using private vehicles. An emerging trend points to the use of public service vehicles to ferry drugs.

In Kericho, police cracked a bhang smuggling ring and seized nine bags of narcotics with an estimated street value of Sh4.9 million two years ago.

The bhang, weighing 232 kilogrammes, was packed in 90-kilo bags and stashed in the boot of a car.

The driver of the vehicle defied orders to stop at a police roadblock, according to former Kericho County Police Commander James Mugera, and took off on foot together with a passenger. Officers towed the vehicle to the local police station.

This came hot on the heels of a similar operation where bhang worth Sh4.2 million was seized in Londiani, Kipkelion East constituency.

Since January, more than six suspects have been arrested with 109 rolls of bhang in an operation led by administrators in Bomet town.

Bomet Township chief Rueben Ngetich and Chepngaina assistant chief Richard Kirui led a sting operation in Maembe Street in Bomet town, where Mr Kevin Koech was arrested with 34 rolls of bhang on March 21.

It is reported that an elderly woman, who has been in and out of police cells, is the main supplier at Silibwet trading centre.

*Names have been changed to protect workers’ identities.