Innumerable homesteads in Kisii have illicit brewers and the few without them have a former brewer who has given up the trade.
Those with no brewing history have in one way or another benefited from brewers involved in the illicit trade.
The trade is rampant and many people in the region rely on the business for their livelihoods. A ride in the villages reveals that it is a lucrative business.
Residents will point at homes where illicit brews are prepared.
“That big house you see over there is owned by a brewer," many will tell you.
For most residents, it does not matter that consumption and sale of illicit brews is an offence.
The relative affluence of brewers has encouraged the trade, with those joining the business confident that they will make some money and get rich quickly.
Impunity characterises the trade and a complex web of criminals, administrators, court staff and law enforcers collude with brewers and traders to make it thrive.
The illicit liquor market involves an elaborate network of brewers.
Kericho, Bomet, Nakuru, Narok and Homa Bay are the main markets for chang'aa from Kisii while kangara and busaa are mainly consumed locally.
Transporters use saloon cars to transport the product. One vehicle can carry more than 1,000 litres. The illicit brew is usually carried in jerrycans, with the transportation usually done at night.
The presence of police is usually not a very big issue, because the traders are usually prepared to hand the law enforcers hefty bribes to avoid arrest.
Residents say brewers do not fear retribution from local administrators and continue to concoct more of the brews with impunity.
Father Lawrence Nyaanga, who partners with the anti-drug abuse agency Nacada, says brewers and traders are so powerful that police officers who are determined to fight the trade end up giving up or becoming accomplices, making money by offering protection to the traders.
Notably, Covid-19 restrictions have made the business thrive even more and have prompted locals to turn to illicit liquor now that licensed bars operate on reduced hours.
The Catholic priest says this has made the situation worse because residents now face the danger of illegal brews and coronavirus infection.
“We are risking more by allowing the local liquor dens to operate. Authorities should scale up their surveillance,” says Father Nyaanga, accusing chiefs and their assistants of doing little to stop the sale of illicit brews in the region.
Brewers have a powerful association catering to their welfare.
Kisii County Police Commander Francis Kooli says the association members are moneyed and have frustrated every effort by the government to fight the crime.
“The brewers’ association in Kisii is powerful. When a member is arrested they rush to pay bail or fines for them. The brewer is then left to repay the loan advanced to them in terms of fine or bail at very low interest rates,” Mr Kooli says.
He adds that with the brewers buying their freedom easily and cheaply, they can comfortably return to the trade.
“They do this with a lot of impunity and have little respect for police,” says the police commander.
Importantly, most local administrators have for a long time negated their roles in the fight against illicit brews.
Backlash from the community
Because they live in the same villages as the brewers, they have to remain silent and at times even cover for them to avoid a backlash from the community.
“But we have put the administrators on notice. Those who will continue overseeing the crime in their jurisdiction will be interdicted,” says Mr Kooli, adding that the courts are now imposing heavy penalties on those found guilty of the crime.
He explains that in the past, the courts issued lenient fines and bonds, thus encouraging the crime.
The police are currently conducting raids deep in the villages where traders and brewers have for a long time practised their business with no interference.
In Motonto village, Bonchari constituency, kangara, which is common and is also processed to produce chang’aa, is abundant.
When poured, it forms a stream of liquor that runs from the homesteads where it is brewed to the roads and down into rivers and streams.
In July and September this year, police handled 424 cases, of which 356 have been concluded. A total of Sh2.2 million was collected in fines.
In May and July, 328 cases were reported, of which 30 were finalised. A total of Sh1.99 was collected in fines.
Mr Kooli says all sub-counties in Kisii are notorious but Kisii Central leads followed by Marani and Kitutu Central.
“This time around, we have decided to conduct impromptu raids and this is something that will not stop. Initially, we would conduct the raids for a given time and stop. There was a time frame, now it is not there,” says Mr Kooli.
Possession of drugs and illicit brews is the leading crime in Kisii at 65 percent against the national percentage of 17, according to the latest statistics from the National Crime Research Centre.
Being drunk and disorderly is the fifth-commonest crime in the county at 27 percent.
“We are determined to fight this particular crime and change the trends,” Mr Kooli says.
Consumption and trading in illicit brews is a problem the national government, through the Ministry of Interior, has acknowledged and vowed to deal with.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i has time and again called on residents to desist from the illicit brew trade.
Late last year, he said performance for national government administrators will be gauged on how they tackle illicit brews and alcohol abuse in their jurisdictions.
“Their Key Performance Indicators (KPI) will largely depend on how they handle these societal issues,” the CS said.
Dr Matiang’i said county commissioners, chiefs and their assistants who condone illicit brews, and drug and substance abuse in their jurisdictions risked being sacked.
He spoke at Kebirigo High School in Nyamira County after meeting local chiefs and their assistants.
“The use of alcoholic and narcotic substances has contributed to the rise of defilement, rape, murder and other forms of crime in the society,” said the CS.
He warned that each administrator, right from chiefs and their assistants to the county commissioner, will be held personally responsible for any illicit brews and defilement cases in their jurisdictions.