Charles Onyango returned to his rural home in Kakrao village, Suna East, six years ago after losing his job in Nairobi.
Mr Onyango, who has an accounting background, earned a living doing menial jobs but life got harder each day, prompting him to resort to farming.
Gradually, he fell into alcoholism, often spending his time in dingy village drinking dens as he lacked money to go to bars.
“I had a company of six youths who helped me on the farm and they would often go for a glass of chang’aa or two before starting their job,” Mr Onyango recounted.
“I knew it was not the right thing to do but things happened quickly. I soon became a new recruit, spending most of my time in the dens.”
The 38-year-old has given up searching for formal employment. He said most jobless young people often sit idle in villages, making them easy targets for cheap labour in exchange for alcohol.
This is happening even as the government cracks down on illicit brews under the rapid response initiative.
Cheap and plentiful
Many school leavers are unemployed and do menial jobs for survival, and the brew is cheap and plentiful. This is why the sale of traditional brews is thriving.
Junior police officers are also on the brewers’ payroll, derailing government efforts to eradicate illegal alcohol, users told the Nation.
The shocking revelation came months after a local administrator was heckled at a funeral when he stood to condemn rising use of illicit brews, which he attributed to heightened insecurity in Kakrao location and its environs.
The assistant chief was forced to cut short his speech after mourners booed him and claimed that government administrators were actively involved in the practice.
In the neighbouring Oruba location on the outskirts of Migori town, the situation is dire, with parents worried about their sons who are wallowing in alcoholism.
Last month, officers, acting on a tip, destroyed over 500 litres of chang’aa and another 200 litres of kangara (fermented liquor), which was buried on the banks of River Migori.
The operation, conducted by Oruba-Ragana Chief John Okombo and a contingent of Administration Police officers, also netted other paraphernalia used in producing adulterated drinks.
The brewers fled after getting wind of the crackdown, leaving behind the consignment, which was destroyed.
Chief Okombo said chang’aa sellers often change their tactics, devising dubious ways of concealing the alcohol to avoid arrest. Some bury them in shallow pits while others keep them in thickets.
“The players in the business have a huge network, with informers in the police department who leak information about imminent raids. This has been the biggest drawback in the fight against illicit brew,” Mr Okombo noted.
“Unfortunately, it is our children and immediate families who bear the brunt of this illegal activity.”
The swoop exposed a racket laden with untouchable cartels with vast networks who sell illegal alcohol in informal settlements in the county.
Investigations by Nation.Africa revealed that Oruba, Nyangubo and Pand Pieri estates in Migori town and the villages of Ting’na, Ogari Rayudhi and God Jope in Suna East are some of the notorious points for the sale of illicit brews.
Others such as Jiw Dendi estate in Awendo sub-county, Kogenya and Rakwaro villages in Rongo sub-county and Lwanda Mgwar in Nyatike sub-county are also prone to the sale of illicit brews.
Brewed in broad daylight
The liquor is brewed in broad daylight on river banks and in homes, with idle youths actively engaging in the illegal business.
“The brewers are not scared of law enforcers and often boast about immunity from arrest by police and local administrators to whom they pay protection fees,” a source privy to the operations told the Nation.
The young men in their early 20s often throng the dens from as early as 5am, doing menial jobs before they are allowed to drink their heads off as payment.
“I do not pay cash. A majority are craving the drink and are willing to work in exchange for a glass of the brew,” explains a brewer in Karkao village.
Once brewed, the liquor is packed in five-litre containers and supplied to sellers in neighbouring towns.
Sometimes agitated women storm the dens and eject their husbands and children.
The women claim their children are not doing anything meaningful, saying some even steal property and sell it at the joints to quench their thirst for the cheap alcohol.
“It is sad that our children spend the whole day in drinking dens that are slowly turning them into zombies. They do not want to work yet they come home drunk demanding food,” lamented Nancy Odero, one of the affected women.
“Police and the local administrators are giving us a raw deal. Instead of cracking down on the menace, they only pass by the dens collecting bribes.”
The women called on authorities to stem the vice and close down the dens, which they said are exposing residents to security hazards.
In May, police in Kuria West sub-county raided a den where three people died after a bloody fight during a drinking spree.
Isebania Sub-County Police Commander Cletti Kimayio told Nation.Africa that the sale of illicit brew in Tagare, Kehancha and Mabera in Kuria West is on the rise despite concerted efforts by law enforcers to eradicate its.
He noted that three deaths relating to illicit brews had been reported in the previous one week, with the latest involving a middle-aged man whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on the roadside over the weekend. Locals told police that he had been spotted drinking at a local den in Kehancha.
In Kogenya, Rongo sub-county, the situation is not different, with residents complaining about mushrooming dens in the area.
“We have over 40 dens in the village alone and this has created a lot of unease as most of our property is stolen and sold off in exchange for alcohol,” lamented Janet Achieng.
Some residents accuse law enforcers of favouring some brewers, hampering the fight against illicit brews.
John Okinyi (not his real name) said he was targeted by police officers despite abandoning the illicit trade, arbitrarily arrested and fined before being released.
“I was arrested and forced to pay Sh2,000 for failing to remit payment for the previous two months. I had no other option but to pay to secure my release though I quit the business in early January,” he said.
Deal with rogue officers
Migori County Police Commander Mark Wanjala said that officers involved in the racket will be severely dealt with. He called on law enforcers to stick to professional ethics or quit.
“The concerns have been brought to my attention and they amount to a serious breach of professional ethics that should never be tolerated. We are investigating and will take necessary action,” he said.
“I am taking up the matter personally and any officer found culpable will be firmly dealt with.”
Mr Wanjala called on residents to report cases of rogue officers collecting bribes from the drugs and brewing dens.
“They should not suffer in silence. Let them report any wrongdoings by rogue police officers for immediate action. It is not only illegal to peddle illicit brews but our officers should not use such avenues to mint money from criminals,” he noted.