Women's outcry over substance abuse is a powerful call to action

Women stage a protest in Molo after a man killed himself upon returning from a drinking spree.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Addiction means that energy, time and resources are directed towards securing them.
  • Many lives have been, and continue to be, lost because of substance abuse.
  • Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua recently visited a mother who had lost seven sons to alcohol.

In a small brief on March 27, the Daily Nation reported that women in Orinie village in Kajiado Central invaded a 20-acre muguka farm and cut down the plants to protest against the fact that consumption of this substance has made their husbands and sons neglect their families.

Muguka is a variant of khat (miraa), a stimulant plant mainly grown in Meru County and parts of Embu. The freshly plucked buds and leaves are chewed to achieve mental and emotional elation. Both substances are addictive, a factor accelerated by the fact that they are easily available and cheap.

The step by the Kajiado women is justifiable on a number of grounds. When men while away time in consumption of substances, their work is transferred to women, which is tantamount to slavery. The men also need money to finance their consumption, hence must have a source – most probably pilferage of family resources.

When men are steeped in substance abuse, their resources are devoted to the same, which leads to wastage as the same could be invested in family welfare and economic growth. This then is an opportunity cost not only to the families but to the whole nation.

The men also neglect their conjugal duties, with obvious consequences: sexually starved wives; low levels of reproduction; resort to extramarital relationships; and violence from cuckolded husbands.

In the PhD thesis titled “The social life of miraa: Farming, trade, and consumption of a plant stimulant in Kenya”, Neil Carrier (2003) identifies three contexts in which khat is used.

Traditional usage features its consumption during nuptial ceremonies, rituals and community meetings.

Pragmatic chewing relates to boosting of stamina, increasing concentration at work, reduction of sleepiness and medicinal healing and restoration. Recreational chewing straddles social interactions and courage to face challenging circumstances.

The 2013 study “Socioeconomic and perceived health effects of khat chewing among persons aged 10-65 years in selected counties in Kenya”, by Gideon M. Kikuvi and Simon M. Karanja, shows that people consumed the product to prevent sleep, while away time, kill boredom, socialise, reduce stress and increase energy for long hours of work.

Ironically, 17.4 per cent of study respondents reported that they had at one point failed to work as a result of indulgence in the substance. This vindicates the Kajado women and suggests that recreational indulgence has overtaken use of the substances to generate energy for work.

This study notes that consumers spent Sh892 weekly on the substances, money lost to the families. Approximately 22 per cent of the respondents had at some point diverted money meant for family food, fees and other household requirements to buy khat.

Qualitative responses showed that when such men did not have the money, they would borrow – another drain. Significantly, female respondents highlighted that “habitual chewing of khat had resulted in broken families.”

The perceived health effects of khat are catalogued as: enhanced energy and alertness (88.7 per cent); reduced sleepiness (80.9 per cent); mood elation (90.5 per cent); dehydration (68.6 per cent); constipation (18.7 per cent); erectile dysfunction (26.9 per cent); urinary incontinence (12.7 per cent); painful intercourse (6.9 per cent); loss of appetite (72.8 per cent); and excessive emission of semen not related to sexual intercourse, scientifically referred to as spermatorrhoea – (13.5 per cent).

Of the respondents, 31.7 per cent reported that they experienced withdrawal symptoms on stopping consumption. Such symptoms included fatigue, mood swings, sleepiness, headaches and loss of concentration.

Importantly, the study notes that chewing miraa was significantly associated with men, youth (ages 26–35) and presence of a family member who also chewed it. This coheres with the 2022 national survey on the status of drugs and substance use in Kenya by the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, which shows that more males (7.0 per cent) had used khatthan females (0.7 per cent) in the month preceding the survey.

Addiction to these substances means that energy, time and resources are directed towards securing them. Many lives have been, and continue to be, lost because of substance abuse. This was recently dramatised when the Deputy President visited a mother who had lost seven sons to alcohol.

Imagine her pain, the loss of labour, knowledge and skills, and the social and economic void in the immediate and extended families. What about widowed women and children that are left fatherless?

Kajiado women are not the first to physically complain about men’s abuse of alcohol and other substances. Past media reports have featured enraged women destroying equipment used to brew alcoholic drinks in parts of central Kenya and Nairobi.

What the women are saying is simple: substance abuse is affecting not only the men but their wives and families too. By extension, it is killing our nation.

Whatever it takes to eradicate this social vice must be fully supported without apology.

The writer is a lecturer in gender and development studies at South Eastern Kenya ([email protected]).