The good, the bad, and the ugly Kenyan drinker

Busaa time: The drink may served in unhygienic conditions but its imbibers are not complaining.

What you need to know:

  • If Kenyans drinking themselves to blindness or death was film, the macabre script would be all too disgustingly familiar, but different Kenyans drink diffrent poisons in scenarios that range from the good to the ugly

It is only 3 pm at the Lucky Pub in Embakasi Village, but the doors are open and customers are flooding in. It is baking hot outside, and local residents have come seeking shelter — or maybe an early end to the work day.

“People drink too much. Even myself at this place. But there are many life pressures,” says Mr Absalom Oguto, a regular patron.

At Sh260 a bottle, the cane liquor Oguto drinks is unaffordable for most. But around the corner, hidden in a dingy shed riddled with holes and filled with thick smoke, buckets of home-made busaa wait for the low, low price of Sh60 a litre.

This is the main problem facing safe drinking in the country, says Ms Kalika Ruparelia, a representative of Kafra Wines.

After the Mututho laws were passed, taxes on liquor became so high that poor people were forced to turn to illicit brews — including spirits like Yokozuna, which was responsible for the deaths of 22 people this month.

“Our cheapest bottle is Sh200, and even that is too much for many people in Kenya. The government needs to make it more affordable to have a safe drink because right now it’s so expensive that people are brewing it in their sheds,” she says.

She has a point — in slums across Nairobi, chang’aa distilleries and busaa breweries are commonplace.

Jacinda has been brewing busaa for more than 10 years in Embakasi Village. Although the brew, and its more powerful cousin chang’aa, were legalised in 2010, government regulations stipulate that the brews must be bottled and come with a warning label.

Bottling and labelling facilities are non-existent in Embakasi. This means Jacinda and her colleagues still face constant harassment from police.

“We don’t mix ours with methanol. We know who does, they sell it from the windows quickly, quickly. But this is not how we do it,” she explains.

The ugly

Unscrupulous vendors are the bane of police and bar owners these days. At the Loitokitok police station on the Tanzanian border, police recently seized 7,500 litres of methanol used to spike local brews. The extra kick gets people drunk faster — but it also blinds and kills them.

At the border station, Kenya police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said the government cannot afford to let illegal drinking continue in the country.

“It’s a matter of serious concern. We must prevent further damage. People are dying, we cannot sit back and watch,” he told reporters.

The issue is getting more attention — and drinkers are suffering more accidents and deaths — because drinking is on the rise in Kenya, especially among young people.

According to the National Campaign against Drug Abuse (Nacada), 12 per cent of children aged between 12 and 17 are reported to be users of alcohol and other substances, although they were found to be more likely to use cannabis and miraa than alcohol.

The Mututho laws are aimed at cracking down on constant drunkenness — pub hours are more firmly regulated and penalties for being drunk in public range from a Sh50,000 fine to three months in jail.

But whether the laws have been effective remains to be seen. Pubs still open early, streets are packed with determined drinkers on any given weekend, and the culture itself has changed.

But there is a classy, less disturbing side to Kenya’s drinking culture.

Sample this one: Well-heeled wine aficionados flood the Southern Sun Hotel in Parklands on a Saturday evening. They are here for the Kenya Fine Wine Show, now in its third year, and they are here to be seen drinking wine.

“People who know wine will come to this one. Kenya is one of the most sophisticated wine markets in East Africa,” says Ms Nicci Pain, an event organiser and representative of DGB wines.

Ms Pain and fellow wine importers are counting on Kenyan drinking culture to bring in the shillings. At the Fine Wine Show, attendees will not sample any bottles that cost less than Sh1,200. But even with sky-high prices, the market is growing in leaps and bounds.

“Every year this event gets bigger. We expect a full house tonight, at least 180 people,” she says.

Drinking is becoming a bigger part of Kenyan culture every year, a complicated one. There is good, bad, and ugly to be found, from high-class events like the Fine Wine Show to the most squalid of slum distilleries and pubs.

The only Kenyan vineyard represented at the show is run by the Rift Valley Winery. Representative Emma Nderitu says demand for local wine is hitting a new high — her company sells about 4,000 bottles a month — and she predicts more growth.

“Look at all the wine bars that are popping up around town. There’s a new one at Junction, a wine bar at the Norfolk, one called Divino with some great Italian bottles. Everyone wants to be seen drinking wine,” says Ms Nderitu.

As Kenya steels itself for rapid economic development, aiming to catch up with the Asian Tigers via the Vision: 2030 plan, Nairobi is becoming a sophisticated city full of eager young drinkers.

Stroll the streets in Westlands or downtown Nairobi on a Friday night to see the evidence: young, well-dressed club kids are turning out in droves to drink and dance the night away.

Bars like Mercury, Psys, Simmers, and Bacchus are packed to the brim every weekend. Youth in Kenya, targeted constantly by marketing campaigns and pop culture, are embracing the clubbing lifestyle.

“When you are young and single, you want to have fun. You want to enjoy yourself,” says Ms Nderitu.

This new generation of club-hoppers is not just drinking wine. Kenya has a flourishing beer industry producing high-quality, internationally-recognised brews, according to a recent report by TradeInvest Africa.

“This has been possible due to factors such as good climate for agriculture, availability of barley, affordable labour, big local market, and access to regional markets like Comesa and the East African Community,” reads the report.

East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL), the makers of Tusker, controlled about 95 per cent of the bottled beer market in 2005.

The company employs 1,200 people, and owns 80 per cent of all the breweries in Kenya, although newest competitor, Keroche, hopes to gain a 25 to 30 per cent market share within five years.

Although the recent global economic crisis and the Mututho laws saw beer sales slow and prices jump across the country, the industry is still going strong and represents a sizeable tax base for the government — in 2009 alone, the EABL paid Sh25 billion in taxes.

Competition is fierce, the beer wars are heating up, and Kenya’s alcohol industry is set to boom — but at what cost?

“In times past, alcohol was not accessible to everyone. An unmarried man could not drink. Women under 45 years old could not take alcohol. But this has changed over the years. The culture has evolved. This is one habit that has no social or economic borders,” says Nacada chairman Aggrey Busena.

Nacada’s most recent survey of alcohol use among Kenyans, conducted in 2007, found that substance abuse is a major problem. According to the report, alcohol and tobacco are the most-abused drugs in Kenya.

With alcohol abuse comes a host of other troubles: domestic violence, job loss, and dangerous sexual practices that can lead to an increase in HIV and Aids.

The problem, says Mr Busena, is that children as young as nine years have access to illicit substances.

“People blame poverty and unemployment, but it’s a question of role-modelling. Parents are not guiding their children and there is a lot of peer pressure. Children see alcohol promoted in mass and social media, artistes and superstars promote certain drinks. All of these factors have exposed our youth to alcohol,” he says.

According to Mr Busena, fresh statistics indicate that 13 per cent of Kenyans report drinking alcohol.

“But the dividing line between drinking and abuse is very thin. It is very depressing when you hear of deaths,” he says.

The dividing line between a fun night out and an alcoholic bender is also very thin.

“We have reached a point where we are seeing young people lapse into hopelessness. They don’t care about life anymore, they seek oblivion. This is not the kind of culture we want to cultivate,” says Mr Busena.

Nacada is working on teaming up with the Ministry of Youth to run education programmes (15 per cent of 15-64-year-olds in Kenya report drinking illicit brews), and there are 46 rehabilitation centres located across the country.

The agency is also working with businesses across the country to develop corporate drug and alcohol policies aimed at counselling and rehabilitating substance abusers instead of just dismissing them.

But with unemployment high and a myriad alcoholic drinks heavily promoted and readily available, progress will be difficult, says Mr Busena.

“We are in a war situation now. We are losing the younger generation. We must reverse this trend. We need a country that is secure and sober,” he says.


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