Sunday, May 23, 2010



By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

May 18, 2010

Hundreds of Kenyans and Ugandans have either been blinded or killed by deadly illicit brews in recent years. It all started suddenly in Kenya’s sprawling slums where life is known to be more difficult and less bearable all year round. In such circumstances, men gradually give up family leadership and take to drinking cheap but potent local brews to temporarily make them forget their miseries. In these dens, the more men drink, the more they get addicted and the more they stop being financially and sexually productive.

A story is told in Kenya where whole schools in a district have been closed down for lack of children to attend such schools. Women in these areas are known to have complained loudly to the government that their men stopped meeting their conjugal and marital obligations a long time ago due to alcohol abuse, hence the women’s inability to conceive and bear children.

When it comes to the deadly brew, the first such case was reported a few years ago in Kawangware slums where brewers hand graduated from making the usual changaa, a product distilled from molasses, a residue from sugar mills to a higher version laced with all manner of spirits that can cause instant death if consumed. At that time, scores of Kawangware slum dwellers lost their sights instantly as others were already dead when it dawned on their neighbors that what they had drunk was not the usual local brew appropriately nicknamed the “tears of a lion” or “kill me quick”.

A few years later this year, the deadly brew claimed the lives of more people in Machakos, 50 km from Nairobi city. Like before, the killer brew blinded scores as others were pronounced dead on arrival at various clinics.

It was therefore disturbing to read similar stories from Kabale in Uganda where an adulterated waragi had blinded 20 people while claiming the lives of 80 innocent Ugandans in one day making a total of 114 deaths of Ugandans in different parts of the country in the last eight months.

However, unlike in Kenya, this trend has spread faster in Uganda with devastating effect. Whereas Kenya can only talk of reported incidents in Nairobi and Machakos alone in the last few years, Uganda has had more widespread cases ranging from Kabale District to Masaka, Kampala, Gulu and Kasese.

For many years, Kenyans have admired Uganda and Tanzania authorities for legalizing the brewing of their local changaa, a cruder version of the refined Ugandan warage and Tannzania’s konyagi. But now that the media is reporting deaths and blindness as a result of consuming warage, it may be prudent to rethink licensing the local brew as long as criminals amongst us can exploit it to kill and maim fellow citizens for a few extra pieces of silver.

What beats logic is why, after so many years of law enforcement training and practice, the police in Kenya and Uganda urban centers have never contained excessive brewing of dangerous liquids that pass for alcohol.

But again, regular police raids in changaa dens in Kenya’s rural villages and urban slums could be the reason the liquid has gotten more lethal with time. With roadblocks all over Kenya harassing professional changaa brewers that have traditionally transported the commodity from Western Kenya to Nairobi, Rift Valley and the Coast, some smart twisted brains must have spotted the gap and decided to fill it with their deadly alternative.

Reported deaths in urban centers aside; illegal brew’s history is as old as the arrival of the white man in this part of Africa. Long before the missionary and the colonial administrator outlawed our local brew that was a product of fermented grains and was strictly consumed by specific age groups, there were no cases of excessive drinking that took our village mates to their early graves. In those good old days, most village beer parties were held soon after harvest seasons to celebrate bounty harvests. Alcohol was never consumed as an everyday occupation.

With the advent of the white man and his ways and with the money economy driving young men into urban centers where life became a nightmare, brewing cheap and lethal alcohol to meet the frustrations of growing populations grew into a lucrative, hazardous and deadly urban subculture.

Today, a casual walk in our rural villages and urban slums will reveal to us the damage that illicit alcohol consumption has caused our country in terms of many young and productive lives. One wonders how many more lives must be lost with an even greater number blinded forever before any corrective measures are put in place in our region to save our youth from early destruction.