The 5-Minute Briefing: Kenya's Drinking Dens

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What has happened in Kenya's drinking dens?

What has happened in Kenya's drinking dens?

Forty-nine people have died after drinking a batch of changa'a, a home-made spirit laced with methanol, in Machakos, a small town south-east of Nairobi. At least eight other drinkers have gone blind and others are in hospital with agonising pains. Several people, including the owner of the bar, have been arrested. The customers are unable to give coherent evidence.

What is it made of?

In its purest state: water, methanol, fermented maize and sorghum flour.

Who drinks it?

Unemployed men in the slums that sprawl around all Kenyan towns and bored teenagers in the rural areas. A few women drink too but that is much less common.

Why do people drink it?

They would rather drink beer or whisky, but many Kenyans cannot afford to buy a Tusker malt beer or a Jack Daniel's, so they rely on home-brews made by women trying to earn extra money for school fees and clothes. The brews are illegal, a throwback from colonial times when Kenya's British rulers outlawed local drinks, but most policemen do not want to venture into the slums where changa'a is brewed.

Why did this batch go wrong?

Doctors believe the brewer added too much methanol. It is an industrial alcohol used in products such as anti-freeze, and is absorbed directly into the body and can cause comas, blindness and death. Five years ago, 139 people died from a similar mishap.

Is there an alcohol problem in Kenya?

Yes. Research shows 70 per cent of all families in Kenya are affected by alcoholism. Drink-driving is common and women are often beaten by drunken husbands. But many churches in Kenya promote teetotalism and the country's large population of born-again Christians consider alcohol disreputable.

What can be done about it?

The government has banned all advertising for beer and spirits to try to discourage young people from drinking. Kenyan brewers have asked the government to make their drinks cheaper so people will not have to go to unlicensed sellers. The country's parliament is to debate lifting the ban on traditional drinks; some say making changa'a legal will improve safety, others fear it will make the problem worse. President Mwai Kibaki, who is believed to like a drink, has promised to investigate.

Is the government to blame for these deaths?

Many say this poisoning came just after the government raised duty on alcohol, forcing more people to turn to changa'a. Ministers blame inadequate laws about the sale of methanol. Liberals say that if the government could provide jobs and housing for the disaffected youth, they would not turn to drink.