Why Africans are dying for a drink

Priced out of the legitimate alcohol market, the poor are turning instead to deadly homebrews

In the half-light of the Grogon drinking den closed curtains can't hide the fact that morning has broken. Slumped in an old sofa in the corner, Alfred and Michael have joined the early shift of drinkers. In voices slowed to a slur they offer a lesson in the economics of illicit alcohol consumption.

"A Guinness is 120 shillings," says Alfred, his bloodshot eyes wide at the incredible profligacy of a bottle of stout costing £1. "A half glass of kumi-kumi is 10 shillings," he declares. "And it's 40 per cent," Michael adds approvingly. Their point made, both men take a long draught of the illegally brewed kumi-kumi, or chang'aa, the name literally means "kill me quick".

The clear liquor which announces itself with a fierce burn and leaves an aftertaste of soil is poured from an old Coke bottle. Measures are meticulous, with three fingers making a half glass and a double poured level with the brim. Across the room, eyes are red and expressions vacant. One man has already passed out. No one seems to be drinking halves. Outside, the temperature is rising and the breeze carries a stench of decomposing rubbish over the single square kilometre of Korogocho, one of Nairobi's poorest and roughest slums. Perched on the edge of Kenya's largest landfill dump, the slum is home to 120,000 people and hundreds of the illicit stills that fuel the lucrative and sometimes deadly trade in chang'aa.

John cooks his own brew in a converted oil barrel and insists it's so pure he calls it "Kenyan Smirnoff". But it takes up to five days to make, and others don't want to wait that long.

Down by the river, a breezeblock outhouse is used as a clandestine store for one of the larger batches. A mix of fecal water, rats and cockroaches spiked with formaldehyde from a nearby mortuary – it's known to locals as "Hustle". Another brew, "Jet 5", takes its name from its magic ingredient: stolen jet fuel.

Korogocho is just one of an estimated 200 slums in which some 2.5 million of Nairobi's 4 million inhabitants live. More than 60 per cent of the people are confined to just 5 per cent of the city. As Nairobi lives, so it drinks. While the comparatively affluent knock back highly taxed bottled beers, the poor turn to cheap and potent moonshine.

Kenya is not alone in its habits. The World Health Organisation believes that more than half of the alcohol consumed in sub-Saharan Africa is illegal. In Nigeria, the local specials include palm wines such as "crazy man in the bottle"; in Botswana there is fermented tho-tho-tho (the dizzy spell), in Zimbabwe the nightcap is "Scud"; and in DR Congo there's the plaintive kasiki (I regret).

For the most part, this underground flow remains hidden from view until a particularly lethal batch makes the headlines.Last month 80 people died in Western Uganda after drinking banana gin, called waragi, which had been cut with industrial alcohol. Those who died first went blind before suffering from massive liver and kidney failure. The fatalities are not surprising – as little as 10ml of methanol can burn the optic nerve, just 30ml will kill.

Similar tragedies have hit other countries and Kenyans still remember the deaths of more than 200 people from chang'aa laced with methanol in two incidents in the town of Machakos outside Nairobi in 1998 and 2000.

The public health threat has prompted some governments to rethink the prohibition of traditional liquor and listen to the big brewers who have been arguing for tax breaks to allow them to offer cheap, safe, commercial alternatives. In Kenya a private members' bill that legalises chang'aa production is at the committee stage, having passed its first reading.

Dr Justin Willis, a history professor at Durham University and the author of several works on alcohol in East Africa, warns that there is no "silver bullet" that will make the problem go away. "To drive out the illegal market the legal alcohol will have to be very, very cheap," he says. "Providing very large amounts of cheap alcohol will create its own problems."

Botswana has swung the other way under President Ian Khama. Determined to stamp out what he calls an epidemic of alcoholism, which he links to lower productivity and high HIV/Aids rates, he has championed huge tax hikes on booze. But the big brewing interests have become a mainstay of post-colonial economies in many African countries and Botswana is the exception.

A model popular with some anti-prohibition policymakers is the Ugandan legalisation of waragi. Since 1965, the national distillery has been buying up small-scale production and marketing it under the single banner of "Uganda Waragi".

The absence of a traditional alcoholic drink from African shops that are heaving with imported and locally produced copies of everything from beer to sherry is seen by many as an unwanted hangover from the age of Empire.

Alcohol was widely consumed in pre-colonial Africa and is closely bound up with ceremonies from births and deaths to marriage in many cultures. The coming of European rule saw many fermented drinks outlawed at the same time as imported distilled liquor was introduced for the first time. White settlers were not fond of locals drinking, though, and waragi takes its name from "war gin" as the colonialists called the traditional Enguli drink.

Since independence colonial prohibition of traditional alcoholic drinks has largely been left in place or "sin taxes" have been used to curb consumption. But the lobby arguing that legalisation can improve public health is gaining ground.

East African Breweries, Kenya's largest taxpayer, is keen to tout its success with Senator beer – a local barley brew that, thanks to tax breaks and distribution in kegs instead of bottles, has overtaken its more famous stablemates like Tusker and Pilsner in volume of sales. Commercial brewers would like similar incentives to trial commercial versions of traditional spirits.

Repealing the chang'aa ban has also found strong support in the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA). "If the ban on chang'aa is left to continue, people will continue to die because no one knows exactly what the chang'aa they are drinking is made of," said NACADA's head, Jennifer Kimani. "The Government cannot control standards for something that is illegal."

None of these arguments persuade Raymond Waneru Maina. He runs an exhausting schedule of alcoholics anonymous meetings in Korogocho. A third of households in the slum, where the average age is under 25, suffer from alcoholism, he says, and ending the ban will just make matters worse. "The issue is not the contents but the effect of this liquor ... more jobs lost, more families broken and more people dying." A poster on his office door warns the reader: "We drank to cope with life and invited death; We drank for freedom and became slaves."

He accuses the government of abandoning people in the slums, and says giving legal backing for a flood of cheap liquor would be like "raising the white flag and admitting defeat". If the government is really interested in helping they could start by taking action to improve the quality of life, he says.

Dr Willis believes the weakness of the state in East Africa, where police often share illegal profits with producers, means the illicit industry won't disappear with a change in the law. And demand is hard to control when weighed against "the sheer horribleness of people's lives" in the slums, he adds.

Back in the Grogon den, Michael says he does worry about what it is that he is drinking but says that "kill me quick" is all he can afford. "I like to drink," he admits. "I have a lot of problems and I need it." He's only staying for one drink, he insists, then he's going to look for work: "If I drink I have the courage. I can do anything."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Marketing and Business Development Officer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hull based charity providing except...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Female Support Worker

£9464 - £10396 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will ne...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future