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."

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