Banned 'kill-me-quick' home-brew kills and blinds hundreds in Kenya

Declan Walsh
Saturday 18 November 2000 01:00
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More than 128 Kenyans are dead and almost 400 are in hospital, many suffering from blindness, after drinking an illegal home-brew known as "kill me quick".

More than 128 Kenyans are dead and almost 400 are in hospital, many suffering from blindness, after drinking an illegal home-brew known as "kill me quick".

Drinkers have been falling dead on the streets of Nairobi's slum areas since last Tuesday when a lethal batch of chang'aa came on the market. It was laced with methanol, a type of alcohol usually used in anti-freeze or as a car fuel.

Nairobi's main hospital has been inundated with victims, some arriving in a coma while others writhe in pain after losing their sight. One man reportedly died at the hospital door after stepping out of a taxi. The driver then stole his shoes to cover the fare.

Doctors have been injecting those blinded with another alcohol, ethanol, in an attempt to flush out the poison. Hospital staff have been recalled from leave as more deaths are expected.

Chang'aa was outlawed in Kenya two years ago. However, it remains popular among the poor, both for its powerful effect and its low price. This week's fatal batch was sold under the name "kumi-kumi". One plastic mug's worth sold for 10 shillings (9p), less than a third of the price of legal beer.

Those killed have been predominantly middle-aged men but included one girl aged 17 and the female owner of a bar where kumi-kumi was sold. Police have arrested 22 people, mostly middle-aged women suspected of making the brew. But there was widespread scepticism about the ability of the authorities to crack down on the drinking dens. Many home brewers have operated freely up to now by paying bribes to corrupt policemen.

"A lot of these people are taking it for granted, they say you die when your time comes," police spokesman Peter Kimanthi said. "But we are not going to tire from telling them to stop. Those with ears will hear."

Kimanthi said police have arrested 22 suspects, including a director of a small chemical company that local news reports say is suspected to be the source of the brew.

The East African Standard said Samuel Njoroge Karanja was arrested Friday outside his Oleo Chemical Industry premises in Kariobangi, a Nairobi suburb.

Kimathi said Karanja was one of many suspects, adding that police were still searching for all the possible sources of the brew.

Slum dwellers were ignoring forceful warnings and continuing to drink the illicit brew, the Nairobi provincial commissioner, Cyrus Maina, said: "Even those just released from hospital are celebrating with more chang'aa."

The death toll is likely to make this Kenya's worst alcohol tragedy. At least 200 people have died from poisonous brews in the last two years.

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