They called it jeti or mandege, coined from mafuta ya ndege, the Kiswahili phrase for jet fuel. I think it was some kind of industrial fuel mixed with water, and my brother and I thought we could have quite a lot of fun drinking it.
I say ‘I think it was some sort of industrial fuel’ because, honestly, I didn’t know what it was and, frankly, I didn’t care. All I wanted, all I cared about, was to get that fleeting high. But since I was church-mouse-broke to afford conventional alcohol, I settled for mandege.
The first time I tried it, I passed out immediately and woke up 24 hours later, my body aching all over. I was so nauseated I thought I would die. Then the vomiting came. And the blood. And water.
Yes, I was dying. My first husband, a doctor who had struggled with alcoholism, had gone to meet his maker this way. He had vomited a mixture of blood and water before he collapsed in a heap, never to wake up again.
Yes, I was dying.
But I didn’t want to die. No, not this way. So I called for help from a recovering drug addict I had met earlier. He rushed me to Asumbi Treatment Center in Homa Bay that same day, where I got all the medical care and counselling I needed.
Before I discovered mandege, I had attempted suicide twice. The first time, in 2005, I was hospitalised for two weeks to recover from the trauma. My motivations to end my life at the time were simple: I had nothing.
My children had been taken away from me, I had moved from a fully furnished house to a single room, then a bedsitter and on to a room with one open space and a communal toilet.
The nose-dive was so fast that, up to this day, I don’t even know how it happened. When I hit the bottom of the pit, I sold my furniture and any other item that could turn a shilling and moved close to my local, a chang’aa den that seemed to welcome me any time.
I, however, held onto my bed an stove, but not for long. My friends vanished, followed by some of my relatives. It was a dog’s life.
Why am I telling you the story of my life, you ask yourself. Because I must... I think. I have this urge to tell this story because, you see, I am not your usual drunk. I, for one, am a woman. And a beautiful one at that. I was so beautiful in my heyday that I was crowned the second runners-up in the 1982 Miss Kenya competition. So, yes, I am not your usual drunk.
My name is Anne Njeri Mathu, born in Murang’a some time in 1964 before my family moved to Thika in ’68. And I am a recovering alcoholic who abused the bottle for more than 20 years. I drank my first at the age of 10, courtesy of my doting father.
There is nothing, in my view, that you could say predisposed me to the bottle. I grew up with an army of neighbourhood kids, went to the same Gatumaini Primary School in Thika with many others, and had quite a lot of fun at Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls’ between ’77 and ’80 before joining Kenya Polytechnic in ’81 for a two-year diploma course in Institutional Management, which is basically catering and housekeeping.
But, in many other ways, my growing up was different from that of other kids; my father gave me my first sip of alcohol, he also used to ask me to light up his cigarette then tease me to puff a bit, and when I coughed he would tell me that if I smoked more, the coughing would stop.
By the time I got to Form Three, I was a star drunk and would smuggle my fix into school whichever way. Needless to say, my final grade was nothing to write home about.
But, while still at Kenya Polytechnic, my socialite tendencies flourished. That is why I enrolled for the Miss Kenya pageant, which I hoped would open the floodgates for me. And it did, in a way.
I started getting invitations to make appearances in events, complimentary tickets to the biggest gigs in town, paid-for fun here and there... until the fame and the money got into my head.
I stopped attending class because I was either too hung-overed to show up, or had a gig to attend. My life started revolving around night clubs and other famous entertainment spots of the ’80s, including The Carnivore, West Wood Park, Kentmare in Limuru, and the Jockey Club at Hilton, among others.
Yes, I was young, free and wild. Life was all about dancing, partying and drinking. I flopped the final exam at Kenya Polytechnic and was asked to re-sit. I didn’t. Because I couldn’t.
I hit the streets looking for a life, identity and a job and, in 1983, got twin blessings; a baby girl and my first job, at Moi Equator Girls’ in Nanyuki as a cateress.
New town, new mother, first job. I guess I could not handle it and, before long, I started keeping alcohol in the house. If you have been to this green town at the foot of Mt Kenya, you may have noticed the huge military presence that drives the economy of the entire town. That military presence has also spawned another culture; binge drinking courtesy of the dirt-cheap alcohol from the barracks.
Within a year of landing at Nanyuki, I had established a strong supplies network with soldiers at the Nanyuki Airbase, some of whom would even bring the drink to my house. The school would not accept this, and so I moved out to the booze capital, Nairobi, where I soon landed a job at the Panafric Hotel.
At Panafric, my situation got worse. I drank to stay sober, not to get high. If I missed my swig, I would shake, diarrhoea or have hot and cold flushes. To steady myself, I started taking my first vodka shot as early as 6:30am.
Since I worked in the house keeping department, I had access to all the vacant rooms in the house. I would, therefore, carry my drink to work and hide it in the toilet cistern of any vacant room, to where I would, every now and then, sneak for a tot... or two... or three.
My work ethic was pathetic, but the management hoped I would change for the better. Eventually, they transferred me to Kericho, where I moved with my brother, my little girl and a househelp.
My new post came with an office, meaning I could keep alcohol at work and drink when on duty. In 1990, I got my son and, two years later, we clashed with the management over my drinking. I resigned and moved to Thika.
At about this time, I met a doctor who was an alcoholic too. He was my first husband and life together was about alcohol and transfers since his close relationship with the bottle would not allow him to stay at one station for long.
Five years into our marriage, his body gave up. The last thing I remember of us together is him vomiting blood and, in the space of one hour, he was gone.
My in-laws took away everything. Somehow, they blamed me for his death, and so I went to live with a friend while my mother took in my children. Now broke and jobless, I was down to second-generation alcoholic drinks.
I talk about these things with a smile on my face today, but you should have seen me at this point in my life. A friend who had gone to Germany travelled home, took one look at me and decided I had to travel back to Germany with her. Her reasoning was that the geographical change would help me in quitting.
She was wrong.
Weeks after getting to Germany, I located what would soon become my local. And, while frequenting this place — and some others — I met an alcoholic, sickly German man who, by the look of things, was aged well past 70 and did not have long to live.
He became my bosom buddy.
Together with my German love, we woke up at 5.00am, drank alcohol for breakfast, and went go back to bed. In 2003, I brought him to Kenya, where we got married at the Attorney General’s chambers in a wedding ceremony where we were both piss-drunk. Less than a year after that scandal of a wedding, my second husband died.
At the time of his death I was a housewife and, in my estimation, pretty unemployable. I began selling my furniture and buying cheaper ones, and then selling the cheaper ones as well. I moved from the house we stayed in to a smaller one, and on to a smaller one. My mother took away my two children from the previous relationships and my last born girl, who had been born in ’94.
There I was, 40 years old, malnourished, drunk any time of the day and living virtually in chang’aa dens. My modelling days gone. My German tales a long, dreary past. My future bleak.
I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I started to pray, asking God why I did not have a normal life like other people. Why was it impossible for me drink with the moderation other people did?
I was deep in some kind of religious crisis. On some days, I would get angry at God, while on others I would question whether He existed in the first place. On yet other days I would be on my knees, begging and crying.
One really terrible Sunday morning, I decided to go to church with the aim of speaking to a pastor, but the ushers threw me out. I remember them asking me what I had taken. But how could I know? It could have been chang’aa, or busaa, or both.
“Ondoa hiyo ulevi yako hapa!” one of them shouted at me.
That statement still rings in my ears to date because it drove me to my first suicide attempt. I stayed in hospital for two weeks and, on being released, attempted to kill myself again by taking a concoction of drugs. My brother found me writhing in pain and rushed me to hospital.
It was after I was released from hospital that I discovered mandege, the drink that led me to rehab at Asumbi.
Here, I felt loved and needed for the first time in a long time. But it was not easy getting ‘cleaned up’. I couldn’t take any solid foods during the first days of the 90-day programme and my care givers had to blend it like a toddlers’, my hair had thinned and greyed to the scalp and would fall off if I attempted to comb it, and I was severely malnourished.
Then depression and withdrawal symptoms kicked in. I started vomiting uncontrollably, had never-ending diarrhoea, began hallucinating and was afraid of everything, even the birds flying around. I locked myself in a black room with the curtains fully drawn for three days.
Being the only woman in a centre housing 40 male addicts, I stuck out like a sore thumb. But that was the least of my worries. After a week without alcohol, I shed of my skin, from the head down to the soles of my feet.
When the withdrawal signs ended, I decided to accept that I needed help and focused on how to get better. The programme became a personal spiritual journey for me, a way of self-rediscovery and rebirth.
It has been hard since I stepped outside the gates of Asumbi, but when I look back, I am glad of who I have become. It took my last born daughter four years to call me ‘Mum’ after rehab, and I lack the words to express the emotions that coursed through me when she uttered that simple word to me.
When the clock ticks on my wall and the cacophonic frenzy of my Ngong’ neighbourhood seeps through my window, all I do is smile and laugh at the little joys of this world, because, trust me, I wouldn’t be here, telling this story, were it not for little mercies.
I lost two husbands to the bottle. Two men who had a long future ahead of them. Two who shaped me. Two whose life, and mine, inspired me to write the book Sober Again. Two of my best friends.
But, alas, I am sober again. Hopefully, for good.
Anne Njeri Mathu spoke to DN2’s Peter Oduor. Her story was informed by the revelation earlier this month that alcoholism is rampant among the youth, most of whom are introduced into the habit as early as 10 years.
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