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They’ll drink on, come death or blindness

Monday July 26 2010

38 -year old Samwel Khamati lost his sight after taking illicit brew at Nairobi's Kibera slums on Sunday. PHOTO/ PETERSON GITHAIGA

38 -year old Samwel Khamati lost his sight after taking illicit brew at Nairobi's Kibera slums on Sunday. PHOTO/ PETERSON GITHAIGA 

By JOHN NGIRACHU [email protected]

The poison comes in various names— koroga, naps, mugacha, steam engine. It kills some and blinds others. It creates widows, widowers and orphans.

Yet, they are hooked to it. Every morning, the survivors are back for some more. This is the sad story of Kenya’s wretched of the earth in slums like Kibera.

Ms Janet Wanjiku usually has her first drink of the day at 6.30am.

She calls it kutoa lock or kuvunja mhead and says it gives her the energy to go about her job as a casual worker at Highrise Estate, where she gets small jobs washing clothes.

Koroga poison

A glass of her favourite koroga poison goes for Sh30, she says, and one is often shared between two, under an arrangement referred to as “half-time”.

“My hands shake, I get dizzy and I feel abnormal. I cannot do anything in the morning if I haven’t had anything to drink,” she told the Nation at Line Saba in Kibera on Monday morning.

On Sunday morning, she headed to a house she referred to as Kwa Wa Kapere and had her usual dose of koroga, which she said is also used to make another drink popularly known as naps.

She left the place at about 8am in the company of her boyfriend, Mr Gachie Njeri, and they went back to her small house in Soweto, another part of Kibera.

Shortly after they got home, Mr Gachie started sweating and pacing about the room, displaying more than the usual signs of drunkenness and complaining that he was not well.

In a panic, Janet tried calling out to her neighbours and landlord to come to the rescue of Mr Gachie. She said nobody came to help and she went about her business the whole day in a drunken stupor and went to bed when night came.

In the morning after sobering up a little, she realised that Mr Gachie had died in the night, one of the 12 latest victims of the illicit liquor.

One would imagine that the deaths would inspire her and others to stop the habit, or only consume beverage tested by the authorities and proved to be safe. It does not happen in Kibera.

On Monday morning, Wanjiku had taken something to steady herself. Leo nimekunywa mugacha (Today I have taken mugacha), she declared.

Mugacha is a cream-coloured liquid whose ingredients we could not establish.

Mr Daniel Kinyua, a casual worker at Kenyatta Market in Ngumo Estate, said: “We drink daily, and it does not matter whether it is chang’aa or mugacha as long as it gets us drunk.”

He blew his breath as though to prove to the Nation that he had already had his morning fix.

Methanol poisoning

Dr Adung’o Ikol of Kenyatta National Hospital said six patients had been treated for methanol poisoning and four had died.

Mr James Mwangi and Mr Joseph Kariuki went to the hospital when they were told of the deaths of their drinking companions.

They appeared to have either taken less than their dead colleagues or sought treatment in good time, before the methanol could be broken down into formic acid, which leads to blindness and death.

In the slum, 38-year-old Samuel Khamati stood in a doorway, blind but with teary eyes wide open but unseeing, even as the camera flashed in his face.

“I want to go to the hospital but I don’t know how I will,” he said. He had taken the drink at a place called Gorofani kwa Wangechi and lost sight later in the day after feeling dizzy, experiencing headache and sweating unusually.

Although she was fine, Wangari Wanjiku told the Nation she had also taken the lethal drink. This was in the course of Sunday, she said, and there had been nothing unusual about it.

She was reluctantly contemplating going to Mbagathi District Hospital for a check-up.