It is Christmas once again and, for the first time in Kenya, the father of the house might just be sober, thanks to the new alcohol law.
For the first time ever, bars were not allowed to open all night on Christmas Eve. They will also remain closed until 2 pm on Christmas day.
Unlike previous years, more Kenyans will stay sober for longer.
Women activists say this will be the first real Christmas for thousands of families whose menfolk leave home for the pub on Christmas Eve.
“At least this time, husbands will come back home and children will see their fathers,” says Ms Rukia Subow, chairperson of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake.
In Central Kenya, the Children’s Department says this will be the best Christmas ever for the young ones.
According to Children’s Services provincial director George Kibuku, children have been paying a high price every Christmas.
“We have had incidents where the parents would go drinking in the morning and come back late in the night, or not at all. I hope this time this will not happen,” says Mr Kibuku.
Bad for business
But not everyone is amused by a sober Christmas.
Bar owners, who say they are already feeling the pinch of the new alcohol law, say this is going to be the worst Christmas they have ever seen.
Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurants Association of Kenya chairman Sam Ikwaye says this Christmas will be bad for business.
According to the association, profits will drop drastically due to the reduced drinking hours.
The association estimates that at least 300,000 workers, mostly those hired to handle the busy morning shift in bars across the country, will be jobless on Christmas day.
“Most of the outlets used to have morning and afternoon shifts. There will be nothing to do in the morning,” says Mr Ikwaye.
Brewers will also be counting their losses this Christmas.
According to Keroche Industries chief executive Tabitha Karanja, they anticipate an up to 50 per cent drop in demand for alcohol this Christmas compared to last year.
“I think it came at the wrong time. In the past, Christmas has been the season of high sales as families got together in reunions. This one is going to be different,” she says.
She fears the law, that was ideally meant to tame illicit brews, might push many into drinking dens this festive season.
“If a guy had planned to start drinking early this Christmas and he cannot buy his regular beer until 2 pm, where do you think he will go?” asks Mrs Karanja.
For a brewer fighting to cut a niche in a market that has been a monopoly for decades, the Keroche boss says the new alcohol law poses a moral dilemma.
“I am walking a tightrope. On one side I support the laws in as far as they keep families together and reduce irresponsible drinking, but on the other I feel for our distributors who had already stocked up for the festive season,” she said.
The region’s largest brewer, East African Breweries, was more cautious with corporate affairs director Brenda Mbathi saying: “A grace period for implementation and more consultation would be well received by stakeholders.”
During this festive season, corrupt police officers will be shaking down bar owners who open early and pounce on any hapless Kenyan found staggering home from a pub.
Already, bar owners have raised the red flag over what they describe as police harassment.
“Police are in some areas arresting drinkers and bar owners in the guise of enforcing the law,” says Mr Ikwaye, whose association is lobbying the government to allow players in the alcohol business to regulate themselves through professional bodies.
With or without the alcohol law, Kenyans will still find ingenuous ways to get drunk long before the two o’clock opening time and past the 11 pm limit.
Hotels have found a way of hosting family outings by splitting the premise into two sections — one stocked with fruit juices and soda for the children and the other stocked with alcohol for their parents.
“The parents either bring along the house girl to watch over the children or take turns to do so,” says Mr Lawrence Mwangi, the manager of Wagon Hotel in Eldoret.
The National Agency for the Campaign Against Drugs Authority concedes that enforcing the new law this Christmas will not be easy.
The authority is especially concerned that more children might be exposed to alcohol this festive season, as Kenyans stock their favourite brews at home.
“I am aware that the law cannot stop everyone from drinking whenever they want; but we are urging everyone to be responsible,” says the agency’s chief executive officer, Ms Jennifer Kimani.
The agency is confident that the law will curtail alcohol-related deaths this Christmas.
According to the agency’s chairman, Dr Frank Njenga, the law is not there to punish genuine businesses but to bring order in the way alcohol is consumed. It should not be seen as trying to frustrate Kenyans away from the alcohol business.
Dr Njenga says the agency, which oversees the implementation of the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act, will be vigilant to ensure that the Act is adhered to every time, including on public holidays.
The challenge of the anti-drugs agency is that many Kenyans spend their Christmas holidays at home where it is obviously hard to police them.
Further, it will be impossible to be in every village to ensure that the Act, and especially opening and closing times, are adhered to.
In addition, most local brews are not sold during Christmas holidays.
Under the new Act, anyone seeking to manufacture or sell alcohol must apply for a licence from a district alcoholic drinks regulation committee.
“We have a window period of nine months to ensure that we can check on the quality of the local brews through the committees in close liaison with the agency office,” said Dr Njenga.
“We are not there to frustrate bona fide businesses. All we are saying is that only businesses that break the law will feel the heat of the new Act,” said Dr Njenga.
He said there was a window period of nine months where most of the issues in the Act will be worked out.
This shall include ensuring that alcoholic drinks including popular traditional liquors like chang’aa, busaa, muratina and mnazi are hygienically brewed, distilled, packaged and sold at licensed places in bottles no less than 250ml.
Traditional liquors were outlawed after the government effectively banned the trade in traditional fermented drinks in 1979, but that has not stopped Kenyans from taking the brews which, without any regulations on standards have lead to hundreds of deaths and devastating socio-economic effect on families of the illicit brew drinkers.
In the past the Christmas holiday has become synonymous with excessive drinking, with many Kenyans engaging in drinking orgies from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.