In the African beer brewing pot ferments an occasional crisis

Thursday April 22 2010

A Kenyan Administration Police officer guards illicit liquor impounded in Mathare slum, Nairobi . Photo/JAMES NJUGUNA

African societies have proverbs for every situation, drinking included.

“He who is drunk from palm wine can sober up, he who is drunk from wealth cannot,” say Nigerians.

Such proverbs and wise sayings on alcohol were invariably about men, since in most traditional settings, drinking was primarily an indulgence of the adult male.

African drinks most of them illicit, come with quirky, drunken names. While Kenya has chang’aa or “kill-me-quick,” Botswana takes the gold in naming its backyard brews. It has Tho-tho-tho, (the dizzy spell), a lala fa (you sleep right here), laela mmago (say goodbye to your mother) chechisa (hurry up) and motes o teng godimo (there is home in heaven).

DR Congo can claim silver with kasiki (I regret,) and mokoyo (the dog that bites.)

If there was a medal higher than gold, Uganda would win hands down. According to the 2010 World Health Organization report on Global Status Report on Alcohol, the East African state has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world, with Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, staggering closely behind.


The country with Waragi as its most popular drink, has upset African champs Zambia where 42.3 per cent of its imbibers begin boozing between ages 13 and 15.

These suggestive names and statistics notwithstanding, home-made brews boast a frothy history in most African societies. Alcohol was used to appease ancestors as libation, loosen tongues during slippery dowry negotiations and to celebrate new seasons or victory in war. Then there were drinking sessions to celebrate births, mending rifts between warring factions and repentance. Or simply to while away time.

Among the Kofyar people of Jos Nigeria, for instance, presenting a brew was viewed as an act of affection and respect. Alcohol, give or take, had blessed status in Africa irrespective of class community or geography.

No licence, no drinking

In pre-colonial Africa, drinks were fermented — not distilled. The Kikuyu of Kenya brewed and still brew muratina from honey and sugarcane, the Swahili at the Kenyan Coast have their mnazi fermented from the coconut fruit. In eastern Kenya the Kamba staggered and still do stagger on the strength of uki, brewed from fermented sugar or honey.

And even though seeing double was an occasional menace, traditional brews rarely killed, and certainly didn’t blind as modern ‘poisons’ do.
Colonialism introduced foreign drinks to Africa. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta ran Kinyatta Stores where he sold cigarettes and Nubian gin to whites and Asians in Nairobi’s Dagoretti area in the 1920s as biographer Jeremy Murray-Brown informs us in Kenyatta.

But the onset of colonialism in most parts of Africa corked brews up. Liquor laws were enacted banning “natives” from consuming bottled beer, or issuing Africans with liquor licences, preferring to allow indulgences during specific ceremonies and rites on the strength of a letter from a stern-faced chief.

The laws aside, offshoots of colonialism had made it easy to brew. Maize had replaced millet as the primary grain in alcohol production. Sugar, which has ethanol enhancing properties, became easily available making distillation the choice process of brewing chang’aa, the preferred drink of Kenya’s low, or no income earners.

A dollar buys you 10 glasses.

After independence, African governments upheld the colonial liquor laws. Traditional brews were deemed “illicit” since their distillation and lack of packaging fell outside government and public health regulations.

Tragedy in Machakos

In August 1998, more than 80 people died in Machakos, Kenya, after drinking chang’aa laced with methanol. Tragedy struck again when, in 2000, 130 people perished and over 390 were hospitalised in various stages of stupor in the same town. Over 20 went blind. And as if the deaths of ’98 were a pat on the back, 49 others drinkers died in the same place.

Eight lost their sight.

Kenyan women couldn’t take it any more. They routinely demonstrate against the demon drinks which they say, among other things, interferes with their conjugal rights.

Chang’aa is the drink of the poor in rural areas and city slums. Women do most of the brewing and selling of the illicit brews in Kenya from which they clothe, feed and educate their families. Such is the economic significance of the drink that it’s common for Kenyan politicians to defend the trade claiming that they were educated with its profits.

A 1970s report had it that four out of five women in the Mathare slums, Nairobi, were engaged in busaa brewing. From the 1980s, Chang’aa took over as the primary brew and source of income.

To turn a profit, the brewers shortened the fermentation period by lacing the brew with methanol. Methanol, an industrial alcohol used in products such as anti-freezants and is absorbed directly into the blood stream leading to coma, blindness and death.

The 15 deaths in Nairobi resulted from such a brew despite wide media coverage on its dangers.

The WHO research indicates that Kenya is not only a working but also a drinking nation. Seventy per cent of Kenyan families are affected by alcoholism and not necessarily the illicit types.

The deadly cost of drinking includes lapses in morality leading to high-risk sexual behaviours and the attendant proliferation of HIV and STI infections and transmissions. Alcoholism also increases numbers of absenteeism and unemployment, child abuse and neglect, while 2.2 per cent of deaths and 25 to 30 per cent of hospital admissions in Africa, are alcohol related.

A bill aimed at controlling alcohol advertising has been tabled in the Kenyan parliament while the big breweries have asked the government to reduce “sin” taxes imposed on beer to make it cheaper.

Kenya’s parliament has toyed with the idea of lifting the ban on traditional drinks in 2005, arguing that legalising chang’aa would improve safety. But the government has raised duty on alcohol forcing price increases.

While Kenya has chang’aa and other traditional brews, South Africa too has chibuku and umqomboti. Botswana has khadi, Central Africa Republic hydromel and Ethiopia araque, or katila, which has high alcohol content and is pricier than bottled beer.

Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi all have chibuku Shake-Shake, so called because drinkers have to shake it before drinking. In Zimbabwe, Shake-Shake is called “scud.”

Uganda has the home-brewed tonto, mwenge, murumba, marwa, kweete and musooli.

Ghana has burukutu and akpeteshie, the latter was so popular in colonial Gold Coast that it replaced imported spirits. Now, it’s the preserve of poor Ghanaians.

The WHO reports that regulating illicit brews totters off the intended path because many African countries have a myriad political, economic and health crises, and controlling killer brews is not a priority.

Involving mostly corrupt police officers in the war against illicit brews diverts them from their core duties of fighting crime, besides turning the effort into a cash cow. Maybe Uganda is a case study in legalising traditional beer even if it means topping global alcohol standings.

Uganda legalized waragi, (pronounced waraji) a traditional drink that derives its name from “war gin” as the British colonial expatriates called it in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Baganda call it enguli and in 1965, “The Enguli Act,” decreed that distillation be licensed.

Distillers were to sell the drink that is brewed from cassava, bananas, millet and sugarcane to the government-run Uganda Distilleries Ltd, which bottled, branded and marketed it under the name, Uganda Waragi. The brew is now produced by East African Breweries.

But unlicensed production of waragi, also called “regular” or “crude” continues under names such as the cassava-derived Lira-Lira and Kasese, a potent banana gin. Both are named after the towns where they’re brewed.

Such illicit production sometimes results in consumption of poisonous waragi. In 2009 Uganda’s Ministry of Health banned sachet packed waragi after over 20 people in Katwa, a Kampala suburb, died after drinking methanol-laced waragi.

But most governments have no hangovers against bottled beer, a product of colonial-era enterprise.

In Kenya the consumption of hygienically-bottled beer has found a partner in the roast meat (nyama choma) culture. Both pastimes are a multi-billion shilling industry and a definitive aspect of Kenyan culture.

For obvious economic reasons, African governments have few problems with the big brewers.

East African Breweries is Kenya’s highest single tax payer enriched public coffers by Sh3.3 billion. The spinoffs of the brewery go a long way in supporting barley farmers, distributors, stockists, retailers, transporters, bar owners, and thousands of workers in hotels, glass factories, distilleries and shareholders of brewing companies.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project