A most disturbing observation that one makes about the youth in Nairobi and parts of rural Kenya is that we are slowly sliding into an alcoholic country.
Besides the trend of youth getting high on cough syrup for babies, and hopelessness borne of joblessness, there is a proliferation of highly concentrated substances that reduce many otherwise productive young men and women to zombies.
In some places, a group of youth huddles at a pub at dawn, some shivering, waiting for the joint to be opened so that they can ‘unlock the system’. This ‘unlocking’ business is a peer-induced habit of warding off the hangover from the previous night’s reveling by drinking one or two “for starting the day off”.
This has spawned a culture of full-time drinking that gets many hooked on poisonous substances sometimes packed in containers that don’t give the details of the manufacturer.
No, this is not another rant about the lack of regulation by State agencies, some so useless they deserve no mention here. While I have heard that there is keg beer, which is said to be cheaper, we are still saddled with a colonial mindset that frowns on traditional African drinks, which were healthy.
When our people freely drank some of these brews, before the White man banned them in his greed for free labour, there were no cases of drunks going blind as they swore, as one famously did in a tragic incident in Embu: “Even if you switch off the lights we’ll not stop drinking.”
Take busaa, that maize-based ale favoured in western Kenya. No one ever developed gout or went blind as men dipped their straws into a common pot. It was perfect social bonding.
In central Kenya, where drinking has broken many a dream, muratina, which was fashioned from sugarcane juice, honey and other natural ingredients, played a crucial part in marriage ceremonies.
Ditto mnazi, the palm wine that is a favourite at the Coast.
Even Nubian gin (chang’aa), if prepared well by people who are not looking over their shoulder for fear of the police, is much healthier than some of the concoctions being sold to hapless youths under the nose of corrupt State officials.
And now that conventional beer is way beyond the reach of ordinary Kenyans, and given that the reinstatement of keg has not fully fixed the problem of cheap and deadly drinks, we must change tack. We must make it easier to get healthier and cheaper drinks in an arrangement that reinforces their cultural heritage.
I have attended one or two investment fairs organised by county governments and what strikes one as comical is the far-fetched ideas and mindboggling figures bandied as having been mooted at the expensive fetes.
One would expect that a county where cheap drinks are all the rage would invite innovative investors who can produce, on an industrial scale, healthy drinks that resonate with the cultural heritage of the people they serve.
Some beer brands are native to some countries. Think of the value and pride that Scotland attaches to Famous Grouse — named after the most famous bird in the land. How about if muratina or busaa or mnazi from Kenya were packaged in the healthiest and highest quality standards and sold all over the world as our own brand that is affordable, healthy when consumed responsibly, and a good alternative to the death portions.
Make no mistake, the need to fight against alcoholism is not lost on this writer, but half-hearted efforts such as parading law enforcers pouring out barrels upon barrels of good old busaa while collecting Sh50 notes every evening from unregistered back-alley joints selling deadly concoctions does not help anyone.
As a matter of honesty, let us admit that alcoholism will not be solved by raiding chang’aa dens and having muratina sellers fined Sh500-1,000 while still allowing poisonous concoctions under the cover of darkness is like peddling a bicycle while still struggling to apply the brakes.
Even the behemoths of the local brewery sector should be incentivised to invest in uniquely Kenyan brands not as corporate social responsibility, but as potential income streams as they have the potential of adding to their top-line more cash than drinks with formulae borrowed from elsewhere.
Mr Munene is a media and publishing consultant. [email protected]