Drinking their savings and lives away

Rural (western) Kenya has a drinking problem. I base this conclusion on three weeks of traveling in and around Siaya. From Bondo to Ugunja, Siaya town to Rabar trading centre, men start drinking from as early as ten in the morning. They call it “kustuwa kichwa” (loosely translates to jumpstarting the mind). East African Breweries Limited’s slogan of “baada ya kazi” (after work) has been transformed into “badala ya kazi” (instead of work). I sort of experienced the reality of rural Kenya’s alcoholism two weeks ago when, after a road accident, I was forced to spend hours each day at a local garage. The panel beater was always drunk when I showed up at 10.00 AM to monitor what he was doing. The other people in the garage – mechanics, painters, electricians and jobless hangers-on – were no exception. Even the garage owner would come in, read the paper then order a 500 ML bottle of coke which he drank laced with spirits packaged in small sachets. Most of the mechanics could not afford the nicely packaged stuff and so opted for the local brews made in the surrounding villages of Siaya. The one day our panel beater did not drink – he was late on schedule and so that morning we refused to allow him to go on his usual “tea break” – he could barely function after 2 PM. His hands shook and he got really cranky. We had to stop work at 4 PM and resume the next day.

If you ask me I think alcoholism is a serious problem in rural Kenya with significant implications for economic and social development. From conversations with some of the men I estimated that they spent about 20% of their meagre daily income on alcohol. Drinking not only lowers their productivity but is also a serious impediment to their economic betterment. Asked about school fees, among other more responsible expenses, most of the men laughed and added that their wives took care of that. Quite a number of the men had a second or third wife and/or other “mipango ya kando” (mistresses).

The Kenyan government has outlawed the production and sale of local/tradition brews without much success. In places where the government can access – in and around towns – the brewers and their patrons have simply gone underground (someone in the internal ministry should read a bit on the prohibition era in the US) while in the more rural areas the drinking dens don’t even pretend to hide from the law. The newfound government concern with the informal brewing industry stems from recent cases of death and blindness in the capital’s slums resulting from the consumption of alcohol laced with other poisonous hydrocarbons, including preservatives and industrial alcohol.

I am not particularly big on regulation but this is an area in which more government regulation could do more good than harm. Totally banning the substance is a bad idea, no doubt about that. The government should instead require that all drinking be done in designated places and then regulate the hours of operation of these places. In addition, encouraging the brewers to come out in the open will widen the tax base.

But laws alone will not alter people’s drinking habits. It’s high time social institutions such as churches and local community organizations took up the challenge of promoting safer and less harmful drinking habits.