Last Sunday I was on my way from work and was shocked by the number of people – mainly men who were strewn in the sides of the road, apparently asleep in a drunken stupor. For the first time in my life I started to really think about the problem on alcoholism in Kenya. It is not to say that before the incident I never thought about it, however there was something about these men – about 20 in number who were lying in various positions along the waiyaki highway near Kangemi market- that made me think deeper about the issue.
No one seemed to be bothered by them and indeed everyone went about their own business not checking whether these people were ok. I was however driven to write about it because yesterday morning, for the first time in months I had the opportunity to watch the breakfast show on citizen TV, and there was Mr Mututho talking about alcoholism and drugs in Kenya. I took this as a sign and begun structuring my article.
Since 2010, Kenya has been taking steps to curb alcoholism in various parts of Kenya. Crimes have been linked to alcohol use and drug abuse, especially when it comes to assault of women and spouses. Mr Mututho is a former member of parliament for naivasha. He noticed that alcohol abuse in Kenya was reaching epidemic proportions.
He sought to introduce a bill that would restrict the hours of sale of alcohol and also enforce the sale of alcohol to adults over 18 years only. His law was highly opposed by the alcohol industry, who were used to selling alcohol 24 hours a day and would turn a blind eye when selling alcohol to minors since to them money was paramount and there were few consequences if any, of selling alcohol to minors.
While living in the united states, I remember being told over and over that Kenyans were mostly remembered for the drinking abilities and their tendency to spend day after day drinking and going out to clubs. I never really hung out with Kenyans who drank endlessly so I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. However, in 2012, I gathered the courage to go for the memorial weekend in Dallas where Kenyans gather to celebrate the memorial weekend. I was astounded! The plan seemed to be to drink all weekend.
I had to drag some friends to go for other activities and even then it seemed to them that they could have spent that time better if they were drinking instead. I was also shocked that most of the people who gathered for that weekend only sought to drink themselves to oblivion every single day, to me, there was no fun involved in the drinking, it was all just about getting drunk, sleeping, waking up and doing it again.
I have had my drinking days, which I think most adventurous youth have had, however, there is something about drinking in Kenya that I do not understand. Some of my workmates, in their late 20s and 30s still drink themselves to oblivion more often than I find comfortable. Whenever we take flights, my Kenyan counterparts drink all the alcohol on the plane, taking about 10 bottles (small plane bottles) of a mixture of vodka, gin and whisky each and proceed to be loud and obnoxious on the rest of the flight. I have also joined friends for nights of going out where people do not want to hang out and talk while drinking, they prefer to drink, until the point of staggering and then leave.
Several leaders have expressed concern about the level of alcohol consumption in Kenya. When our current president was campaigning, many noticed that he appeared at various venues visibly unsteady with blood shot eyes, some attributed this to alcohol intake, and Kenyans did not find this disturbing on any level. Our former president kibaki was also rumoured to be a drinker, and many people used this information to justify their own drinking.
On October 3rd 2013, a chief in Nyahururu died from causes attributed to alcohol, apparently in his drunkenness he fell into a pool of water face down and died from suffocation. Earlier this year, I arrived at my sister’s place at about 10 p.m. And the security guard was choking and having fits, on trying to place him in a recovery position, I did not miss the heavy smell of alcohol emanating from his mouth, he survived but apparently he still drinks himself silly every now and then.
His employer does not seem to think that this would be reason to take action and neither do the residents. At one of the offices I worked in, a fellow workmate came in drunk, staggering and with a wound on his mouth, apparently sustained from his drinking escapades. He was immediately sent home, however no further action was taken. This goes to show how tolerant we are of alcoholism in the society.
My parents’ generation looked down on people who drank alcohol; my generation drink freely and allow others to do the same, despite the dire consequences. Alcoholism in Kenya has been connected to increased hiv/aids infections, road accidents, spousal abuse and violent crime.
I am not sure whether Kenya is the drunk state of the world, however I have noted that compared to other societies, we report more incidences of illegal brews killing people. These illegal brews come from our traditional culture. Before colonialism, every community had their own alcoholic beverage that they manufactured and consumed during celebration times. This has spilled over into modern times where people still make their own traditional brews, however notably, most people do not use original recipes but aim to make the alcoholic content as high as possible to ensure that they gain more customers.
Ironically every time it is announced that people died or lost their sight after consuming a certain vendor’s brew, more people flock that vendor trying to get a better high from the brew, oblivious to the fact that they are placing themselves in danger. I have visited khayelitsha a township in Cape Town where men brewed umkomboti, their traditional beer, and though they had the same problem in the township, it wasn’t a countrywide issue or an issue in the whole of Cape Town. However, illegal brews seem to affect people in poorer areas than in more affluent societies. Alcoholism as a whole in Kenya affects both the rich and poor, although not in equal measure.
When Mr Mututho sought to restrict drinking hours, he forgot that people can drink in the confines of their homes away from scrutiny – and that does not really curb alcoholism. There is also the problem that as usual we do not have enough police to enforce the sale of alcohol during given legal hours. In fact for the short time that these laws were enforced, many bar owners paid off cops to turn a blind eye to them, they just closed doors with patrons inside and continued to sell alcohol to them.
The shortening of drinking hours will definitely affect those in Nairobi, however, I doubt if this will be applicable outside the capital where sale of illegal brews is rampant and laws seem to be ignored since there is not enough people to enforce them.
The main opposition to the curbing of drinking hours however is not that it will be ineffective, the initial law had a loophole, which would in effect, put adults at risk of breaking the law if they were drinking at home. It sought to make it illegal to consume alcohol in the presence of a minor- the law was driven by the habit that many have of taking their children with them to bars.
Vendors have also opposed the implementation of laws curbing the sale of alcohol. They claim that the restriction of sale of alcohol to given hours will directly affect the economy – as many restaurants profits were driven by their alcohol sales. I find these as excuses though, because restaurants which do not sell alcohol still make a profit and restaurants are not the only place that a person can drink at- even with the law people can drink at home outside hours but only at restaurants during given hours. However, the lobby group is big enough that it has successfully blocked the implementation of the law.
The question remains whether the law can curb drug addiction. The increase in prices of alcohol and cigarettes over the years has had little effect on the drinking community. In developed countries, the illegality and penalties on selling alcohol outside given hours had had a deterrent effect on business, but not on inebriation or alcoholism. In Washington dc where I lived, there were still drunk people sleeping on the bus stops or on the bus every other morning. And shockingly, outlawed drugs still make their rounds in the country for anyone to buy.
In conclusion, I think the laws on curbing alcohol use are noble and there is a need for them in society. However, unless the society respects these laws as a whole, there will be no overall effect on the public. If a vendor is not concerned about selling alcohol to underage children then it does not matter what the law says. As a first step, the laws must be in place, because they may lead the Kenyan community to rethink about alcoholism and how it affects our productivity as a nation and hopefully push society to enforce norms in place in support of the laws.