Saturday, January 22, 2005

Legalize Changaa in Kenya By Next Week Dammit!

A Sane and Sober Plea from Onyango Oloo in Montreal

1.0. Kwani Oloo Amelewa Nini?


I did not sip repeatedly from a tumbler of achwaka before I embarked on this digital journey.

I am actually a wimp when it comes to hard liquour. The extent I can go when it comes to alcohol consumption is five beers tops. OK, you will catch me with a Smirnoff Ice which is of course but a distant relative of the real thing beginning with a V. I do not do gin, rum, whisky, brandy, vodka and certainly not the dreaded SAPPHIRE or TYSON (I understand that those brave souls who are reckless enough to try it must first, tie the ends of their trouser legs FIRMLY with the TOUGHEST twine or wear leak proof chupis to stem the flood and flow of the inevitable ppprrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...tititttiittitppprrrrmharrrooo that starts flowing after the very first intake).

Which is not say that I have not eyeballed chang'aa being drank (almost said drinked) and people getting very drunk after drinking this authentically Kenyan drink. Sometimes the after-effects are not pretty to record for posterity so I will spare you the gory details of what used to happen to me and three of my brothers when I was a katoi of twelve and my grandmother implored us to walk two and a half kilometres to Maliera so that we could pick up and haul one of my dad's older brothers from the road side where he lay, prostate, too drunk to even stagger home. After struggling with this grown man for seven eighths of the journey he would suddenly start walking upright and very briskly the moment he approached Mzee Isaya Oloo's compound in Luanda Doho K'Agina- making us to harbour evil and murderous thoughts of "unclecide" in our pre-teen hearts. I mean!

But I digress.

I want to make the case, without unleashing an informercial for chang'aa, that it is high time the Kenya government legalized a brew that has educated half of the members of the Kenyan cabinet and three quarters of the civil service, police, prisons and other government departments.

Like I said, I have never touched the stuff because I am a scaredy cat when it comes to hard liquour.

At the same time, I am not a bishop, imam, priest or other sanctimonious soul preaching temperance, abstinence and other puritanical hypocrisies.

Millions of Kenyans drink chang'aa, risking arrest and sometimes blindness and sudden death, when any of the local brews are infused with those dangerous chemicals that are geared to make the potent brews lethal.

We can talk about the morality of imbibing alcohol at church on Sunday. Unfortunately I will not be sitting in a pew behind you...

2.0. The Ugandans Are Soberly Making Money from Changaa's Cousin

Across our western border is the (literal) banana republic called Uganda.

Those Ugandans are way smarter than their Kenyan counterparts when it comes to having a sane government policy in regards to traditional alcoholic beverages.

We know how the distillers of chang'aa are harassed all over in Kenya.

In Uganda, the closest equivalent of chang'aa is called, very proudly Uganda Waragi.

It is NOT illegal, you do not have to quaff it under your bed while wearing a huge kofia and dark glasses and no one will take you to court for purchasing it.

Far from being illicit, Uganda Waragi is one of Uganda's leading exports!

You think I am drunk?

You think Oloo is a clandestine imbiber of both waragi and changaa?

If you think so, then that it is too bad.

Anyways, here is proof that the only thing I am sipping as I write this right now is pure and unadulterated DISTILLED WATER.

Look at a picture of this bottle.

Can you read the label?

Now I double dare you to click on
on this link.

Are you flabbergasted and dumbfounded?


That will teach you.

Next time just take my word for it, OK?

Overseas donors are FUNDING Ugandan women like the good lady in this picture below

to engage in the production of Waragi and showcasing them
as success stories for their revenue generation and economic empowerment projects in that east African country.

Pretty neat eh?

You betcha.

My name sake, the veteran and venerated Ugandan scribe Onyango Obbo dubbed Waragi as THE DRINK of the Ugandan Left in one of his satirical pieces for the East African newspaper way back in the year that was known darkly as YK2.

Are we green with envy?

Are our collective Kenyan heads hanging in shame?

They should.

We should all be taken outside or shot or something.

Wait a minute.

Scratch that.

I want you to read my next one hundred essays appearing in the next five weeks.

3.0. The Tanzanians Are Not Doing Too Badly Either...

Have you heard of Konyagi?

Of course.

Even if you hadn't , you just did, because I just told you, remember?
First, take a good look:

Now read this promotional material which is something sanctioned by the Tanzanian government itself.

Here is an excerpt from an official Tanzania Government report titled

224. Uzalishaji wa unga wa ngano uliongezeka kwa asilimia 62 kutoka tani 219,118 mwaka 2002 hadi tani 355,616 mwaka 2003, wakati uzalishaji wa biskuti na tambi uliongezeka kutoka tani 2,284 mwaka 2002 hadi tani 5,906 mwaka 2003, sawa na ongezeko la asilimia 159. Aidha, uzalishaji wa konyagi ulipanda kwa asilimia 25 toka lita 2,937,000 mwaka 2002 hadi lita 3,670,000. Uzalishaji wa bia uliongezeka kutoka lita 175,870,000 hadi lita 194,100,000 sawa na ongezeko la asilimia 10 mwaka 2003. Uzalishaji wa Chibuku ulipungua kwa asilimia 24 mwaka 2003, kutoka lita 19,400,000 mwaka 2002 hadi lita 14,825,000 mwaka 2003. Kwa upande wa uzalishaji sigara, kulikuwa na ongezeko la asilimia 4, kutoka sigara milioni 3,778 mwaka 2002 hadi sigara milioni 3,920 mwaka 2003.

And you see Konyagi mentioned in this English language report from the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics that came out in December 2004.

In other words in Tanzania as in Uganda, the local equivalents of changaa are considered as IMPORTANT components of the NATIONAL ECONOMY and officially accounted for.

4.0. So What Is Up With the Kenyan Government & Their Insane Alcohol Laws?

One of the reasons why we characterize our country as a neo-colony is because the Kenyatta, Moi and now Kibaki regimes merely inherited, recycled and maintained the same draconian, often racist and frequently stupid ordnances that the silly beberus and kaburus unleashed on unsuspecting Kenyans.

As usual, I took the trouble of doing some research before opening my big, Montreal based mouth.

Many of you out there already know most of what follows so I do not think you should be hounding CNN's news desk in Atlanta, Georgia to file this as BREAKING NEWS.

Still, check this out:

"No person shall sell, barter, give or otherwise supply to any native any intoxicating liquor"

Ordinance for Regulating the Sale of Wine, Spirits and Malt Liquors, British East Africa, 1909


Here is an excerpt from the same site:

Colonial governments feared disorder, and much of their attitude to African drinking grew out of a concern that drunken Africans would defy the colonial state or flout the authority of their own elders and chiefs. Believing (quite unscientifically) that European beers and wines were somehow more potent than traditional liquor, British colonial authorities forbade Africans to drink bottled beers and wines, and also banned spirits of all kinds.

Colonial officials were also worried that the sale of 'traditional' drink would undermine existing patterns of authority, and so they sought to control selling very carefully, and to discourage selling in many rural areas. They were particularly concerned that African women who sold alcohol in urban areas would undermine the authority of the government and of elder men, and so they consistently tried to stop women from pursuing this business, though with only limited success. In Nairobi (from 1922), and Mombasa (from 1934) the local authorities operated beerhall monopoly systems; they were the sole providers of liquor to the African population, and they derived considerable earnings from this.

The licensed sale of traditional liquor became increasingly common in the 1940s and 1950s as colonial administrations sought to use this as a source of funds for the expansion of African local government. The African men who played a prominent role in these governments resisted the establishment of further monopolies, as they saw the sale of 'traditional' liquor as a lucrative field for private enterprise; but they were happy to see licensing systems which favoured males...

So from the get go the Kenyan laws restricting alcohol were overtly RACIST and SEXIST and was a very conscious blow at the traditional non-capitalist economy that provided self-sustenance for Africans. Overlaid with the British Victorian hypocrisy and the demented puritanical ideas of the dominant Protestant ideological influences, it is not difficult to trace the roots of the modern intolerance for changaa, busaa, mnazi, muratina and other traditional brews while BOTTLED BEER is promoted thus:

5.0. BEER: One of The Runaway Success Stories of Neo-Colonial Enterprise in Kenya

And speaking of beer, it too, has a history and a sordid one at that, in East Africa:

Wilhelm Schultz established the first bottled-beer brewery in East Africa in Dar es Salaam. This was producing beer by 1906; it was damaged when the British captured Dar in 1916, and never re-opened. For the next few years there was no brewery in the region, but in December 1922, after a rather suspicious colonial administration had finally agreed to grant some fiscal protection, the Hurst brothers established the Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL) at Ruaraka, a little way outside Nairobi.

This company dominated brewing in the region for the next seventy years. Initially the market was very small; Africans were forbidden to buy bottled beer, and Europeans and Asians largely drank whisky. But the brewery survived, and established a subsidiary, Tanganyika Breweries Limited, in Dar es Salaam at the end of 1933; the East African breweries Limited (EABL) was then founded as the controlling company for both ventures; in 1959 they took a share in Uganda Breweries, at Port Bell.. Other brewing companies were established across the region- especially once the law was changed in 1947 to allow Africans to buy bottled beer - but KBL/EABL remained by far the largest, and from 1969 they had a complete monopoly in Kenya.

Today Kenya Breweries Limited is part of the regional brewing octopus known as

East African Breweries.

Two years and half years ago, on Friday May 24, 2002 to be exact, at the height of those hilarious beer wars between Castle and Kenya Breweries when Kenyan drunkards were downing crates of Tusker in a misguided feeling of competitive "patriotism" I wrote the following essay entitled "Should Kenyans Really Drink To This?"that showed how Kenya Breweries is one of the children in the East African Breweries stable which in turn is a subsidiary (owned 45%)of the Guinness conglomerate parent company Diageo. The essay further analysed how Njenga Karume and other fractions of the Kenyan comprador bourgeoisie were left in the lurch when South African based monopoly capital decided to cut a deal with Kenyan based monopoly capital to share the Kenya/ Tanzania beer market.

Read this story from a Nigerian publication about Gerard Mahinda, one of the key players at EABL.

I want to get under the skin of all those Kenyans and friends of Kenya who proudly don t-shirts emblazoned with the

Tusker and related beer logos.

You know what folks, outside Kenya, some people think that your favourite drink tastes exactly like the seweage(which should tell you something about THEIR drinking habits).

Here, do not take my word for it. Click here and negotiate your own customized indignation and sense of wounded pride.

Oops, I forgot this other link where they defecate some more on Kenyan beer.

Seriously, if I were you, I WOULD GROW UP and stop being such a SULKY OSCAR THE GROUCH.

I mean, who says that you have to be a freaking beer commercial for the local subsidiary of one of the biggest corporations in Europe?

It is NOT AS IF THEY PAY YOU or anything like that, hebu imagine.

Whose side am I on, I here you ask belligerently.

Well, just because I pay for Pilsner does not mean that I have to advertise it to Canadian and Quebecois strangers in Montreal, you know what I am saying?

6.0. Back to the Humble Changaa

If you are a parent who raised a child in the 1990s you may be familiar with a range of early morning cartoon shows on television.

One of these programs used to be on the WB network and featured this mutated mouse who transformed by a lab accident into a superhuman genius- and evil one at that. In each episode

Pinky(the DAFT mouse) patiently acted as the sidekick of

the BRAIN, a tiny mouse with GIGANTIC ears and a humongous head plotted to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

The BRAIN had many choice expressions and I want to employ one of his most familiar lines:

"Are YOU pondering what I am PONDERING?"

Admittedly, you probably do no know WHAT THE HECK I am talking about.

But no, I did not drink anything more potent than distilled water.

At least NOT YET.

Let me finish this essay first.

But seriously, are
YOU pondering what I am PONDERING? to repeat the unforgetable musings of the famous mousy BRAIN?

I mean is there a correlation between the historical fact that the beer industry in Kenya was coddled, subsidized, massaged and protected by the colonial and neo-colonial state and the other fact that traditional brew which is what the the MAJORITY of the wananchi PREFER and can AFFORD is still ILLEGAL in Kenya in the year 2005?

Keep pondering, as I wonder out loud too.

The BBC of all media organizations, once did a full length story on changaa production which was pretty spot on, if you ask me. Well, I know that you did NOT ask me, but did that prevent ME from tell you one more piece of TRIVIA???

Still on that why the hell am I telling you all this useless crap tip, please click here and read a tribute to changaa production by a guy named WIlliam Rubel.

7.0. Can Kenya Learn Anything from Uganda and Tanzania?

First it would appear that Onyango Oloo is far from being the only person in East and Central Africa who is taking a serious look at alcohol production, so enough already with those "drunken" jokes.

If you read this annual report to shareholders by JG Kierereni the Chair of East African Breweries, you may astounded to learn that Uganda Waragi was EAB's STRONGEST brand in terms of wines and spirits. In other words, the equivalent of changaa is not only LEGAL in Ugandan, but actually the strongest COMMERCIAL performer in its category!

More than that Uganda Waragi sponsors its own FM show in Kampala believe it or not...

And we have seen that in Tanzania Konyagi is considered a leading product that is marketed by the government itself.

Before I say anything further, I will invite you to browse this news dispatch by Mitch Odero from 2002:

From the Worldwide Faith News archives
From Worldwide Faith News
Date Sun, 10 Nov 2002 14:25:23 -0800

October 28, 2002

All Africa News Agency
TEL: (254 2) 442215 FAX: (254 2)445847/443241

AANA Bulletin
Editor - Mitch Odero

Kenyans Are Drinking Themselves To Death

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going, so it is said, only that
in Kenya, the tough have resorted to potent killer drinks to cope with the
pains of ailing economy. Our special correspondent Robert Otani found
during a research that the "tough" were wasting away to their graves.

"Even if you put off the light, we shall continue to drink," said 38
year-old James Kariuki to the woman selling a popular traditional drink to
him and his colleagues at Mai Mahiu, a trading centre 30 kilometres west of
Nairobi. But the woman had not switched off the oil lamp, nor did Kariuki
and his four co-revellers continue drinking.

For not only did the father of four become instantly blind, but he also
died after swallowing a few mouthfuls of the deadly concoction.

Three of his colleagues also died almost immediately. The other, a young
man barely in his 20s, was luckier; he was saved by a neighbour who rushed
him to a nearby dispensary. But his eyesight could not be saved, he became
permanently blind.

This incident happened about four years ago, but the incidence of Kenyans
consuming cheap uninspected alcoholic beverages has become so commonplace
that one wonders if these brews will not decimate the population unless the
government clamps down on them.

"The Church has a role to play as well," says Rev John Omolo, an evangelist
in Kisumu, Kenya's second city. "We cannot sit back and watch as our
people, most of them in the prime of their ages, kill themselves in the
name of entertainment."

Call it Changaa, Busaa, Kumi Kumi, Sorghum Baridi, El Nino, Sweet Engineer,
Tornado, Medusa or what you will, but cheap and mostly illicit brews are
killing Kenyans by their tens everyday.

The brews have permeated all parts of the country as the unemployed and
poorly paid workers strive to find a more affordable stimulant, and as the
conventional legal beers and spirits become more and more out of their reach.

Kenya's devastated economy has brought also into the market, cheap and
legal locally distilled spirits going by such flamboyant names as "Tyson",
and they sure pack a powerful punch. All of these drinks have the property
of doing one thing-sending Kenyans to their early graves.

And the culprit is the government, for it has failed to put in place a
proper legal framework for the control, manufacture, marketing and
consumption of the suspect drinks. Thus, brewers, distillers and even
retailers mix the drinks with all kinds of additives to make them more
potent and to boost their earnings.

One such additive is the lethal methanol, which boosts the concoctions
potency and distends sellers pockets.

The trade and industry ministry in May proposed that brews such as the
Changaa spirit and Busaa, a fermented cereal flower brew, be legalised to
help revitalise the tattered economy, which last year registered a negative
growth rate for the first time since independence from Britain in 1963.

This, the ministry officials argued, would also be fillip to the struggling
alcoholic beverages sector, especially after South African Brewers
relocated to Tanzania from Kenya early this year.

The argument is that Changaa and Busaa, the traditional drinks in towns and
villages, have ceased to be what they once were - cheap and safe alcoholic

In neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, Changaa has been legalised and is
selling in bars in the form of Konyagi and Uganda Waragi. Its manufacture
and sale are controlled by the government to avoid adulteration.

In Kenya, opposition MP Karisa Maitha recently recommended in parliament
that Mnazi, a popular palm wine at his home turf on the Indian Ocean coast,
be legalised to curb its abuse and to provide a means of steady livelihood
to the local tappers and sellers.

The illegal retailers also use such additives as formalin, the chemical for
preserving dead bodies, bang and sisal juice, ethanol, fertilisers, battery
water, baking powder and methylated spirit. Occasionally, things go awry
and the lethal methanol finds its way into the poorly policed shebeens.

About two years ago, 100 residents of a Nairobi neighbourhood were killed
after they consumed an illegal spirit calling itself Kumi Kumi, or Ten Ten,
in reference to its price of 10 Kenya Shillings a measure. Others went
permanently blind.

In December last year, about 500 women went out into the streets of Nyeri
town in central Kenya to demonstrate against the drinks, arguing that they
were making their husbands impotent.

"If they were legalised, some minimum basic standards could be applied. As
things stand now, the government cannot tell what the contents are. How do
you analyse what is illegal; it wont be available?" laments Dr Eric Achoki
of the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA).

NACADA boss Joseph Kaguthi admits that the government is aware of the
presence and dangers posed by the beverages. "But the police are
compromised through the 'protection fee' from the manufacturers and the
sellers," he stated.

In some areas, says NACADA, the situation is so bad that even primary
school children, including girls, have access to the drinks. "We have
evidence that school girls are turning more to alcohol," Kaguthi says.

Pupils each save money and pool it to buy minipaks. Cheap legal spirits
are sold also in 30 ml polythene satchets.

Dr Achoki says brewers of drinks such as Kumi Kumi buy ethanol, which is
used in making the legal spirits, from backstreet vendors at $44 for a 20
litre jerrycan. Then they mix it with water to get 80 20 litre jerrycans
of a highly potent drink.

Each of the 80 jerrycans retails for $10. This means that from the initial
$44 investment, a dealer makes up to $800. But occasionally, the
backstreet vendors cannot tell methanol from ethanol, and they end up
selling the poison with devastating repercussions.

What makes the problem even more difficult to tackle is that the Kenya
police are also in the retail business. "So who will arrest the police
dealers," wonders legislator Paul Mugeke, who represents Mathare, a Nairobi
slum neighbourhood notorious for the making, selling and consumption of the
drinks and therefore crime.

Thus, argues NACADA, the only course of action likely to curb the menace is
to legalise some of the concoctions, or to make the legal ones more
affordable. But the latter is unlikely, especially with Kenya Breweries
Limited being back to its beer brewing and merchandising monopoly after
South African Breweries, its only strong rival since 1998, withdrew from

8.0. Legalization of Changaa Will Be a Win/Win/Win for Kenya

Obviously changaa(Waragi in Uganda and Konyagi in Tanzania) are not moral-value neutral products like say soap or beans. Their consumption has direct social, economic, political and health consequences as alluded to in the previous report.

When I call for the LEGALIZATION of changaa in Kenya, I am NOT oblivious to the sordid side-effects, on the contrary, perhaps it is because I have seen what reckless consumption of the illicit brew can do and has done to families and entire communities.

We know cigarettes directly cause lung cancer. Yet 90 Kenyan MPs, some of them ministers DEFENDED a blatant bribe by the tobacco industry which sequestered them for a tobacco friendly retreat in Mombasa not too long ago. Is it not obscene that one of the MOST HARMFUL products ever dreamt up by humankind is one of the leading sponsors of sporting and recreation in Kenya?

Don't we find it ironic that some of the strongest football and boxing teams in the country were run by Kenya Breweries whose products DO NOT make their consumers any healthier.

It is my contention that legalizing changaa will accomplish many things:

1. Allow hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women to earn a legitimate and decent living producing and selling changaa openly instead of in fear;

2.Allow the Kenyan government to collect millions of shillings in value added taxes from the now LICIT brew;

3. Provide an incentive for Kenyan entrepreneurs and industrialists to set up a modern distilling plant or marketing outlets for the legal changaa;

4. Introduce quality control and safety precautions by bringing changaa and traditional liquour production under government supervision with mandated inspections and fines for people who introduce those lethal chemicals into the brew;

5. Provide a new source for export earnings as Kenya Changaa goes head to head with Uganda Waragi and Tanzania's Konyagi in the regional and international wines and spirits market;

6. Reinvest the earnings and tax revenues from changaa commerce into infrastructure, health, education, security etc.

There are other points.

The one difference that I would suggest in respect to Kenya Changaa if it does legalized is that its production should be retained largely in the hands of the humble wananchi who currently produce and market it. Perhaps some of the lessons of marketing small holder's coffee can be applied to Kenya Changaa. We are looking at changaa cooperatives and building societies and things of that nature.

It would be simply obscene if East African Breweries, the same corporate vampire that has thrived with its beer monopoly largely as a result of the outlawing of changaa were to be granted the monopoly of producing and marketing changaa ati because of economies of scale.

That would be just RIDICULOUS ama namna gani wasomaji?

Onyango Oloo



Anonymous said...

Hi am a kenyan and I strongly agree with your view on legalising the local brews in kenya.Indeed the cheap brews which are comming up as an alternative are even more dangerous top the lives of consumers.some of those spirits are leathal compared to some local brews which communities have associated themselves busaa,muratina, karubu and the the way forward is to look at the quality aspect of these brews are scientifically analyse them and therefore come with the right methodology on there production.I am a food scientist and I know this is possible. surely let us not cheat ourselves and think that kenyans will part with their culture.

David Ladon said...

I'm an American who studied in Kenya for five months. When living outside Kisumu, I drank Chang'aa on a number of occasions. What is most interesting for me is the way in rural areas, Chang'aa serves as a women's economy. One concern about legalization is that in many places it also means corporatization. I think if Chang'aa is to be legal, it should remain a local good and not brewed by EAB. Otherwise, we'll just have another example of capitalist economic policy taking away local agency.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing out this very important issue Mr Oloo. I was browsing the web, preparing to write a paper on the subject with the thought that it is a far-fetched idea. Thank you for helping me regain my motivation

Anonymous said...

Hello. I'm a Kenyan student writing a thesis on alcoholism and the law. In my research, I have come across plenty of your articles on the matter and your views are insightful and based soundly on quantifiable research. In particular the July 2005 Miroo e-magazine...I have quoted from it (and given you credit) but I really would like to know the sources of the history of alcohol bit in the article. Kindly email me.