Combating Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Kenya

By Julie Bowen

In Kenya, John Mututho is a household name. His anti-alcohol campaign made him the subject of hate among many beer lovers and bar owners.  After his elder brother’s death in 2007 as a result of alcoholism, Mututho vigorously pursued alcohol control with a focus on the social impact of the issue rarely seen amongst Kenyan politicians. In 2010, he won his battle with the alcohol industry to implement Kenya’s first Alcohol Control Act that limited the operation time of bars and other alcohol outlets to 5.00pm till 11.00pm on weekdays and 2.00pm to 11.00pm on weekends. The Act is known as Mututho’s Law. Was he celebrated as a hero? In the succeeding 2013 elections, he didn’t even win his party ticket. One dedicated Nairobi social worker smiles wryly at the story as if it neatly encapsulates all the social ills of Kenya today. ‘Do we drink because we’re Kenyans, or are we Kenyans because we drink? That is the question.’ In Kenya, the drinking of alcohol, the life of the pub and the world of men, are indivisible.

An expanding market

Sub-Saharan Africa is the new prime territory for multinational alcohol companies looking to increase their profits; here are the perfect conditions for an expanding market. There is a relatively small consumption of commercial alcohol alongside a rising middle class with disposable income, a huge potential market of young people coming of age, and an informal moonshine industry about four times the size of the commercial market, which governments are eager to control; but when use turns to abuse, Africa cannot cope.

Kenya is ill-equipped to deal with the health problems associated with alcohol abuse. The ‘youth bulge,’ with a growing percentage of the population made up of children and young adults, means that many young drinkers are unemployed. They are drawn to the cheaper moonshine, called chang’aa – literally ‘kill me quick’ – which often contains methanol and other toxic additives and has causes more deaths than AIDS or TB. Moves to reduce this market in favour of commercial alcohol will do nothing to solve the problem.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Report on Alcohol and Health 2011, while average alcohol consumption figures (with the exception of South Africa) are low, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest proportion of binge drinkers; some 25% of drinkers drink excessively. Men do the drinking, families feel the effects: neglect, squandering of money and increased domestic violence are the common results. Mary Wainaina, a programme coordinator at Eden Village Rehabilitation Centre, explained: ‘they’ll say “I was drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m sorry,” you know, all that. So it makes it easier for them.’

Fighting drug and alcohol abuse

In a speech delivered at the opening of the 2nd National Conference on Alcohol and Drug Abuse at Kasarani in June 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta said that his government was ‘fully committed to the attainment of high and sustainable levels of economic development within a stable and secure environment. I am aware that this commitment cannot translate into reality if our youth are sucked into alcohol and drug abuse. Moreover, drug abuse-related ailments and complications are an additional burden to the government, which must be avoided at all costs.’

Just as alcohol consumption and abuse is largely a male preserve, so too is the issue of drug abuse, especially amongst those in their early 20s. It has a stranglehold on the young men of the nation, causing a waste of life and opportunity. In his June speech, President Kenyatta also drew attention to the NACADA 2012 survey on drugs and alcohol, which showed that 13% of children aged 10-14 have used an intoxicating substance, mostly alcohol followed by cigarettes. Figures rise with increasing age, as does use of drugs such as miraa (or khat), marijuana, controlled drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and prescription drugs, including those for hypertension, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV and AIDS. The increasing misuse of ‘prescription only’ drugs, which is made easy by their sale over the counter, particularly antibiotics, is contributing to the rise in new strains of bacterial infections alongside an increasing resistance to treatment. According to a rapid assessment of drug abuse by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) in partnership with the Kenyan government, drug abuse has permeated all strata of Kenyan society, and that an erosion of traditional cultural values and discipline at family and community level, which formerly prescribed the circumstances under which drugs and intoxicants could be used, has now largely removed the stigma with a resultant rise in abuse.

President Kenyatta has ordered security forces to deport foreigners suspected of drug trafficking, and required of all County Commissioners that they report on measures taken in their respective counties to fight the drug problem. He has also urged the Ministry of Health and development partners to assist in the provision of addiction treatment, rehabilitation and preventive services. He said: ‘My appeal to the leaders, both in government and in the community is that we must take seriously the responsibility of ensuring that our youth are not exposed to drugs.’

The young at risk

Alcohol and drug abuse is highest between the ages 15-29, with the culture of drinking starting at primary school. Eden Village director of treatment, Tony Njeru, said: ‘People in schools are so focused on passing exams that they have actually missed out on so many other things they can do that can make their life rich in school. If you ask a high school kid today whether he knows any art gallery in Nairobi, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know; but he knows all the different pubs in the city.’

Bill Sinkele, founder and director of Support for Addictions Prevention and Treatment in Africa (SAPTA), has worked for 18 years with some of Kenya’s most marginalized groups, including alcoholic kids from the slums of Nairobi. He says that underage drinkers look only to a future of increased drinking, surrounded by billboards that make alcohol look appealing. The astonishing thing is that multinationals in Africa get tax breaks for selling alcohol to the poor. Governments in the west are considering the introduction of minimum pricing standards to prevent sales to children, while in Africa, with soaring food prices and easily obtained cheap alcohol, the opposite is the case. The new Kenyan government realized the stupidity of this and rescinded the tax breaks. SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewers, has deflected allegations of exploitation by establishing water bottling plants and becoming ‘the face and name of the regional mineral water market.’

Bill Sinkele is understandably pessimistic. He says the alcoholic will see a problem only when he’s fired, his wife has left, or he’s had an accident and been arrested. ‘It has nothing to do with African culture; it has everything to do with the disease. I don’t think our government or the infrastructure available can even scratch the surface of the problem that we have.’

Alcohol consumption continues to rise. The affluent may have the means to cope; the poor do not. In one of Nairobi’s poorest slums, beside the toxic, waste laden Mathare River, people and pigs pick over rubbish for a living. Here the largest of four illegal moonshine distilleries runs day and night to produce the filthy tasting chang’aa. Workers claim they have never produced a fatal brew. It is only later when adulterated with embalming fluid, fuel or antiretroviral drugs that the problems start. Police habitually put on a staged raid, then return for their daily bribe. The distillery employs more than 100 people and turns over close to $1 million per year. James Anunda, 18 years old, his swollen fingers attesting to five years manning the scalding barrels of distillate, explains that this is the cash crop of Mathare, and the lucky few become tycoons in the business, employing younger men like James to do the hard work. 10 shillings (about 10 US cents) buys you one watered-down shot. You hope you can afford the price of unconsciousness. The black mud of the river bank is littered with the industry’s casualties – red-eyed, unsteady on their feet, or lost in drunken oblivion.


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