This week, 87 people died in different parts of Kenya from drinking alcohol laced with methanol, and many others are lying in hospital blinded by the killer drink.
It isn"t the first time that Kenya has had to deal with cases of toxic brew killing people; these incidences are common in the country, and fighting illegal alcohol is one of the major tasks of government-appointed local chiefs.
With brand names like Kosovo, Yokozuna and Country Walker, unregulated and potentially lethal concoctions have become almost ubiquitous in parts of rural Kenya and in the urban slums.
What makes the latest incident stand out is the way the drink killed dozens of people in five different counties in Kenya hundreds of kilometers apart, all in the space of just 48 hours. Usually, the poisonous drink is brewed and consumed locally, perhaps within one village as an unscrupulous brewer laces a concoction with a poisonous chemical—methanol or formaldehyde (mortuary fluid)—to make it more potent. It was eerie, and even seemed like a conspiracy—how could one drink kill so many in places so far apart?
However, following the distribution trail, it seems that in Kenya cheap alcohol, and particularly spirits, is one of the fastest moving consumer goods, like milk or bread. That"s how a poisonous batch hits drinkers at around the same time in the country—the bars probably receive a new delivery every day or at least every few days, never keeping stock for long as demand for cheap alcohol is high.
In this case, a company calling itself Comrade Investments, with a postal address in the posh suburb of Muthaiga, Nairobi, manufactured the drink to blame. But the story also reveals something else about the Kenyan economy—its high informality, even in seemingly formalised sectors.
Informal jobs account for 80% of jobs in the country for a working-age population of over 20 million. But here, even manufacturing seems to take on an informal character. The killer drink was not made like some village traditional brew, concocted in a Mama Pima"s shack. It was made in a factory, bottled, labeled and put on a truck to be delivered to drinking dens around the country, meaning that at least a couple of contracts were signed, perhaps with the bottle suppliers or the trucking company.
And there is likely to be a record of bills paid for the premises, such as rent or utilities. Still, this kind of alcohol is largely unregulated and adulterated with all kinds of deadly stuff. In April 2010 for example, 56 samples were presented for analysis to the Government Chemist when 11 people died in Shauri Moyo in Nairobi after consuming adulterated chang"aa, a strong distilled drink.
Out of the 56 samples, only 18 complied with official standards, and 17 had higher alcohol content than labelled on the bottle. Another 21 samples were “unclassified”, meaning that they did not fall within any genre in the alcoholic drinks spectrum as registered by the Kenya Bureau of Standards—they were neither gin, vodka, brandy, wine nor beer.
Alcoholism is a big problem in Kenya, as it is many parts of Africa. But perhaps there is now need to tackle the vice in a more nuanced way, instead of the heavy-handed broad strokes that the government has utilized so far. Sample this: A 2010 study conducted in Central Kenya by the National Campaign against Drug and Alcohol abuse (Nacada) showed that men are more likely to abuse alcohol due to “occupational factors, such as work related stress, idleness, and unemployment.”
On the other hand, women are more likely to abuse alcohol due to “relational issues notably marital problems, problems with parents and peer pressure.” In a nutshell, then, get the men jobs, and get the women in happy relationships (which would be helped if the man had a job). Problem solved.