Worrying over Booze in East Africa

By Martin Loeng (Staff Writer)

In East Africa, alcohol and alcoholism are themes of considerable worry. This blog post reviews some of these concerns as they are expressed through everyday conversation and in the media. I aim to show how intricately powerful it has become as a substance and a symbol in contemporary East African society.

“The alcohol problem is catastrophic. It is a disaster. Especially in Central Province and the areas around Nairobi, the alcohol problem is really, really huge... It’s been going on for 10 years now, generations are wasted, young men have become almost impotent, alcoholism, many issues of unemployment, disintegration of the cultural ways of living of the past, extreme capitalism. I think there are many reasons why this has happened, but it is catastrophic” [1].

The discourse shows plainly that many people fear that alcohol and alcoholism are related to socially negative outcomes: school dropout rates, low school performance, unemployment, non-communicable diseases (e.g. liver cirrhosis), laziness, violence, domestic violence, fragile marriages, high divorce rates, road accidents and, for women, prostitution and miscarriages. Not surprisingly, there is also thought to be a link between alcohol use and HIV/AIDS infection rates[2], a topic explored in most TV-shows and soap operas. Such social ills are diametrically opposed to the vision East Africa has for itself. There is one social ill in particular that seems to epitomise the alcohol-related crisis here.

Alcohol is also often associated with absent parents, particularly fathers. Excessive drinking and partying is deemed a primary cause of unwanted pregnancies, and is related to the large number of orphans and fatherless children. In Moshi, Tanzania there are whole schools filled with children who never knew their fathers (I've asked them). Without familial or kin support networks, these children will be forced to live on the streets, where alcohol and drugs are quite prevalent, and where they are susceptible targets for recruitment by organised crime. The grimmest predictions are that they will become a part of the undesirable layer of beggars, sex workers and miscellaneous misfortunates.

I have more than once heard words to this effect: “He is a drunkard, he drinks all his money and his wife wants to leave him. He drinks so much he cannot even... function properly at home”. I've never, however, heard these innuendos or euphemisms said with a humorous nudge, giving me the impression that this is deadly serious stuff not to be trifled with.

Taken together these apprehensions become a metaphor for a wider, societal ineptitude. With its young minds and bodies (the embodiment of a country's future and its developmental potential) slumped on the kerb in a drunken haze, onlookers grow vexed by a pressing question: will future East African countries be able to, as it were, penetrate international markets and escape the confines of debt and underdevelopment?

“The phenomenon and physiological consequences of alcoholism are universal, but its manifestation and causation are influenced by specific cultural and historical factors” [3].

From the social scientific point of view rising alcoholism is often situated in worsening economic, social and political conditions[4]. Since the 80s, structural adjustment, privatisation programmes and shifts towards more liberal policy, the gap between rich and poor has grown considerably. And as studies show, it is the most impoverished areas in which rates of alcohol abuse are rising[5]. This connection between socio-economic changes and alcoholism is not lost on the population. One taxi-driver, when discussing inequality and poverty (and the striking number of bars) in Majengo went so far as to suggest that “there will be a war between the rich and the poor”.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that, for all East African countries (and beyond) overall consumption of alcohol appears to have gone down since the developmental hey-day of the 1970s[6]. Yet, liberal policies have meant that fewer people can afford to buy alcohol in bottles, and are turning instead to local or homemade forms of brew. It is likely that we are observing a consolidation of stratified drinking habits, that is, that drinking is largely and increasingly a problem of alcoholism for the poor, undereducated and underemployed. This suggests that alcohol and alcoholism are themes that expose the worrisome future many envision. A future of consolidating socio-economic struggles and inequality – a “war between the rich and the poor”. Through alcohol, then, East Africans are seeing evidence of troubling large-scale social changes.

“For the winners, alcohol has been a prized commodity; ironically, it has also been a consolation prize for the losers”[7].

There is a large variety of alcohol available, and taking a look at the selection is illuminating because it outlines the growing class/socio-economic stratification. A central distinction is between factory or bottled alcohol[8] (mostly lager beer and internationally recognised spirits) and local or illegal alcohol (mostly low-percentage grainy beers and traditional brew). Bottled alcohol, imported beers and whiskies are powerful symbols of social status and kuwa maendeleo (being developed). Additionally these carry with them engendered identities (‘Savannah’ is, for example, thought to be a lager mainly consumed by women)[9]. The image of the bottled beer drinker is smart clothes found in exclusive bars. Advertisements focus on pleasure, leisure and, above all, the self-esteem associated with buying drinks for friends.

Yet, despite the desirability of bottled beers (and whisky and gin), by far the most common drink is local brew, either homemade pombe (generic term for homebrewed beer), homebrewed wines like wanzuki and banana wine, or cheap distillates like Konyagi Gin. While a bottle of Heineken, Kilimanjaro or Tusker may cost anywhere from 2500 – 5000 Tanzanian shillings, homemade brew may be as little as 100 to 300. Homemade brews vary from place to place and form an important part of cultural celebrations and local social life. These 'traditional brews' have historically been considered wholesome, functioning as sources of food and nutrition akin to a grainy smoothie.

Photo Credit: Martin Loeng

Historically brewing has been a female occupation, though in the informal economy of drinks men have played a substantial role in protection, distribution and sales[10]. In response to declining employment conditions, there has been a surge in numbers of homebrewers and a diversification of illegal forms of alcohol. One clear change over the past thirty years is how new lines of demarcation and social identity are made visible by walking into a bar. In villages, present and past, male elders have had the privilege of enjoying drink habitually, demarcating age and gender divisions that have been important in ensuring privilege and authority. Circumventing these rules has been a way for young men and women to break out and redefine social identity and power[11]. Today, especially in the city, it is not uncommon to see old and young, male and female, of the same socio-economic status, occupy and drink together in the same bars and shacks.

When it comes to media attention, cheap and illegal distillates often shoulder much of the blame for alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths. Konyagi is Tanzania's most famous gin, while in Uganda it is Waragi (a generic name for gin). You get these in bottles or portion-sized plastic sachets that, along with local brands like Kiroba and Royal, litter virtually every urban square metre. Kiroba's slogan "Taste of Africa" is sometimes translated to mean "Death of Africa" by disenchanted Moshi residents.

In Kenya Chang'aa, meaning "Kill me quick" is the most notorious form of, essentially, moonshine, and covers a large variety of distillates from grains like millet/sorghum. As it’s name implies, it sometimes is lethal. In search for stronger booze or a need to diversify, some unscrupulous brewers spike their distillates with absurd things like jet fuel, embalming fluid from mortuaries, formaldehyde or other industrial alcohols. The tragedies[12] that have arisen from these unregulated alcohols highlights the distinction between 'legal' and 'illegal' and feeds an ongoing debate about what alcohol should be sanctioned. The current debate over customs and excise taxes[13] will effectively decide whether established breweries are allowed to reduce prices enough to capture the market, or whether the informal economy of drinks will continue unchallenged. The question digs deep into how East Africa envisions the future, and how they are going to avoid removing important sources of income, while avoiding the vicious circles of unregulated alcohol abuse.

"At the outset of the twenty-first century, alcohol in Africa is providing a valuable economic fuel and social lubricant during hard times, but it is an inflammable substance, harboring the threat of individual agency and societal disarray"[14].

The history of alcohol in East Africa is rich and curious, and patterns of drinking have dramatically changed over the past hundred years[15]. At present it is one of the key elements in the discussion over development, poverty and the future. Even this very cursory glance shows how critical people view alcohol to be. Alcohol is both frivolous and heavy, a symbol of leisure, pleasure and kuwa maendeleo (being developed), or a malaise-bringing substance for struggling urban families. It is inextricably caught up in the development of an increasingly stratified East Africa. The variety and availability of alcohol is expanding, being a lucrative informal economic activity, and so will be a feature of future East Africa – leaving observers with the impression that alcohol is taking East African society on an uncertain trundle into the future.

Some Suggested viewing:

Vice News: Uganda's Moonshine Epidemic  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL3UHF5SlEU

Kenya Television Network – Perspectives: Alcoholism in Nyeri County https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3nDtqGpWtw

NTV Uganda – Uganda No.1 Alcohol Consuming Country in Africa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBkJWupj5OU

[1]Jill Craig, “Kenyan Officials: Alcohol Abuse Is National Catastrophe,” VOA, August 28, 2012, http://www.voanews.com/content/kenya_officials_say_alcohol_abuse_is_national_catastrophe/1497078.html.

[2]Magreth Nunuhe, “Namibia: Strong Link Between GBV, Alcohol and HIV,” New Era (Windhoek), June 13, 2014, http://allafrica.com/stories/201406130626.html.

[3] Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, XXII.

[4]Emmanuel Akyeampong, “Drinking with Friends: Popular Culture, the Working Poor, and Youth Drinking in Independent Ghana,” in Alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure and Politics, ed. Deborah Bryceson (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books,U.S., 2002); Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, C. 1800 to Recent Times, 1st Edition edition (Portsmouth, NH : Oxford: Heinemann, 1996), 157; Deborah Bryceson, ed., Alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure and Politics (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books,U.S., 2002).

[5]Joseph Mbatia et al., “Prevalence of Alcohol Consumption and Hazardous Drinking, Tobacco and Drug Use in Urban Tanzania, and Their Associated Risk Factors,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6, no. 7 (July 2009), doi:10.3390/ijerph6071991.

[6] WHO, ‘Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014’ (WHO, 2014) http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_2.pdf?ua=1.

[7]Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 157.

[8] The largest portion of the bottled alcohol industry in East Africa is made up certain actors, Diageo (British), SABMiller (South African) and EABL (East African Breweries Limited). Together they own controlling interest in all the popular brands you can think of in East Africa and beyond.

[9]Economist, “Business: Keep on Walking; Alcohol in Africa,” The Economist, October 1, 2011; Justin Willis, Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850-1999 (London; Athens: James Currey, 2002).

[10]Willis, Potent Brews, 255–257.

[11] Willis, Potent Brews.

[12]African Journalism in the World - News and Analysis, “Kenya Illegal Alcohol Deaths | Africa - News and Analysis,” February 27, 2013, http://africajournalismtheworld.com/tag/kenya-illegal-alcohol-deaths/; Craig, “Kenyan Officials”; Standard Digital News, “Standard Digital News : : Kenya@50 - Genesis of Illicit Brews and the Untold Agony,” February 13, 2014, http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/kenyaat50/article/2000104599/genesis-of-illicit-brews-and-the-untold-agony?pageNo=3; Kings Waweru, “Kenya: Man Dies After Drinking Illicit Liquor in Nanyuki,” The Star (Nairobi), May 16, 2014, http://allafrica.com/stories/201405161093.html.

[13]Katare Mbashiru, “2014/2015 Budget: As Usual, Be Prepared to Pay More for Beer, Wine,” The Citizen Tanzania, June 13, 2014, http://www.thecitizen.co.tz/News/2014-2015--BUDGET--As-usual--be-prepared-to-pay-more-for-beer/-/1840392/2346758/-/c4nuoaz/-/index.html.

[14]Bryceson, Alcohol in Africa, 285.

[15]Willis, Potent Brews.