The Drowning of Sorrows

 A Sad Story on Rapid Urbanization in Kenya | by Leonard Wanyama

Nancy Waithera and Alice Wairimu Kimani's tribulations are heart breaking. Nancy lost her husband and two sons 3 years ago to a lethal alcoholic drink called Yokozuna. Her remaining son, who survived the last binge, passed away this past week after consuming a new version of the same called Countryman. File footage from that time shows Nancy's son, Benjamin Njoroge, on Kenyan television promising never to drink cheap concoction ever again.

More than 80 people have died and hundreds hospitalized in about 5 counties, when cheap liquor going by names such as Wings, Game Master, Targeter, and Sacramento were supplied to unsuspecting members of the public. Many of them could not afford the household name beers such as Tusker, Pilsner or Summit. A popular low cost alternative named Senator -as the Barrack Obama euphoria caught on with Kenyans at the time of the Democratic National Convention Speech in 2004- that was meant to cater for their needs, has now become unaffordable. Initially sold at $0.56 per 500 ml bottle, a 50% tax on all alcoholic drinks has made it too expensive for low income earners.

A stringent law sponsored by former legislator John Mututho, now chairman of the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), has been flouted repeatedly resulting in perennial tragedies. Mututho lost his seat after powerful lobbies of bar owners campaigned against him and supported his opponents. The government has responded by interdicting 52 officials including the NACADA Chief Executive Officer and his counterpart at the Anti-Counterfeit Agency. Nonetheless the question remains, why are the incidences increasing in frequency and the number of victims growing with each catastrophe?

Benjamin's previous encounter, of which he was the lone survivor, had 10 victims. On this occasion, the numbers more than quadrupled. The narratives of these incidences are laced with tragicomedy accounts of how individuals refuse to stop drinking while the Methanol in the liquor began to blind them claiming that 'even if the lights were switched off, they would still continue'. Most of the affected ranged from 16 to 35 year olds; Kenyan youth as per the definition of affirmative action policies to empower marginalized groups. There were increasingly more women and a number of them died leaving their equally drunken husbands to care for their young. Yet in Nyeri county police could still manage a 9 am raid on drinking joints and fill a lorry load of people (including women) despite the strict drinking hours -5pm to 11pm on weekdays and 2pm to 2am on weekends- as stipulated by the Mututho laws.

Dr. Shepherd Kuria* in Kiambu said 'I admitted two ladies this morning, but I noticed that the other madam who brought them in also looked inebriated. Due to bed space I could not check her in because we still considered her as fine, but I had to get her checked out as well. Aside from those being affected from the poisoning there are so many drunks here.' So how is this happening in a continent of 'Africa Rising' aspirations and expectations? What is going wrong?

Commentators obviously noted the stark squalor in which a significant number of the victims came from, but did not ask why a number of respectable professionals like teachers were also caught up in these groups? Kenyan political and policy discourses are well versed with the deprivation aspects of poverty. They are also very aware of the existing potential to solve this especially with opportunities provided by devolution. However, they do not sufficiently touch on increasing disparities between and within individuals, communities or the society at large as contended in the inequality debate.

Kiambu is a curious case. Nationally this county is the second least unequal county with only 24% of the country's population living there falling below the poverty line. The poverty gap, the amount of resources needed to eliminate poverty, here is the third lowest at 6% and the severity of poverty is measured at only 2%. A lot of things look rosy as the county's population generally has households with: high consumption expenditure; good levels of education; significant employment; improved sources of water; access to domestic energy, in terms of cooking fuel and lighting; and considerably modern humane housing conditions.

However, for the 24% living in poverty, life is atrocious. The alcoholic deaths exemplify this, in a county whose youthful population of 15-34 year olds constitutes 40%. It is estimated that close 3,000 people with no education are unemployed. If you add those with only a primary level of education together with having secondary level education and above, the numbers shoot up to close to 81,000 people with no work in a population of about 1,000,000. For those who find work, most of them -16%- in the county are supported by agricultural holdings. 26% of these have no level of education, 22% only a primary level of education, while 11% have a secondary education and above.

Yet, the pressures for increased housing in Nairobi are forcing counties within its environs to develop real estate. The shrinking space in Nairobi is increasing demand for expansion into neighboring counties such as Kiambu. Posh residential gated communities are replacing the coffee farms and small holdings of one acre farms are developed into apartments for sale or rental. This is leaving a number of financially illiterate individuals destitute after the sale of land, but also ripping away sources of livelihood for those who depended on casual or menial jobs from farms. It is speculated that commercialization of land into real estate is likely going to make the county food insecure as it moves from its agricultural base but the immediate loss of income in a country with an increasing cost of living is bearing a herculean toll on the poor of Kiambu making them turn to alcoholism in drowning their sorrows.
In the conceptualization of devolution, the counties were formed to deal with national inequalities. They, nonetheless, need to be well aware of inequalities existing within them that have been symbolized by the events and catastrophe that took place as well in Embu, Makueni, Machakos, Nakuru, Narok and Nyeri.


Leonard Wanyama is Programme Officer at the Society for International Development, Nairobi


Photo: Gates Foundation/Flickr
* Not his real name