In Kenya, alcoholism is a mass disease

I did not touch any alcohol on my wedding night. I had pictured my wedding night before, and frankly I had not ever imagined myself, entirely sober. But I sat there elated with an ear to ear grin, as alcohol was passed around me, in front of me; I also participated in passing it around, then I turned to my bottle of mineral water. I was learning the taste of water and reading faces of the unfortunate looks the people drinking around me gave me before forgetting about my existence turning to laugh their hearts out in self absorbing alcoholic bliss. 

But I could take consolation in that on that same table, three other former Generals of the drink were also escorting the bottle of gin with their eyes only, a friend and my two in-laws had all quit the bottle due to an awful brush with pancreatitis. 

I had never heard of pancreatitis before, I had only come to know of it a few weeks prior. It is the name they have given to pain. I have felt pain in my life but nothing beats the numbing feeling that seized my backbone one evening on the eve of my actual wedding. I had to postpone it after I went down with the ailment. It was so painful that I wrote a poem about it.

On the eve of our wedding; we had tried the rings, and jinxed our day; with each hour, dreading a calamity; a crafty tailor, parental censure; or even the disastrous last minute change in heart; In the agony of pins and needles, and dousing Ethiopian coffee; I split a spleen, inflamed by alcohol, sugar and pfas; A calamity! a fate so feared; Our wedding cancelled, an omen on our union; Twisted and mangled in wrenching pain; A bride or a widow, a groom or a corpse; Science and God, prostrated to; Concealed in that pearly place, beyond fear and despair; A crying appeal by two souls, that had found each other; A marriage sealed on the threshold of hades.

If I had died, my last thought would have been of an insurance company that abandoned me on the first whiff of alcohol. To diagnose acute pancreatitis the doctors have to test for amylase and lipase assays or with CT scan and one of those tests measure something that indicates level of blood in your alcohol. And immediately your insurance bolts out, and it is up to you to save yourself from debilitating pain on your person and finances. 

It kind of felt as if alcoholics deserve what is coming at them, and they might as well take the pain and pay for it, and if they die off, it is their self-harm that put them there. When talking about alcoholics it is easy to assume they are a fringe constituency on the margins of society. 

No, I am talking of Kenya where a study by StrategyHelix found that the alcoholic beverages market is expected to increase by Kes280.7 billion ($2.87 billion) in the six years to 2027 a 7.5 percent annual growth, that is enough to pay off the Eurobond. I am talking about the driver in the matatu you will take to work who will have tipped over a bottle after every trip, the typical employee on a Monday morning nursing a hangover over keyboard, those PK chewing gum customers masking your breath.

Alcoholism is not fringe, it is how the majority of human beings cope. Erich Fromm in the Art of Loving sees alcoholism, like sex is a way to overcome our loneliness, or separateness, but which carries along anxiety and guilt. He says when you try to escape from separateness by taking refuge in alcohol or drugs, they will feel the more separate after the orgiastic experience is over, and thus are driven to take the recourse to it with increasing frequency and intensity. 

Read also: WhatsApp to the aid of pubs amidst a post-pandemic glut

Kenyans are low to moderate drinkers taking 2.78 litres on average, if you compare us to Tanzanians who drink on average 11.2 litres and Ugandans who do 15 litres, we are actually doing pretty well. But it is the type of alcohol we are drinking that is a problem.

In an economy where illicit trade rose to Kes826 billion in 2018 according to Anti-Counterfeit Authority, the level of Kariobangi alcohol flowing around it was no wonder a rising number of people I knew had caught pancreatitis. This of course was nothing scientific, but here were four people on a table who had been knocked off by this disease, of course we had all in our own ways pushed the envelope with the drinking but the prevalence looked a bit much. 

Data on pancreatitis is hard to find but estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study, incidence of acute pancreatitis has been on the increase from an average of 6,131 to 8,680 in a decade killing about 432 a year. The study found that alcohol was the main risk factor for acute pancreatitis-related death although gallstones and hypertriglyceridemia are the other less common causes.

Males were much more likely to suffer from fatality due to alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis. Worse still being male, middle aged, belonging to the Luhya or Kalenjin ethic group, tobacco use, and having hypertension increased the odds for hazardous or harmful alcohol use. So I was predisposed either way. 

The problem of fake alcohol in Kenya is out of this world, which may be chiefly behind the increase in cases of such diseases as pancreatitis especially in urban areas. Drunkards have to use their bodies as litmus paper; you wake up with body pains that are not commensurate with the amount of alcohol, if your drink tastes different then you know you have been caught by the Kariobangi guys. 

One wonders if it was unga (maize flour) being manufactured in Kariobangi, would the government treat it with such callousness. The government, treats its alcoholics, like a tax register rather than people who consume a product that should receive the same protections as food items. When government comes up with a technology like the on Excisable Goods Management System (EGMS) stamps, to protect consumers, it gets turned into a new avenue for price increases and taxation with the planned National Treasury to raise the price of excise stamps by up to four times.

A consignment of suspected counterfeit alcoholic drinks bearing fake Kenya Revenue Authority stamps that were nabbed on March 7th in Kikima market, Makueni County, in the ongoing government crackdown targeting traders engaging in tax evasion schemes.

Excise stamps themselves are not infallible. They are supposed to make it easy to identify the fakes and sometimes it works, briefly. KRA’s internal report on the multiagency work shows there was decrease in the value of goods seized counterfeit stamps as a result of the strict measures put on EGMS compliance where many companies have been closed or suspended due to non-compliance.

The taxman, however, said the cartels are making a slow comeback after goods seized with counterfeited stamps dropped to Kes26.4 million in January before increasing to Kes33.2 million in February and Kes78.6 million in March last year.

Cartels are finding ways of bouncing back with some resorting to using deceitful branding on transport trucks to hide counterfeit products and even building secret plants to avoid the taxman’s crews.

Some cartels are also finding new ways to beat the taxman’s EGMS installations of flow meters and CCTV cameras in alcohol manufacturing factories with offsite locations. KRA found a company had set up a parallel and unlicensed manufacturing site after the closure of the licensed production factory.

The KRA team found manufacturers are producing bottled water, affixing them with counterfeit excise stamps and distributing early in the morning from 3am to 5am while a brewer was caught recycling legitimate stamps on keg barrels.

According to the multiagency report, the keg manufacture was wrongly placing the excise stamps on the barrels in such away even after the products have been consumed the excise stamp is not tampered and barrel can still be refilled and sold severally with one excise stamp.

If alcoholism is a mass disease, maybe it is time we talked about the cost of letting poison to be sold in open counters complete with global branding.

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