Too drunk to dig graves

Father Moses Karanja of St John the Baptist Riruta Church is astounded by the unraveling catastrophe in Kiambu as alcoholism rips apart families spilling misery and suffering over the last 20 years.

In 2002, as a deacon at a parish in Gatundu South, the friar had most of his pastoral duties conducting burials where he witnessed a very strange phenomenon. Young men thronged funerals, all tipsy. There was always an embarrassing moment at every funeral when they needed young men to spade loose soil back into the graves.

He witnessed as men of productive age in Kiambu were unable to deliver on their role during funerals, they could not fill up the graves without keeling over. What would take minutes to do; returning the soil to the grave took longer. They looked tired or dispirited as they did this chore.

“I was keen. No one held the spade for more than a minute without catching a breath. They were emasculated. No one had muscles. All fatigued with bloated and puffy faces due to alcohol.”

The community detested this. I would talk about it. “Then, my question, indeed everyone’s concern was where will this end? It was cheap liquor. The after-effects were lethal. We watched as young people wasted away from poison,” he says.

Twenty years later, Fr Moses says he has observed as the young men thin out in numbers even as addiction to alcohol drives the youth to other more harmful drugs as well in their quest to remain high.

“The other funeral was at a place near Ruaka where my cousin had died. I gave a lift to my cousin who lives in Banana Hill. This place had a youth bulge in the 90s that was worrying. The matatu stage had no less than 100 young men anytime, every day. Nowadays, the small town is free of young men. What happened?” he poses.

Only a short distance from Nairobi and still in the looming shadow of city life, villages in Kiambu County are becoming some of the most drug-ridden neighborhoods in Kenya. Driving the consumption of drugs is a huge number of youth, young men, and women struggling with joblessness who are turning to illicit alcohol and other drugs hoping that it will take away stress, pressure, and mounting trouble in their lives.

But it is the fact that the young men cannot be trusted with money that is threatening the community financially and perpetuating joblessness amidst of plenty. Kiambu County with a gross county product of Kes553.3 billion, is the biggest economy outside the capital Nairobi but alcoholism is pushing businesses to import labor from afar.

“When we got to my cousin’s home. I was met by her son, my nephew. He is two to three years younger than me, but boy he has never had a sober day in his life. I got to learn that he takes marijuana and a drug called ‘cosmo’. Do you remember me? He asked me, a question that comes from the realization that he has changed so much. It also stems from low self-esteem he’s suffering,” Fr Moses says.

Read also: In Kenya, alcoholism is a mass disease

“He asked me to give him Kes200 for a haircut. I obliged. But his mother was aghast. She told me, ‘there is no way he will shave his hair’. As we sat and talked, he came back, unshaven and on cloud nine. High as a kite. Oozing confidence and bravura.”

Paul King’e, a church leader, who also works as an events MC as a side hustle, has seen it all and fears that the community is fast losing its most productive generation to alcoholism.

Around his home neighborhood of Muchatha ward, Paul says he has lost about seven of his age mates to alcohol-related health complications in the last two years alone. Paul says he has observed the toll of alcohol abuse on an increasing number of youth and young men of productive age even as it now assumes a shocking dimension.

“Unlike our days when young men would work in mjengo (construction), these days, if you have mjengo, the contractor has to ‘import labour’, basically by ferrying in young men from afar to come and work. Our men in the village can’t do anything,” he agonizes over the tragedy that has befallen Kiambu.

Even during normal work hours, Paul explains, cheap liqour selling points have assumed the role of a water cooler, where an endless stream of workers and idle youth cluster around either to help manage a bad hang-over or to gas up for the now alcohol-dependent workers.

The people now employed in our tea and coffee farms come from other parts of the country as our youth stay here due to their inability to take up these jobs yet they keep complaining “there are no jobs,” observes Paul.

“Our future is so dim if we continue this way … it will be too late if it’s not already,” Paul, the moderator, St Joseph Gathanga Catholic Church notes.

The worsening situation also caught the attention of the Deputy President when he visited recently: “Let me tell you, these drugs in Ruaka, you (security and administration officers) must deal with them. The President and I cannot accept that foreigners are selling drugs in broad daylight na nyinyi mko hapa. Haiwezekani… I want nikitoka hapa, you mount an operation. Mimi nataka nisikie majibu kesho. Nimepata madawa hapo Ruaka nikipita inauzwa yet we have the police in Karuri, Ndenderu and Gachie,” Mr Rigathi Gachagua said recently during a funeral in Kiambaa.

Kenya has been experiencing a massive rise in the supply and demand of cheap liquor, which is largely illicit drinks under the veneer of traditional brews such as chang’aa, busaa, and muratina, a very popular traditional drink in Kiambu. Industry experts estimate that illicit alcohol accounts for roughly half of all liquor sold in Kenya. It’s an epidemic.

Spirits, which are by far the favourite for both mainstream alcohol manufacturers and counterfeiters, are the largest and fastest-growing category of liquor in the country. The spirits are available at a range of price points in retail outlets especially supermarkets and the now ubiquitous wines-and-spirits shops.

Millions of people have been pushed to buy cheaper illicit and counterfeit liqour products partly by the government’s move to drastically raise excise duty in recent years. Latest trade data from East African Brewers Ltd (EABL) for the six months to December 2022 shows the company’s net sales in Kenya, its largest market, shrank by one percent on account of a steep jump in taxes on beer and spirits.

Kenya’s excise tax for beer and spirits edged up by 10 percent and 20 percent respectively in July last year. In September, consumers were forced to shoulder a further 6.3 percent excise tax as part of the taxman’s annual inflationary adjustment.

Overall, the industry sustained a compounded annual excise tax increase of 23 percent for beer and 34 percent for spirits, a factor that hugely eroded the purchasing power of consumers resulting in a 13 percent drop in the volume of beer sold in Kenya.

“As a business, we have had to pass on that to the consumer,” EABL Group CEO Jane Karuku said adding that the tax adjustments “significantly affected the consumption of our brands.”

Kenya’s alcoholic drinks segment is projected to witness strong volume growth as an increasing number of young adults with disposable incomes take an interest in alcohol consumption. Manufacturers have responded in kind, introducing new categories of beer, wine, and other light alcohol-based drinks.

Data from the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), a state watchdog, shows that alcohol is one of the most abused substances in Kenya. NACADA says alcohol use among Kenyans begins as early as 10 years of age, peaking at the most productive ages of between 15 and 35 years.

Read also: A sobering break: Rehab changed my life

In villages across Kiambu County, a significant number of married women are crying out to the government and stakeholders to intervene and help save their families from alcoholism and drug addiction. The women claim that alcohol abuse is negatively affecting the men’s productivity as they cannot engage in any gainful economic activities, let alone honor their conjugal obligations.

Anthony Kang’ethe, the moderator of the Catholic Church, Kiambu Deanery, is leading one such campaign with a view to suppressing demand for alcohol in Kiambaa, Kiambu, and parts of Githunguri sub-counties. Paul and I, together with 12 others, are part of Kiambu Deanery Wellness Initiative which is reaching out to area residents and key stakeholders such as the county government to help mitigate the damage by liaising with key players while advocating for initiatives to fight alcoholism.

Mr Kang’ethe team has already presented a concept paper on various ways of suppressing alcohol demand to Governor Kiambu County for consideration and action. Equally, his team is in talks with the Archbishop of Nairobi to embed the wellness program in the Catholic Church’s Family Life activities.

“We are sensitizing the community especially families about the problem with a view to offering practical solutions that can help tackle the challenge. In Kiambu, many families are in crisis. On average, every family is struggling with at least one case of alcoholism,” explained Mr Kang’ethe, who’s passionate about the fight against drugs and substance abuse.

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