For many in Kenya, illegal brew has a sting

He sits in her front room like a shy vicar from a Jane Austen novel. She’s a widow with sad eyes. He’s a married man with a kindly look. He cannot stay away from her for long.

She likes his soft politeness. He likes the neat room in her shack, with nearly everything veiled in white lace, hiding the battered surfaces beneath. They chat about small nothings.

He comes to her house in Nairobi’s Kibera slum first thing on waking and last thing before sleeping. But he’s not here for love, even if it sometimes feels like it. He’s here for the illegal moonshine she brews, changaa. It means “kill me quick.” He buys a glass and drinks it right there.

There’s something quaint and courtly in their mutual corruption. Without her, Cosmas Asoha, 34, couldn’t get up and go to work, would spend his nights lying awake feeling as though thousands of stinging insects were feeding on his skin. Without him, Florence Auma, 39, would be unable to feed her four children and five grandchildren or educate her two school-age daughters.

So they both ignore an undercurrent of guilt and behave as though their mutual need is beneficial.

Auma has asked Asoha’s wife whether he provides for the family. (He does.) Asoha, a printer, says his boss doesn’t mind if he has a drink before work, as long as he does the job well.

Illegally brewed alcohol is common in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in poor communities where few can afford beer. In Kenya, about 85% of alcohol consumption is illicit, according to the World Health Organization. The drinking feeds social problems, such as violence and poverty, and worse.

Deaths and blindness from changaa contaminated with methanol or other chemicals are common in Kenya, with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of drinkers dying within a few days. In July, 23 people died after drinking contaminated moonshine in Kibera.

The government has decided that the only way to prevent deaths from tainted illicit alcohol was to force the backyard brewers into the open.

A bill passed in June by Kenya’s parliament, but as yet lacking a presidential signature, would legalize and regulate changaa production, but it would require that the drink be commercially bottled and sold at licensed premises. Critics say it probably wouldn’t have much effect on the distillers; the women tending the clay stills in Kibera have no intention of giving up.

Breweries in Kenya have called on the government to cut alcohol taxes so that beer can compete with changaa. But even with lower taxes, it would be difficult: A glass of changaa costs 50 cents (beer is twice as much) and drinkers love it for its potency. Getting intoxicated on changaa is cheap.

Past the fish fryers and charcoal burners on Kibera’s rutted narrow main street, you duck into a lane as wide as your arm span and pick your way along a 6-inch ledge above running sewage to get to Auma’s place. Step inside a gate and wet washing slithers across your head. Several police officers are there examining four primitive pottery stills over roaring fires.

“They’re waiting to take their share,” mutters Auma, seeming more bored than annoyed. She ambles out to pay them their usual bribe: about $8. Her biggest fear is going to jail.

A small boy at her door pees nonchalantly into someone’s sandals. It’s early, but Asoha has arrived for his morning drink.

“This is kind of like a family. You see kids around,” he says. “She’s like my mum, now. We have so many things we talk about.”

His father was a drunk and his mother a teetotaler. He arrived in Kibera from a rural town as a teenager and was frightened by the drinking and fighting. He saw a thief beaten and burned alive and couldn’t sleep for a week. But he got used to the place.

Like most men here in Kibera, he started drinking. It happened as imperceptibly as growing older; a few wrinkles later, he’s become an alcoholic.

Mornings, before drinking, he feels shattered and jittery.

“When I have taken a drink, it unlocks my mind,” he says.

“You can’t even hold a pen until you’ve had a drink,” murmurs Auma. He nods.

“When you drink, everything becomes OK,” says Asoha, whose two close drinking pals died of tainted moonshine a few years back. He was so grieved that he thought of giving it up.

Auma took up brewing after her husband died 14 years ago; she could not think of any other way to make money. She says she doesn’t use dangerous additives; she has only a couple dozen regulars and she can’t afford to have them die on her.

Her changaa is strong: Sniff it and your eyes sting. It has a rough charcoal taste overlaying the fiery clear liquid. It’s made of compacted chunks of brown sugar, water and homemade fermented beer. The more sugar, the stronger it is.

At the end of the month, when people have been paid and they will buy more, Auma makes a weaker brew, cheaper on her purse. Mid-month, when there’s no money, men want to get drunk from just a glass or two. So she brews it strong.

Drinking it is socially harmless, she says.

“When they’re drunk, men just go and lie down. They go home or collapse on the ground. They have no time to steal or rape women.”

She is proud of the balanced taste and quality of her booze and her ability to support her kids, but she also is afraid of getting caught. At church on Sundays, when the priest lectures on the evils of home-brew, she believes everyone is thinking of her sins. She scurries home, nursing her shame.

“They’re right. It is wrong. But there’s no other way I can help myself.”

She feels virtuous when she prays to God to get her out of the moonshine business. But she feels guilty when she prays for him to find her more customers.

Asoha’s thoughts are trapped in a similar echo chamber. Between drinks, he sometimes worries about his health.

“It worries me, yes,” he says. “But the only cure I know is that one,” he says, indicating the next drink.