Kenya’s plan to curb alcohol abuse: One pub per city

man drinks beer

man drinks beer

Kenya’s deputy president has tried to take a radical step to reduce alcohol abuse in the country’s central region by saying county governments should only allow one pub per town, but not everyone is convinced it’s a good plan .

“Even if they close all these bars, we’re still going to drink,” Charles Ngugi tells me while sipping a locally popular draft beer.

It was dark in the bar, but the morning light came through as the blinds flapped in the wind.

“This is not cheap or illegal liquor, so why would you want to interfere with my lifestyle and party mood?” he asks, raising his voice to be heard over the music blaring from the counter, almost drowning out our conversation.

There are four other men in the small bar, all drinking while seated on wooden benches next to long tables.

A middle-aged man staggers into the bar and dances and sings to a Kikuyu language song before dropping onto one of the benches to join his friends.

In a few minutes he will fall asleep.

It’s 11 a.m. By law, this bar can only be open after six hours. And it should close at 11pm.

Man lying on the ground next to the road

The effects of excessive drinking can be seen on the streets

Three other small bars in the village of Kaderendu in Muranga County, about 70 km (43 miles) from the capital Nairobi, are also open for night owls.

Places like this are the target of Vice President Rigathi Gachagua’s wrath. In January he said the number of bars and restaurants allowed to operate in each city should be limited to just one.

But those who do drink disagree that this will help discourage them from drinking.

“When small bars like this close, more people like me will go down the river to get changaa [the local traditional brew]’ says Mr Ngugi.

Illegal brewers have traditionally used riverbanks to produce changaa. There is easy access to water and in most places it is difficult for authorities to access the brewing caves.

Central Kenya is battling an alcohol and drug epidemic, the government warns.

Authorities have not provided any data to back this up, but they say there is a problem which they attribute to the high number of unregulated bars and pubs and an influx of cheap, illegal beers.

It’s also not clear why central Kenya was chosen – but a visit to the region reveals that there are a variety of drinking caves. Muranga District Authority says the number of pubs and wine and liquor stores has grown exponentially since the Covid 19 lockdown.

“Destroying a Generation”

Spirits licenses have become the most coveted business license in the county, the BBC has been told.

Technically, the districts are responsible for licensing, but being from the central region, Vice President Gachagua has a lot of influence here.

“[County] The governors have to make a decision that licensing every kiosk, every outlet as a bar and restaurant is a way to destroy an entire generation to generate revenue, and that’s not right,” he said.

"You won't see many young people with girlfriends or with families.  They just wake up and go to bars to have a drink""Source: Rosemary Kimani, Source Description: , Image: Rosemary Kimani

“You won’t see many young people with girlfriends or families. They just wake up and go to bars to drink,” Source: Rosemary Kimani, Source Description: , Image: Rosemary Kimani

Rosemary Kimani, 58, has personal experience of the effects of drinking.

She says she lost her husband to alcoholism. Three of her children, including her daughter, are all struggling with their addiction.

“This river and these bars will be the end of us all,” she says at her home in Kiunyu village. She moved there in the early 1990s to start a family.

“We can’t even get water there because the gangs that control illegal breweries have taken over.

“You won’t see many young people with girlfriends or families here in Kiunyu. They just wake up and go to bars to have a drink,” she adds.

“How are we going to have grandchildren when our own children have left their wives, don’t feel like having sex, and just drink and sleep all day?” She asks.

Ms Kimani supports the national government’s move to shut down what she calls “killer dens”.

The central government wants all places selling drinks to be restricted to selling alcohol between 5pm and midnight.

There is some evidence that licenses are not being gradually renewed, but there has not yet been a mass closure of drinking establishments.

Bar and restaurant owners say the government has misaligned its priorities by targeting legitimate businesses.

“The problem is not bars and pubs, because we provide social places where people can meet, we pay taxes for the development of the nation and we employ tens of thousands of people,” argues Simon Mwangi Njoroge, national chair of the Bar Owners Association.

“In the central region alone we have around 17,000 companies with 100,000 employees.”

Local NGOs and the church have intervened to set up rehabilitation centers, but they are expensive and out of reach for many addicts.

“We really want to address alcoholism and its negative social effects, but we have to be very careful about knee-jerk reactions. Is our problem a legitimate business or an illegal drink?” says Steven Kimani, Muranga County Public Health Officer.

“At the moment we don’t have a rehabilitation center sponsored by our county government because it’s not our priority. Our focus is on restricting access to the illegal beers that are plaguing our district and the rest of central Kenya.

“But this discussion of pub closures is premature. What criteria do you use to close deals? What data do you use to claim that we are most affected? There aren’t any,” he tells the BBC.

The National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse is currently collecting data but says it is concerned about the mushroom explosion in bars and worries about the spread of illegal beers in central Kenya.

Experts warn that an entire generation could be lost if nothing is done to address the problem.

For those already affected, the change can’t come soon enough.

“It’s a national disaster,” says widow Rosemary Kimani.


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