The first time I met “mamma", she was pouring her homemade brew to a dozen or more buyers. Her changaa, translated means “kill me quickly” is hands down the most popular brew in the village, competing with twenty or more brewers in small West Kenyan road-side village - population no more than 5,000.
Local villagers know exactly where to find her brew “hive” and others in the area, but from the busy road from Kenya’s second city to Uganda, the village would look like any other and finding such illegal brew “hives” takes digging deeper and walking farther.
Despite its legality and massive consumer risk, the underground world of illegal brew in East Africa growing rapidly.
Deaths and blindness from changaa contaminated with methanol or other chemicals are common. The government seems set on preventing deaths by forcing backyard brewers into the open.
A bill passed by Kenya's parliament, legalized and sought to 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 have no intention of giving up. Including “mamma”, who has been arrested 11 times for selling her homemade brew. Regardless, she has pride in her product, owns her arrests and is proud of her “superior” product.
I visited “mamma" over the course of 4 years. In the beginning, she was proud. In the middle, she was gone, arrested. The next time she was back, humbled and relegated to a humble life not in the black market, picking corn for a neighbor.
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.
People continue to drink this harmful alcohol even with awareness of its deadly ramifications is because some of the residents don't seem to care about their lives, and rather drink all day
This problem is giant and it’s largely hidden from the average East African. Essentially, it’s a problem in the village, where unemployment is ultra-high. Even to get find these hives and brew-houses and drinking dens took me years.
It’s both ultra-hidden and yet happening in plain sight, your taxi driver, in a cell phone kiosk, in the grocery store - the closer you look the omnipresence of the drunkenness is everywhere.