Moonshine and the middle class – does Africa have a drinking problem?

Populated as many of its countries are by a high percentage of abstinent practising Muslims, the proposition that Africa might at all have a problem with alcoholism may, to some, appear implausible.

Even more so, when a massive number of non-drinking adults in many African nations returns alcohol statistics that suggest liquor is an issue barely worthy of concern. After all, two years ago, a World Health Organisation study reported that Kenya’s average annual intake of alcohol placed the country 118th in a league table of 189 (this is particularly unremarkable in comparison with the United Kingdom’s placement of 17th in the same listing, whose average intake per annum more than doubles the amount consumed in Kenya).

These figures aren’t all that they appear to be, however.  The suggestion in recent years has been that results skewed by teetotallers are cloaking a darker reality – and that among the still-considerable percentage that does imbibe, there now exists a dangerous trend in excessive consumption and even morbid intoxication.

With abstinence taken into account (be it for cultural, religious or health reasons), it becomes apparent that the real focus in Africa’s apparent problem with alcoholism should fall upon the hugely problematic area of ‘heavy episodic drinking’ i.e. bingeing.

Health authorities are particularly concerned about the booming manufacture, trade and consumption of homemade liquor, typically enhanced with deadly industrial spirit. This kind of beverage is cheap to produce, and, at as little as sixty pence per 75cl, almost as cheap to purchase. Inevitably, it is likely to beat any market beer or wine in terms of strength, therefore also beating licensed produce in terms of producing the effects desired by consumers.

Economical as they are, unlicensed spirits are returning disturbing tales; incidences of illness, blindness and even fatality. The problems with self-manufactured alcohol were all too starkly illustrated in April 2013, when seventy Libyans died after being poisoned by the homemade fruit spirit ‘bokha’, an already-highly-potent brew spiked further with fatal quantities of industrial methanol.

The bokha tragedy is nonetheless rare in Libya, a Muslim state that bans alcohol. Here, alcohol has to be smuggled in on the black market from neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria. But on the continent as a whole, it isn’t simply a case of ‘ban booze and make it more desirable’: elsewhere, the more readily-available the liquor, the greater the problem.

Ogogoro moonshine sellers in Nigeria

A 2015 survey returned the expected result that Nigeria was perched atop its continent’s league table in terms of consumption – ‘expected’ in that the country is long-recognised as housing Africa’s largest drinking population. The nation has, therefore, also been at the fore of this trend toward home brew, the increased distilling of ‘ogogoro’ – a palm wine with a 30%-60% alcohol content – now considered by authorities to be among the biggest current threats to national sobriety.

Earlier this year, a Rivers-state ban on the manufacture of the drink was finally enforced, following a reported twenty deaths from its ingestion in the south-westerly town of Odi-Irele, again as a result of the illegal addition of methanol. Previously, prohibiting the drink would have been unthinkable, essential as it has always been regarded in celebrations of marriage and in other religious ceremonies.

In Uganda (placed second in the table), the preferred libation is ‘tonto’ – a banana beer boasting an average alcoholic content that might just embarrass its commercially-available counterparts.  While this beverage has also been in open use for generations, its illegal by-product ‘waragi’ – a further-distilled spirit more powerful still – is not legal, and yet again has precipitated a spate of illnesses and deaths as a result of its use. But with measures selling for as little as twenty-five cents, it is apparent that the horror stories are not going to make the problem go away any time soon.

By the time we arrive at the third-placed nation, there is – at last – some better news. In Kenya, while trends toward over-imbibing might appear more pronounced than in some of its neighbouring states, the country’s efforts to combat alcoholism have at least been more productive.

In the Murang’a township – around 100km south-west of Nairobi – the General Ihura football stadium has been converted to function as a vast rehabilitation centre housing almost a thousand recovering addicts. Those seeking help are given bed and board within large marquees, fed three times a day, medicated where necessary and are encouraged to fraternise and support one another in their quest for sobriety.

Patients include labourers and professionals alike, the sole condition imposed being that they must stay for a minimum three months – and, of course, that any alcohol and smoking materials (including marijuana) will be confiscated upon arrival. Although the stadium’s walls appear to be crumbling, the programme offered has proven so popular that those inside aren’t tempted to scale them. Instead, an almost-unbroken view of the township outside serves as a symbolic reminder of the freedom to which they aspire.

While neighbouring states shouldn’t be expected to convert their own sports stadia into vast clinics, the initiative shown by Kenya’s authorities should act as a spur to the likes of Nigeria and Uganda – where the placement of levies on commercial alcohol has obviously done little to slow consumption of home-brew – in addressing what remains a grave concern.

Because the problem, of course, isn’t limited to illicit alcohol. With more and more beverage companies investing in the continent and middle-classes owning a greater amount of disposable income than ever before, raising awareness of the damage booze can cause needs to be pushed up the African agenda.

If attitudes are left unchecked, even the huge population of abstinent Africans will no longer be able to stop people doubting that a dark spirit is indeed hanging over their countries.

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