Strange Brew: Kenya’s Toxic Hooch
Chang’aa, Kenya’s high-octane moonshine, will get you drunk quickly. It can also cause blindness
The gate to Mama Opondi’s house looks like any other in Kiambiu, a large slum here in the Kenyan capital, where more than 50,000 live, mostly in shacks made from wood and aluminum siding.
I enter and she welcomes me inside, leading me to a cozy living room with mismatched couches and a small television playing European soccer. There are four men in the room—and Opondi, a full-figured woman sporting large gold rings and a lion tattoo on her bicep with the word “power” written below it in Swahili, gives them a forceful hug.
People don’t just come here for the good company. For two decades, Opondi has been running a local speakeasy out of her home, where she distills a powerful brand of blackout-inducing hooch that tastes like a cross between vodka, tequila and paint thinner. It’s known here as chang’aa, which literally means “kill me quickly.”
Yet in recent years, this slosh syrup has become especially controversial, with many claiming it has increased crime and corrupted people’s morals. Earlier this month, it made headlines when local kids in the slums reportedly showed up to school drunk after their parents fed them chang’aa for breakfast
“Chang’aa destroys houses. It takes men from their families,” says Father John Webootsa with the Kutoka Network of Catholic Churches, a group that lobbies the government for stronger anti-moonshine legislation. “This chang’aa is not the same as other whiskeys or spirits. They can get drunk for so cheap, they don’t even care what’s in it. It is a very easy addiction.”
Some brewers such as Opondi take pride in making chang’aa that’s potent, but not lethal. But others cut corners, using tainted water or additives like methanol for a little extra kick. In some slums, the water used to make chang’aa is sometimes contaminated with feces, and police have confiscated batches containing rats and women’s underwear. There have been reports for years of tainted brew causing blindness and even death.
In Kenya, where alcohol is heavily taxed, chang’aa is cheaper than beer—a glass of Nairobi firewater costs about 30 cents—so it’s more popular among the country’s poor. It’s also about 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol, comparable to vomit-inducing disinfectants such as Everclear and Bacardi 151. For people who enjoy chang’aa, it usually takes only a few glasses to get wasted. Early morning chang’aa drinkers can often be seen passed out in piles of rotting garbage, having never made it back home.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, a quarter of Kenyans ages 25 and under are unemployed. Most cover expenses with odd jobs like selling roadside trinkets. Others import, produce and sell chang’aa—a trade that has been linked to violent sectarian gangs like the Mungiki, an extremist group that denounces Western values and embraces tribal dominance by way of warfare.
For single mothers like Opondi, brewing chang’aa in an oil drum behind her house is a way out of abject poverty. She was able to send all four of her children to school on moonshine money. Were it fully legal, Opondi says she’d earn more, since there’d be no need to bribe police, but as it stands, getting a permit is nearly impossible.
After a few rounds of the pungent brew, everyone in Mama’s chang’aa den is hammered; the men slump into their seats as the world outside the window fades. She nods approvingly and chugs another drink before pouring everyone another round—myself included.
“This is the only gold the poor man has,” says one of Opondi’s patrons. “Chang’aa here could make the people rich. But for now, all is does is make them drunk.”