Accessibility links

Kenyan President Cracks Down on Bootleggers After Tainted Brew Kills 51

The toll in Kenya keeps rising with 51 dead and nearly 160 people hospitalized, many of them still in serious condition, after drinking a tainted batch of homemade liquor.

People are still filtering in to the Machakos hospital, where the wards are already crowded with patients and their families. Most of those coming to the hospital are complaining of dizziness, stomach problems, loss of vision. Some have cuts and bruises on their heads from passing out after drinking what Kenyan authorities say was a homemade brew laced with methanol.

As of Tuesday, 51 Kenyans have died and 19 others are in critical condition. Of those, 12 have lost their eyesight.

Kenyan investigators suspect the brew, made from sugar, contained a high concentration of methanol, to strengthen it. A few tablespoons of pure methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can be fatal.

Kenya's health minister has called the alcohol poisoning a "national tragedy," and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has ordered a crack down on bootleggers across the country.

Doctors and nurses in Machakos are working double shifts to keep up with the surge of patients.

Simon Mueke is the superintendent of the Machakos General Hospital.

"Some of them are coming already fallen down and injured and bleeding and [we are] arresting the bleeding… And those who are very sick we are resuscitating them. And of course we lost a number of them because of the effects of methanol, which are very permanent," Mr. Mueke pointed out.

Many of the victims said the brew, known as "changaa" or "kumi kumi," was brought in by a woman from Naivasha, just an hour's drive from Nairobi.

John Kinyungo, 45, a farmer from Machakos, lost his eyesight two days ago after drinking kumi kumi.

He says his blindness is a punishment for his drinking, but he prays that God will one day restore his vision.

Mr. Mueke says John's chances of ever getting his eyesight back are remote.

From his bed in the eye ward of the crowded Machakos hospital, John fights back tears as his daughter, Georgina, age 23, looks on, worried.

It's almost odd how eyes that can no longer see are still capable of tears.

“I am the loser when I go out using that thing…” he said.

When asked by his daughter if he will quit drinking he added, “Yes, it will be there [Yes, I will stop].”

Georgina came down from Nairobi to be with her father. She saves her anger for the woman who sold him the methanol-laced brew.

"I think I'm very angry. The person who gave them the drink, she knew. She knew what was happening," said Georgina.

The tragedy sparked outrage across Kenya. In a town about 100 kilometers northeast of Nairobi, an Anglican pastor led his church-goers in ransacking five houses allegedly used for making illicit liquor. They destroyed about 2,000 liters of it and dismantled the distilleries.

It's not the first time deadly brew has led to mass deaths in Kenya. In 2000, toxic liquor killed 138 people, sparking calls for the government to crack down on the thousands of bootleg liquor distilleries. But that effort seems to have lost steam.

Across East Africa, cheap bootleg brews are popular in poor neighborhoods where unemployment is rampant, sometimes higher than 70 percent. Often, women are able to earn extra money by brewing the illicit liquors, enabling them to pay for school fees and clothes for their children.

In Kenya, the laws against brews like changaa and kumi kumi are rarely enforced, despite occasional outcries by religious groups that say the liquor destroys lives and increases domestic violence.

Sister Ruth Mwania, a nurse at the Machakos hospital, watched three patients die in her ward, the eye ward, over the weekend. There was nothing she or her staff could do. The effect of the methanol-laced brew was irreversible.

Now, she concentrates on the living. The patients went blind after drinking the kumi kumi. But, she says, at least they walked away with their lives.

“They are very lucky because even if they don't see, they are not going to die. And they can go back to their homes. Yes, they are very lucky,” she said.

Kenyan police are expected to inspect the bodies of the dead today. Afterwards, their families can claim them and prepare them for funerals, which Kenya's health minister wants the government to pay for.