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Kenyan Officials: Alcohol Abuse Is National Catastrophe

A nurse takes notes at the Kenyatta National hospital after patients drank an illegal alcohol that killed seven people and caused 10 others to go blind, in Nairobi, Kenya, April 9, 2010.
NAIROBI, Kenya — The World Health Organization says about 2.5 million people die annually, and many more succumb to illness and injury, as a result of harmful alcohol use. The WHO also says that alcohol increasingly is affecting younger generations and drinkers in developing countries. Kenya is one such country that is experiencing these negative repercussions from alcohol abuse.

In a 2011 report, the Kenyan National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority, or NACADA, says alcohol and drug abuse are the major social problems in Kenya, with serious public health ramifications. And, the consumers are starting young. NACADA estimates that half of all alcohol and drug abusers in Kenya are between 10 and 19 years old.

Boniface Ndirangu runs two treatment centers in Nairobi and one in Mombasa. As a recovering addict himself, he knows how dire the situation is becoming in the country.

“The alcohol problem is catastrophic. It is a disaster. Especially in Central Province and the areas around Nairobi, the alcohol problem is really, really huge," said Ndirangu. "It’s been going on for 10 years now, generations are wasted, young men have become almost impotent, alcoholism, many issues of unemployment, disintegration of the cultural ways of living of the past, extreme capitalism. I think there are many reasons why this has happened, but it is catastrophic. Many people are drinking very cheap alcohol and that is dangerous for their health.”

Proliferation of alcohol

This cheap, home brew, called chang’aa - literally meaning “kill me quick” - often contains methanol, a toxic, non-drinking type of alcohol that can cause blindness and even death. Drinkers in poverty-stricken rural and slum areas are particularly vulnerable to its effects.

Kenyans also are drinking brand-name spirits and beer, though, in addition to traditional liquors and cheap manufactured alcohol.

No matter the type, when alcohol consumption is taken too far, the user’s family feels the effects. Neglect, misuse of funds and increased domestic violence are all too common results, said Mary Wainaina, a program coordinator at Eden Village rehabilitation center.

“It makes it easier. Because they’ll say, 'I was drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m sorry,' you know, all that. So it makes it easier for them,” said Wainaina.

Young adults at high risk

The NACADA strategic plan for 2009 to 2014 estimates that alcohol and drug abuse is highest among young Kenyan adults between the ages of 15 and 29.

As the director of treatment services at Eden Village, Tony Njeru says this is correct. He believes that the culture of drinking starts at the primary school level and continues to secondary and university, because of the pressure of exams and lack of other activities.

“People in schools are so focused on passing exams that they have actually missed out on so many other things that they can do, that can make their life rich in school," said Njeru. "If you ask a high school kid today whether he knows any art gallery in Nairobi, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. But he knows all the pubs, all the leading pubs, he can count for you, there are 20, 30, 40 different pubs in the city.”

But Ndirangu said that, even after finishing school, people still find that drinking provides an outlet for relieving stress or for celebrating success.

“The culture has become a drinking culture, really," he said. "People drink Friday to Sunday. There’s not many other activities other than cross-country, for the majority of the people, drinking is like part of their weekend.”

Acknowledging a problem

Bill Sinkele, the founder and director of Support for Addictions Prevention and Treatment in Africa (SAPTA) said that when binge drinkers cross the line into alcoholism, denial is the biggest inhibitor to getting help.

“It has nothing to do with African culture, it has everything to do with the disease," he said. "The disease is a form of denial. And, so very often, the very last person to get the message that they actually have the alcohol problem, you know, until they’re being fired, or the wife is leaving, or they’ve had an accident, the police have arrested them, is the alcoholic themselves.”

Because of the high cost of private in-patient rehabilitation, which can range from about $535 to $2,140 for a three-month program, the scarcity of public facilities and the social stigma attached to seeking help for an alcohol problem, Ndirangu said that a lot more needs to be done.

“Definitely, I don’t think our government or the infrastructure available, can even scratch the surface of the problem that we have. We are not doing even five percent of what is required to start addressing the problem,” he said.

Effective treatment

Peter is a 32-year-old recovering alcoholic, currently undergoing in-house rehabilitation. He said the high cost of his treatment pales in comparison to the cost of returning to his former lifestyle.

“Compared to what you will lose, without coming here, this is just a drop in the ocean, I would say. You’ve got so much to gain by being sober. We’ve lost so much, through drinking,” he said.

NACADA operates a free 24-hour hotline for Kenyans struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. The number for those calling within the country is 1192.