Illegal Chang’aa a Fact of Life
Volume 1, Issue 2 / January 2009
The illegal brewing and drinking of chang’aa in Kakuma is a daily reality. With tags like “poison brew” or “kill-me-quick,” chang’aa is an alcoholic brew that can cause death and blindness to its drinkers. Each evening, people strolling in the camp can expect to encounter loud and obnoxious drunks wandering paths and loitering in markets.
Madame “Belinda” is owner of a chang’aa brewery in Kakuma Refugee Camp. She observes that people drink chang’aa in order to keep themselves busy and to reduce the stress of life. Most people who drink chang’aa, she notes, are hopeless towards their lives.
She reports that chang’aa has many psychological effects and contributes to the spread of HIV/Aids. Chang’aa drinkers experience loss of control, and may engage in sexual relations unwillingly and without protection. A refugee doctor in Kakuma confirms that chang’aa has serious effects on human organs, including the eyes and lungs.
She says chang’aa also contributes to poverty because those who are afflicted do not take responsibility for their families. They spend the little money they get on chang’aa and accept suffering at home, while wasting their time in chang’aa places and forgetting their occupation.
Brewery owners are not immune to the negative effects of chang’aa. “Most of the time I cannot sleep because they [chang’aa customers] make noise the whole day and I’m busy dealing with customers. I can’t even eat unless [it’s] early morning or late night. We also work sexually with some of the customers, especially those who are having money, so that they can’t go anywhere else.”
Despite these negative consequences, Madame Belinda says she cannot stop selling chang’aa because she relies on it as a source of income.
The Kenyan Police in Kakuma have attempted to halt chang’aa brewing in Kakuma for many years without success. A senior police officer says “we use raids to try to arrest [brewery owners], warn them, and take them to court. We also destroy the materials of the owners.” But he adds that chang’aa is “like food for some people—so we can’t stop it, but we can control it.”
Asked why the police have not been successful in their efforts, Madame Belinda cites community pressure and corruption. “The police tried to arrest people drinking chang’aa and close our business, but all owners met and contributed money to corrupt the police because the business was likely to finish.”
One chang’aa drinker says that after drinking chang’aa, “I feel much comfortable, I don’t have stress, I keep myself busy and become more strong…I can’t be ashamed of what I look like, I can’t know any complex of life when I compare myself with others.”
When asked what he would do if he were prevented from drinking chang’aa, this man claims, “This can be a violation of human rights and oppression, because everyone is free or born free to do what he wants and enjoy life like others.”
While the “right” to drink chang’aa may seem compelling to some users, it is nonetheless illegal and persists as a troubling reality in Kakuma Camp and surroundings.