Kill Me Quick Moonshine

Brewing Changaa
Think bathtub gin is a thing of the past? Kuzimu, hakuna! (That’s “Hell, no!” in Swahili.)

In the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, nefarious crime groups trade in illicit liquor, with the occasional result that people go blind and die. Just last week, the Kenyan Alcoholic Beverages Association called for swift government action after 17 people died from illegal liquor, and scores more were blinded.

According to a May (subscription-only) article in the Economist via the Brookston Beer Bulletin, bootleggers in Kenya account for 60% of the trade in alcoholic beverages in the country, because beer is so heavily taxed it is only available to the super-rich. Nairobi’s most popular moonshine, Changaa or Chang’aa (which translates as “Kill Me Quick”) or Kumi Kumi (“ten-ten,” for its ten-shilling price), run the U.S. equivalent of 15 cents to a quarter per drink in a country where the per capita nominal GDP is $911.95, or about $2.50 per day; a beer in Nairobi runs about $1 to $1.25. (A GDP-equivalent price would have a beer costing $62.50 in the U.S.).

Brookston claims the high cost of a fine Kenyan lager is because of Kenyan beer taxes. An outraged article in the Kenyan Standard from June 17 of this year, in fact, suggests that the recent beer tax increase of 10 Kenyan Shillings (about 12 cents U.S.) — you guessed it — “is enough to force those with tight budgets to resort to drinking illicit brews with devastating consequences to their health.” An article from 2009 voices similar sentiments.

Brewing Changaa 2

Anyway, let’s talk Chang’aa; doesn’t it look delicious? According to this fine brew’s promotional Wikipedia page, Nairobi’s trade in Chang’aa is controlled by gangs like the Mungki, a strongly anti-Western secret society based around a Kikiyu-language revivalist mystery religion, often referred to as Kenya’s La Cosa Nostra or Yakuza. The distillers use jet fuel, battery acid and embalming fluid to give Chang’aa its unique piquant bouquet — and, more importantly, speed up the fermentation process. But if you thought you detected chocolate overtones and a cranberry finish, you might be imagining things; police raids have also reportedly netted Chang’aa stills stuffed with dead rats and women’s underwear (no word on whose they were).

In this month’s case, Kenyan ABA said the deaths and blindings were from methanol (the culprit in most moonshine deaths), which has a potentially lethal dose in humans of about 30 milliliters and can blind at a dose of 10 milliliters.

A search on Flickr also provides the this amazing photo, by a member of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School Journalism Club, of men in a bussa den; bussa is another Kenyan variety of moonshine, and St. Aloysius is a Jesuit High School for kids who have lost one or both parents to HIV.

Photos above from the Mwelu Foundation.

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