Rebels Without A Pause

Meet some members of the drinking club with a running problem

I first heard about the hash about four years ago from one mouthy character in a pub, and assumed that it was his own invention. He portrayed the group as a pack of seemingly demented men and women who regularly jog through the neighbourhoods of Nairobi. About a year ago I learned that the hash was for real, and it wasn’t long before I got very interested in what was once described as the fastest-growing ‘club’ of the 1980s.

Alcoholics Synonymous

In Kenya we drink mostly to get drunk and over time this has evolved into a definitive drinking culture. Most Kenyan men imbibe routinely. Only three groups of men are exempted from drinking; Religious zealots, the sick and rehabilitated alcoholics. Any one else turning down a drink is treated with suspicion.

Drinking is a defining characteristic of the Kenyan male.It is not an evolutionary coincidence that just about every society in the world has a means to getting smashed. In fact, proponents of the grain-for-beer-hypothesis claim that beer preceded bread. The universal need for mild intoxication must be nature’s way of providing a brief respite from the hardship that is life.

For many in Kenya, the first beer is considered proof of manhood, a rite of passage in the absence of traditional rituals. Later in life alcohol becomes a symbolic vehicle for the ritual transition from work to play and for many simply a leisure activity. Beer is the social leveler and usually the only reason you can at times share the same table with your boss. The bar is at the centre of community life. There are only two measures of respect in the bar. An unlimited spending capacity and the ability to get drunk without being a nuisance to the still sober. Buying a round of drinks for friends or strangers is a common custom. The Kenyan male never forgets the man who bought him a drink in lean times. Nevertheless do not mistake this for generosity. The so called round is disguised as a gift but in reality, it is actually a loan. In time, you will be expected to reciprocate and anyone who fails to will be considered a mean bastard.

The free booze phenomenon offers interesting insight into our drinking culture. People are more tolerant to alcohol whenever payment is not required. Their capacity to imbibe increases tenfold as soon as the words, “Booze on the house” are mentioned. Surprisingly though, not every one can feed themselves, but just about anyone can get drunk no matter how low their station in life.

In Kenya when an unaccompanied woman accepts a drink from a stranger it is perceived as consent to courtship. Therefore women are advised not to accept drinks from men they do not fancy. Frustrated wives will tell you that boozed hubbies do not make great bed fellows.

The choice of beverage is also a significant indicator of social status. Nonetheless, what you drink is more of an expression of your aspirations than your actual position in the social ladder. Thus the Bailey’s sipping lady who thinks she is trendy and sophisticated is actually viewed as a struggling wannabe. Wine is normally a sign of refined taste but not when out of a carton with a picture of grapes on it. There exists a standing gender based classification of drinks. Female drinks can be distinguished from masculine ones because they are often sweeter, weaker and cost more per measure. On most occasions they are not even considered alcoholic. A story is told of a Kenyan male who knocked down a lamp post. When the cops asked the driver whether he was drunk, he replied, “Of course not! I only drunk Smirnoff Ice”.

Whilst traditionally drunken behavior during festive occasions was generally peaceful, agreeable and good natured, the newly adopted drinking cultures gave a rise to a different kind of drunkenness associated with aggression and anti social behavior. The cultural solutions that countered the potential dangers of excessive consumption of alcohol have been forgotten. The Kenyan drunk still lives by the mantra, “The car knows its way home”.

Indeed, Kenyans are ambivalent toward drinking. Drinkers are tolerated as long as they behave. Despite the well documented ill effects of alcohol a significant portion continues to profess a dying love for it comparable only to nicotine addiction. While the cigarette manufacturer pretty much tells you that you may die from smoking, the beer seller tells you, all will be well as long as you drink responsibly. It is a catch-22. Responsible drinking is achieved only after the experience of irresponsible drinking. The sober mind today is often yesterday’s drunk. Legislatively, a ban could be easily enforced as overzealous District Commissioners have done in the past but that would not stop people from drinking. The United States tried it once in their history and prohibition only ended up making Al Capone very rich. The church also attempted to throw in some stern warnings but it lost the moral argument awhile back when men of cloth succumbed hence the phrase, “Preaching water and drinking wine”.

Drinking for Kenyans is more than a moral issue. The norm has been to blame the victims for getting caught up in a destructive habit. The alcoholic is merely a victim in a game of proceeds. When you sell a product that is able to cause drunkenness, I would think the decent thing to do would be to inform the user of all the likely dangers associated with its excessive use. If moderation means one beer an hour, it should be stated clearly on the bottle. However, individual variations in, body weight and alcohol tolerance, as well as factors such as speed of consumption; renders that piece of advice disputable. Some fellows will get trashed on two beers while others will work their way through half a crate without so much as a twitch. Invariably it is the drinker’s task to deduce their capacity. Consequently alcohol abuse remains a potential risk.

In order to manage the problematic aspects of drinking and the promotion of a less draining drinking culture, Kenyans must remain informed. A good place to start would be more honest advertising. With profitability, comes responsibility.