Monthly Archives: February 2013

Age of Zinc is proud to present the ninth installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

For a Changaa manufacturer you will require an industry or physical space. Now for a single unit dweller like my mother this was tricky. Therefore it required innovation.

The brewing process started with fermenting molasses mixed with yeast and water and closed in a drum (a cylindrical container normally used to store chemicals or liquids measuring around 100 liters). The fermentation process takes not less than 7 days and produces a very distinct smell of alcohol.

This can easily attract attention. To get around the risk of being smelled out or the drum being seen a smart brewer like my mother had to bury the drum under my bed. This actually meant me getting the feel of a ready matured brew before anyone else. Anyway, after fermentation the result is a thick dark liquid. This is put into another drum ready for distillation. The distillation process could be done into two ways. One required a pipe that would bring out vapor that is cooled using water or a distillation process where the vapor cools off into an aluminum pot inside the drum.

The result is a clear and very strong alcohol. To test its alcoholic nature most of the customers would light it using a match box and its blue flame represented a clear alcohol substance. All the brewing activities took place very early in the morning between 3 am to 5 am not to attract attention from the neighbors nor the police patrolling the area.

I was trained how to brew and keep watch so as not have ourselves arrested. I remember I was caught several times while brewing but given my young age I could not be arrested. Cleverly, my mother recruited some of us in the family to be brewers. My younger sister would later pick up from this business soon after my mother’s retirement.

The most valuable lesson that I drew from my mother during her brewing days is that one can brew, sell and never drink the alcohol. She did this amazingly as a ‘Mukurino’ (this is a Christian-come-traditional spiritual religion that believes in prophesies). The religion is recognized for extremism, which at times forces its followers not to mix or eat from those they consider ‘unclean’ spiritually.

This brought out the contrast of who my mother was, as a believer and also as a hustler who required earthly money to keep us in school, fed and clothed. She confesses that she stopped her involvement with the alcohol business the day I completed my secondary education. Her resolve was that we, her children, would never fail to study due to lack of school fees – unless we failed to see the importance of studying.

To her, educating a child was worth committing crime. I am not convinced that brewing and selling alcohol constitutes a crime  when more than half the city’s population cannot afford legally brewed alcohol.

“All kinds of fights break out between the smaller houses, the shacks, and the larger houses.”
— Woody Guthrie

Age of Zinc is proud to present the eighth installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

How does a journey of a thousand miles begin? Perhaps the same way the journey of becoming alcoholic or drug user begins.

The story of my mother as a brewer who never drank alcohol, to many people who I have shared this story with, tells the story of the morality of survival. My mother was introduced into brewing by her stepsister, who had also shown her the way to get around city life.

Our first brew was called ‘busaa.’ It was a traditional brew mainly consumed by the people of Western Kenya. The brew was prepared using millet and yeast. The mixture of millet and water was fermented for couple of days to produce thick coarse paste. The paste was fried using a big metallic pan outside the house. The fried or, if you prefer, cooked matter would be put into a drum and mixed with water to ferment again for another couple of days to produce the alcohol.

Busaa is preferred hot and is considered to be a social drink.  Most customers drank and socialized in our house.  Due to its cumbersome nature my mother abandoned the busaa business and entered into the distillation of ‘Changaa’. Unlike busaa, Changaa is not associated with any customary brews. It is far more potent and is considered to be ‘more illegal’ than busaa.

And therefore it fetched more. With her experience and with ready customers my mother started brewing Changaa or the ‘African Gin’. It is as clear as ordinary gin.

Brewing Changaa was a different game to the busaa service. You had to have your wits around you.  In order to make it as a changaa brewer you first need to be well protected by law enforcers.

This requires the brewer to set aside some cash to off pay policemen, the administration police and sometimes the local area chief. Then the recipient of this bribe offered instructions as to how one should do to avoid being arrested or being caught with the alcohol.

“You’ve been caught driving against traffic. Report for psychiatric evaluation.”
— Monopoly board game, Lagos edition

Age of Zinc is proud to present the seventh installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

We had a skill and it could be used to make some money when we weren’t working in our own shambas.

We became unskilled labour in coffee plantations at the outskirts of the city.  When we started going to the plantations, my elder sisters had been working there for some time.  I was in class three at this time and I must have been less than ten years old.

I cannot recall whether it was voluntary or we were just taken along. Many children my age worked in the plantations. I recall  that at around 5 am, during school holidays, we would be picked up by a lorry and taken to some coffee estates not very far from Nairobi.

The lorry was usually full mainly with my age mates. All we were required to have was a 5-liter jerrican and an empty sack. The assignment was to pick coffee at great speed trying to get as much as possible.  The payment was based on the number of kilos picked.

Each adult person would be assigned a portion of the plantation and then a supervisor would manage several rows that were assigned to the pickers. At exactly 6 pm all the picking would stop and all pickers would take their filled sacks to the factory for weighing and paying.

The amounts paid were so low that many adult pickers had recruited children like us to help out.  So as hired-without-consent child coffee pickers we boarded the lorry to work alongside our now grown up sisters.

My memories of this experience reminds me of the chilly mornings when our fingers would go numb and of dreary days when we got rained on while picking coffee.

Yet there were some humorous moments. It was not unusual for some pickers to steal from each other and replace the emptied sacks with construction aggregate. Everyone one would have a good laugh at the weighing station.

To date in some of the coffee estates and plantation incidents of child labor are still reported, though most of the coffee establishments have continued to deny this claims.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
— Frederick Douglass

Age of Zinc is proud to present the sixth installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

Stemming from her rural roots, farming was important. My mother, with some of her peers, would identify lands that had not been developed, both public and private lands.  They would clear the land, cultivate it and grow foods like maize, beans and other legumes, vegetables, sweat potatoes, Irish potatoes.

Since the women did not own the lands, they had an amazing system where the size or the number of gardens, called shambas, was determined by one’s ability to maintain and sustain or manage them. My mother had four gardens in the city where she did her farming.  This was possible because we were a big family hence she had a larger labour force.  Two shambas belonged to private individuals and one was later taken and developed.

Through my mother’s farming zeal I must admit I was able to appreciate how the city of Nairobi was growing. It also allowed me to see how people behaved differently. For instance Buruburu estate, where one shamba was located, was considered to be among the most affluent areas in Nairobi. Whenever we were there we would see how different we were from other children of the city.

In fact it became very clear that economically and socially we were different from the children raised up in Buruburu.  It wasn’t even surprising that many of the residents in Buruburu never liked us coming close to their houses. So we found other routes to the shamba. Even when it rained we couldn’t shelter anywhere close to their houses. We felt that we were lower people than the Buruburu people. Whether it rained or shone we would walk and work on the shamba and this we did for many years.

I remember I stopped going to Buruburu after I joined secondary school for fear that some of my classmates might see me. As I matured from boyhood, I was getting a lot more exposed to life in the ghetto and I began to acquire an urban identity.  So activities like carrying a jembe (hoe) and walking, rather than boarding a matatu (Nairobi’s public transport minibuses) started to embarrass me.

I remember I shifted to work in the fourth shamba located within the Kariobangi Sewerage Plant, very close to our house. Here none of my classmates would ever see me. Using the treated sewerage wastewater we grew a lot of vegetables. My mother mainly sold the produce from this shamba in order to cater for household needs that had to be bought.

Farming was, and still is, in my system.

Owen: What is happening?
Yolland: I’m not sure. But I’m concerned about my part in it. It’s an eviction of sorts.

— Brian Friel