Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Anyone care for another round of Chang'aa?

Instructions: Take water, molasses, and cornmeal; add to 5-liter bucket with lid. Secure lid and wait 36-40 hours. Then take your pick; either drink the liquid straight as a porridge or distill it to the point where the fumes from your drink will make the tin shack walls around you rust and crumble.

This is chang’aa, the moonshine of Kenya. Typically a beverage taken by village elders when sitting around and telling stories of the old days, chang’aa is also a very cheap and very potent beverage of choice for many fishermen on the beach.

We have never tried the stuff for fear of immediately going blind, but there are many people around here who drink it daily. There is no sense of savings or planning for the future in the beach community, so after a bountiful catch, the bars and hotels are full with men spending their recent earnings on chang’aa, until the money is all gone. Two days in a row on Rusinga Island we attempted to have a meeting with the Beach Management Unit (BMU); the integral government channel for access to the beach. Two days in a row we evidently interrupted the early morning chang’aa session, and encountered most of the BMU to be drunk.

We met with the Secretary of the BMU, to discuss the future plans for setting up an HIV/AIDS Subcommittee as part of their local government, so that future prevention and treatment efforts could reach the beach. While able to speak English, Chang’aa English was what the Secretary of the BMU was fluent in that day. A series of unintelligible slurred phrases came out, with “America,” “mzungu” (white man), and a little saying about he and his wife’s nightly activities--that isn’t fit for anyone to read--being the majority of the intelligible phrases. We were later told by this man that by merely educating people about HIV/AIDS at the beach level, “the program is going to fail, because you aren’t putting money in anyone’s pocket.” This is someone in a position of leadership in the beach community, and one of the few that speaks English. He could be greatly influencing the health of his community, yet his mind cares more for the chang’aa in his cup.

There seems to be more patience here for public drunkenness than there is in the States, but there is no tolerance for men drunk on chang’aa who harass the mzungus on the beach. We are watched over in the communities with a great deal of respect, and are either led through the maze of tin shacks or are consistently pointed in the right direction. When staggering men approach us with bloodshot eyes, we know its only a matter of time before they are thoroughly disposed of by one of their peers on the beach. The man in the photograph, above, got himself into two fights in one day by persistently approaching us, claiming in a mix of broken English and Swahili to be a long-lost friend.

Yet tomorrow, after another catch, he’ll probably have his glass raised high, asking for another round of chang’aa.


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