Alcohol Consumption And Kenyan Society – Bottled Heaven Or Canned Hell?

“Alcohol paralyses the senses, makes one lurch and vomit. Extinguishes the feeble glimmer of reason, which flickers in our poor minds. It soon overcomes the strongest man, and turns him into a raging beast who with empurpled face and bloodshot eyes, bellows forth oaths and threats against his surroundings and insults imaginary enemies. Never in any animal species, not among pigs, nor jackals, nor donkeys, is such ignominy to be found. The ugliest thing in creation is the drunkard, a repulsive being, the sight of whom makes one ashamed to belong to the same living species.” (Italics my emphasis).

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Charles Richet a Nobel laureate in physiology.

This statement bluntly sums up the mind set with which the majority of Kenyans regard alcoholics. Thus any suggestion that alcoholism is a disease is met with skepticism, or outright hostility.

As far as most of the clergy are concerned, it is a case of sin. Simple – black and white. The alcoholic is merely a sinner. So if only he would repent and forsake his evil ways all would be well. So on and on thunder many clerics with their “demon rum” sermons which are in turn lapped up by their congregations thus further alienating the alcoholic from themselves, God and even members of the alcoholics family who are part and parcel of that church.

Yet other clergymen are not sure exactly where an alcoholic stands in the scheme of things, whether it is a disease, madness or a vice and thus choose to ignore the problem hoping it will go away or resolve itself on its own. They resolutely keep quiet on the issue, stubbornly forgeting that alcoholism is like a pregnancy. It does not simply go away, but only gets bigger. Finally it reaches full term and out pops the consequence catching everyone unprepared.In this way the drug alcohol continues to cause chaos unchecked in the Kenyan society affecting all aspects of our life and causing misery to millions.

The consumption of alcohol is an issue that no Kenyan can afford to ignore, whether they do not drink it all or who drink only occasionally. This is because directly or indirectly this consumption affects nearly every Kenyan and at one point or another casts a pall over their lives.

Current figures available in Kenya show that one alcoholic affects to the core six Kenyans whereas if that alcoholic is a professional then that number is multiplied by 10 and thus shoots up dramatically to 60 Kenyans affected. Now throw into this equation the fact that out of the estimated 2 million alcoholics in Kenya 1 in 10, is a professional which thus gives us the mind-boggling 26 million total of Kenyan’s affected by alcoholics.

Man has used Pombe (beverage alcohol or ethyl alcohol also known as ethanol) for centuries and this drinking culture seems to persist mainly because people like the effects if causes. In fact drinking of alcohol is now such an established fact of Kenyan life that very few people realise that it is a drug and one which can and does cause great anguish.

Confusion and ambivalence towards its use arise from the fact that on one hand you ‘feel good’, and use it while socialising at happy functions like weddings, birthdays or after work or weekend recreation while on the other hand people get addicted and beat their wives, loose their jobs and kill others with their drunken driving.

Even the fact of getting completely drunk is seemingly quite acceptable nowadays and in fact is even seen as the reason for drinking in the first place thus showing that the majority of Kenyans still understand alcohol and its effects no better than people did centuries ago. Let us now look at some of these effects.


Some short-term effects on the body:

  • Accumulation of fat in the liver which is a warning sign of other diseases often associated with prolonged use of alcohol
  • Increased production of urine, due to the diuretic effect of alcohol on the pituitary gland
  • Temporary increase in heartbeat and blood pressure
  • Dilation of the bodies surface blood vessels leading to a loss of body heat, while producing a feeling of warmth
  • Experiencing the hangover, which is the temporary yet acute distress following excessive use of alcohol

Some long-term effects on the body:

  • Irritation and inflammation of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and pancreas
  • Alcoholic hepatitis (chronic inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis of the liver characterised by the shriveling and hardening of the liver and replacement of liver cells with scar tissue. Both these conditions can be fatal.
  • Alcohol addiction or alcoholism in which one becomes controlled by alcohol irregardless of the harmful physical, mental, social, economic, and spiritual effects.
  • Various forms of cancer which are associated with heavy alcohol use such as cancer of the large intestine, rectum and pancreas. Also cancer of the mouth, tongue, throat and esophagus occur.
  • Major malnutrition due to the alcoholics lack of proteins, vitamins and minerals and alcohol’s interference with normal food digestion and absorption
  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in women who drink during pregnancy. This can result in children born who are physically dependent on alcohol at birth and undergo withdrawal symptoms. These babies can also display a variety of birth defects and mental retardation which are collectively known as foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)

Effects of alcohol on the individuals life:

  • Risky behavior – getting drunk leads to a loss of inhibitions and judgement. Many decisions are made which later have dire consequences on ones life and can even in many instances be fatal. Getting drunk leads to fights, drunken driving and accidents or death, loss of jobs, wives/husbands. It can also lead to careless sex with resultant unplanned pregnancies (abortions with resultant health complications or death) STDs and the big one – HIV/AIDS!
  • Using alcohol as a crutch – where alcohol is drank to mask or hide problems and stresses of everyday living and this is especially dangerous in young people
  • Compromises ones standards and morals – an individual who was previously responsible and hard working, lies, steals and cheats. They become careless of their appearance and even the kind of people they socialise with or the kind of places they frequent.
  • Jail – Often they end up in jail for crimes or offenses committed while ‘under the influence’. These range from theft and rape to murder.
  • Mental Institution – Due to the effects of prolonged drinking many individuals end up with psychoses, which necessitate mental treatment.
  • Suicides – Alcohol consumption often leads to suicide due to the feelings of guilt, frustration, despair and confusion and aloneness experienced by alcoholics


The effects of alcohol consumption on the society can be divided into several categories namely:

Cost to Industry:

  • Most alcoholics work as they continue developing their alcoholism and hence continue to draw salaries. Yet many of these people are unable to work to full capacity yet they are drawing full salary.
  • Absenteeism from work which then has to be covered by another employee thus reducing their efficiency or results in additional payments for overtime.
  • Accidents at work causing missed deadlines, increased medical bills, cancelled contracts etc.
  • Cost of retraining additional manpower to replace alcoholics who die or are sacked resulting in more lost time, cost of interviews, more overtime payments etc.
  • Inefficiency by members of staff who have an alcoholic family member for a wife will not be able to concentrate on work while trying to figure out if her husband or son she has not seen for four days is alive or dead.
  • Friction between employees due to the alcoholics tardiness, or aggressiveness etc. lowers production all round

Cost to Economy:

  • Medical and health expenses of treating alcoholic’s ill health, or injuries resulting from accidents or treating those alcoholics have injured.
  • Loss of skilled manpower in the deaths occasioned by numerous accidents (fires, murders and other deaths by ‘misadventure’.)
  • Drunken driving. Many Kenyan drivers including those of public service vehicles (PSVs) including the notorious matatus (mini-bus taxis) drive while under the influence of alcohol with no real checks on this. Visitors have marveled how even when one stops to buy petrol and have his oil checked there is a bar at the filling station tempting one to literally ‘drink and drive’. The result is a constant stream of dead bodies and this has made drunk driving one of Kenya’s most socially accepted violent crime.
  • Violent crimes many of which both the victim and the aggressor were drinking
  • Lost man-hours as families of alcoholics take time off from work to look after or look for their family members who are alcoholic.


The effects on the other family members are probably the worst and most painful. These again can be divided into two namely the family as a whole and the children.

The family as a whole:

  • Unhappy marriages
  • Broken homes
  • Desertion
  • Divorce
  • Battered spouses
  • Poor finances
  • Deprived , displaced and abused children
  • Stress from constant fights
  • Illnesses brought on by the constant tension in the house

The children:

  • This has led to a whole new problem namely Children Of Alcoholics (COAs) and Adult Children Of Alcoholics (ACOAs) a problem, which is still hardly even recognised in Kenya but which, is waiting in the wings to explode.

    Many times COAs develop feelings and behaviours that help them cope with a situation where there is a drinking parent. Unfortunately many of these children then carry these behaviours into their adult lives. The problem then is that they contribute to maladaptive and problem-producing behaviours that interfere with effective living and their personal relationships with others. Many of these children if not treated, will develop alcohol use problems or end up marrying alcoholics themselves thus starting another vicious cycle of raising COA’s.

  • Children end up missing schooling and other opportunities as the money has been squandered on alcohol.

So what then is to be done? For this river of alcohol seems to be increasing not decreasing? Our culture even seems to be encouraging Kenyans to drink by promoting numerous drinking activities as well as enshrining alcohol use as a status symbol and even accepting intoxication as funny or sophisticated. More specifically what can the Church do?

First and most important, is to realise that alcoholism is not a sin but a disease. In his enlightening book ‘Alcoholism And You’ by Fr. Maurice Gelinas, he explains it thus.

“Alcoholism is NOT A SIN. A sin is something judged to be (a) wrong, done (b) freely and (c) knowingly, with all three conditions fulfilled together. If any one of these conditions is absent, there is no sin.

  1. Drinking in excess of what is socially acceptable or to the point of intoxication is objectively wrong. No argument.
  2. Drunkards (given to excessive use of alcohol: often drunk) are not necessarily alcoholic. Generally the drinking alcoholic is a drunkard. The basic difference between the two is a matter of control: the alcoholic has lost the ability to control his drinking of alcohol (the main characteristic of his disease), while the drunkard still has the ability. If no ability to control, then no freedom of choice.
  3. The alcoholic does not intend becoming one, no more than the syphilitic intends his disease. In both cases there could have been and often were, objectively sinful acts linked to the disease but the disease itself that is linked to those acts is not a sin.

Further proof that the alcoholic did not intend becoming one is his vehement and adamant denial that he is one, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, irrefutable to everyone but him, of his habitual alcoholic behavior and of the problems his drinking creates in one or other area of his life.”

From here a plan of action should be put together to fight the prejudice and ignorance surrounding this disease. The best way to do that is with education which means learning as much as you can about the disease.

Put together a team of interested persons which should include parents, youth and where possible recovering persons. Look for an alcoholic who has been in recovery for at least one year and ask them how your church can go about creating awareness.

Look at the attitude of your church members. If negative, this must be tackled. Learn about this disease by visiting rehabilitation centers, get literature, books, videos and above all discuss.

However slowly you start it is still a start. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) support group have a motto that goes “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.’ Alcoholics find Jesus in AA. They should be made to feel they can find him in a church. Do not look down from a morally superior position and be judgmental.

I have been to an awareness seminar where one of the presiding Reverends’ was openly derisive towards the recovering alcoholics who shared their stories’ with the massive turnout. This will only alienate the alcoholic and put him in a defensive position as he feels rejected and condemned.

In Alcoholism and Codependency by a former Pastor, a theologian and a recovering alcoholic Alexander De Jong, he explains how pastors, elders and other church leaders can be equipped to deal with alcoholism in their churches and beyond.

The qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are precisely those needed to handle the many problems one meets when confronting alcoholism. Timothy and Titus remind us that elders, pastors, and all servant-leaders in the church are to be “temperate, self-controlled, able to teach, not given to much wine themselves, gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a recent convert.” Attitudes born out of “not given to much wine” help one look objectively at personal decisions to drink or abstain. “Being able to reach” implies knowledge of alcoholism and its complex, confusing, and powerful character. To nature alcoholics and their families demands gentle sensitivity. Finally, the maturity that comes from “not being a recent convert” prepares one to wait for change patiently with perseverance and prayer.”

Thus through education and empowerment through knowledge will we alert those who have not started drinking of the dangers involved and help those who have been caught up by alcoholism and their families, that there is a way out. Show them that they should not continue to suffer needlessly.

It is through the churches active involvement that many a person like me who had previously been thought useless will be given their lives back, for as every recovering alcoholic knows, God does indeed love them. For to have made an unholy mess of ones life due to drink and then be told turn to a fresh page and start again is indeed a sign of love given to few other groups of human beings on this planet.

I see it everyday waking up fresh, knowing where I have slept, with a clear head ready to face the day. To see my children, and my wife begin to laugh again. To look into the sparkling eyes of a mother whose son or daughter I helped get into rehab and who many months later is out and getting their lives together and to hear that mother telling me ‘God bless you,’ is the greatest atonement I can ever make for the pain I caused. But that was yesterday. I don’t know about tomorrow, I only know for certain that I am sober today and that I had asked God as I do every morning to help me stay sober just for today. As I will as him everyday – one day at a time!

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening and God bless you all.