Pearl of Africa: Waragi Alcoholism in Uganda

Kaliro is a small rural township in Eastern Uganda, about 150 kilometers from Kampala, Uganda’s capital. On any given day, men and women of all ages can be seen entering a particular homestead. Others can be seen staggering out. You would be forgiven to think there is a special occasion going on in there. Enter the homestead and you will find many more people. Men seated together in their own groups and women in their own groups too. Some are already lying on the floor, motionless. It is not a party, these people are here to drink waragi, a home-made illicit brew.

Alcoholism in Uganda: Cliché Anyone?

Excessive consumption of alcohol is harmful to your health. That is just another damn cliché here. Ugandans drink so much, that a report by the CNN claimed them to be the top drinkers in Africa and even eighth in the world. The World Health Organization, in its report, stated that Ugandans consume a shocking 23.7lts of alcohol per capita. The perfect definition of a country infected by alcoholism. Much of this “waragi” is locally brewed in uncontrolled distilleries. It is made from bananas and very cheap. With as little as $0.03 USD, you can get drunk.

The uncontrolled nature of these waragi distilleries poses great health hazards. The unhygienic environment in which it is prepared is the first red flag of many. Old rusty drums are used to boil and distill a frothy, thick, slimy and dark concoction in smoky soot coated shacks. You would be forgiven to think it’s a bitumen or tar manufacturing plant. The Enguli Act was passed in 1966 seeking to control distillation, but it is rarely enforced.

Waragi: Magical Methanol

The resulting product contains almost lethal levels of pure ethanol which can sometimes go up to as high as 40%. In April 2010, more than a hundred people died after consuming waragi laced with methanol. The distillers reportedly add methanol in order to make it ‘more powerful in knocking out consumers’.

Why would anyone leave their home and go drink themselves to death? Poverty. In 2016, the World Bank put Uganda’s rate of poverty at 19.7%. The Northern and Eastern parts were worse with 84% of the population classified as poor. Ugandans have had to endure a tyrannical regime spanning more than thirty years. President Yoweri Museveni, who came into power through a military coup in 1986, has destroyed more than he has built. First, as is characteristic of all one-man rule governments, corruption runs deep. Uganda is not any different. Numerous cases of corruption and nepotism are the order of the day in Museveni’s government. The effects are directly translated to the citizens, who bear the donkeys work with no reward.

Uganda: No Development

Uganda is an agriculturally rich country with a favorable climate for a variety of crops. A large portion of Lake Victoria, the source of River Nile, lies in Uganda. The country also has huge deposits of copper and other minerals. Despite these resources, Ugandans have largely remained poor. Under Museveni’s rule, the landlocked country has seen little development. The agricultural sector has no form of mechanization whatsoever. Farmers can therefore only practice subsistence farming.

Many graduates are produced yearly. Only 20% of these see actual employment. Rural-urban migration has also caused population pressure in urban areas due to inadequate housing. This has led to rapid sprawling of slums. The health sector is overly stretched, often due to inadequate infrastructure. This translates to high rates of infant mortality and also a prevalence of diseases such as HIV. The copper mining industry has long collapsed. Things were not made any easier by the extremist Lord’s Resistance Army operating in northern Uganda and headed by one Joseph Kony that kidnapped and terrorized Ugandans.

Is there Hope for Uganda?

This sorry state of affairs has pushed many Ugandans into a state of hopelessness. To drown their sorrows, many have now turned to waragi. Men are the heaviest consumers. Many spend their entire days drinking. Women have been left with the roles of providing for their families while their men lay around wasted or nursing hangovers. Notably, most of the waragi distilleries are owned by women with the workers also being women. Moreover, almost all income in slums or rural areas comes from the sale of waragi.

With many in Uganda hoping a change in governance will spell a better future, alcoholism remains a large hurdle. Immediate action should be taken or else a generation that thinks drinking all day is the way of life will arise. That is simply doom for social structures.

About Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer based in Kenya. He's also a professionally trained health officer and a great enthusiast of science and technology. Besides writing, he enjoys doing motivational speaking and possesses strong opinions on life. He's a lover of people and enjoys good company. He's also a devoted Christian, but respects the beliefs of others.

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