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The Battle to Stop Drink from Destroying Uganda

5 minute read
Ioannis Gatsiounis / Kampala

Tusingwire Patrick is slouched in a chair at the Victory Rehabilitation Center on the outskirts of Kampala, recalling his time as a maker of homemade banana gin. “I knew it could be dangerous, but I didn’t know it could kill so many people,” says the 34-year-old former primary school teacher.

Patrick is referring to the more than 100 people who have died in western Uganda since early April after ingesting a methanol-laced version of a homemade gin known as waragi. The popular drink, easy to make and cheap to buy, has been blamed for causing blindness and death before, but never so many in such a short span of time. Illegal production of hard liquor is a problem across much of Africa, but it may be worst in Uganda.

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Unregulated waragi accounts for nearly 80% of the liquor produced in the country, according to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), which oversees production of legal products in the country. It doesn’t help that the alcohol is inexpensive and that the penalties for producing or selling it are ineffective. A tall glass of homemade waragi — usually made from bananas or cassava, millet or sugarcane — goes for about 25 cents, one-sixth the cost of the leading regulated brand. Illegal production carries a fine of only about $1.50 and a jail term not to exceed six months, while offenders’ cases are often dropped before they reach a courtroom.

According to Terry Kahuma, executive director of UNBS, local politicians in Kabale, the main source of illegal alcohol production in the country, are reluctant to partner with law enforcement officials to crack down on rogue waragi producers. UNBS press officer Moses Sebunya agrees. “Fighting against alcohol is to fight against a lot of households and their livelihood,” he says, adding that alcohol handouts are sometimes used to buy votes and attract support at rallies. In other words, the issue is highly political.

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The nation’s problems with alcohol don’t end with illegal production. In its 2004 ranking of countries based on per capita alcohol consumption, the World Health Organization put Uganda top of its list with adults consuming 19.5 liters (5 gallons) a year, and some observers estimate the economic and social costs of alcohol in the country may be worse than those of HIV and malaria. Rural Ugandans have been known to sell clothes, furniture, even cars and property to support their alcohol habits. Drinking is widely accepted among both genders and most tribes. Patrick at the Victory rehab center recalls taking his first sip of waragi before he was ten — and almost no one batted an eye.

The drink is packaged in cheap sachets sometimes as small as 100 ml and costing as little as 10 cents, making them accessible to the destitute and children. Emanuel Katon Abawe, another outpatient at Victory Rehabilitation Center, recalls being initiated to alcohol through the sachets, which some students snuck into his secondary school to sell. “In Uganda it’s as if drinking has no restrictions,” he says.

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Which, in many ways, is true. Uganda still has no national alcohol policy nor an effective regulatory body, while the tax on domestically produced alcohol was lowered two years ago, boosting both production and consumption. Alcohol was the country’s sixth-highest revenue earner in 2008, accounting for 10% of national revenue, according to Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), one of the country’s leading voices against alcohol abuse. “Drinking has been made way too easy,” says Mutaawe Rogers, UYDEL’s Program Officer. “Business interests are winning out over national interests.”

The battle over regulation is largely being waged between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Trade, which has blocked the health ministry’s efforts to ban the manufacture of waragi sachets and to update the Enguli Act, which regulates the alcohol industry and has not been updated since 1964. The Health Ministry also tried to advance a new alcohol policy last year, which would have established an independent coordinating body to direct each sector related to alcohol on their responsibilities. But parliament has yet to touch it, says Dr. Sheila Ndyanabangi, principal medical officer for mental health and control of substance abuse in the Ministry of Health.

Zachary Bishangenda, manager of Four Star Beverages, one of nearly two dozen authorized waragi makers in Uganda, worries about the impact tougher laws will have on business. Four Star entered the beverage market at a cost of $100,000 four years ago, inspired partly by WHO’s report. “At that time it sounded like big business,” says Bishangenda. Since then, many new legal producers have sprouted up — UNBS estimates the number has jumped from 20 in 2005 to 65 currently — and Four Star and other producers fear that with tighter regulation, business will dry up.

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Ndyanabangi of the ministry of health says the key is balance. “We don’t want to kill business, we want entrepreneurs,” she says. “And any new policy or law can’t leave out the stakeholders. But there’s also an urgent need to build, enforce and follow regulations.” Victory patient Abawe concurs: “The drinker has no hand on his back letting him know there’s another way.”

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