Written by Brenda Kanani
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One of the illicit brew makers at Bukembe market at her distiller. [ PHOTOS | Brenda Kanani]
They live in constant fear and even as they speak to me, their wary eyes dart about, to unsure no danger is looming in the corner; the personified area policemen who are their biggest nightmare.
These women risk everything in doing what they do- their security, employment, their livelihood.
They are very aware of how society has branded them as vicious, conspiring women who destroy lives with the one commodity they deal in; yet each of them has a story to tell, of their everyday challenges, and the struggle to keep their families fed, clothed, and schooled.
These are the women who make and trade in local illicit brew, commonly known as “chang’aa” in the villages of Bukembe market, Bungoma South District, of Bungoma County.
The first woman I speak with is Rose,38. Rose has two children aged eighteen and sixteen.
The reason she started this business, she says, was the need to take care of her family and to be able to pay school fees for her children, as she separated from her husband when their first born child was only in nursery school.
Rose clarifys that she doesn’t like the job, but being her family’s breadwinner, she has to make ends meet. She says that she tried over the years to do manual work such as tilling people’s shambas, but the pay was barely enough to keep them going.
Rose buys the chang’aa from local brewers, and then sells it to her customers. She does not make the brew. I ask why and she says it is to save on time, and to avoid the hard work involved in making the brew.
She sells a cup of chang’aa at seventy shillings and save this so as to cater for her family’s needs she buys the brew at nine hundred shillings for a five-litre jerry can, and also pays rent of four hundred shillings every month for the rented house of business.
My next stop is at Winrose’s home. Winrose is also thirty eight years old and has six children, the eldest being twenty-three. She is a cheerful lady. Reflected in her eyes is the pain of a mother who has given everything for her children, but has only gotten disappointments so far.
Her eldest child is married and has a child. He dropped out of school in form two, not because of school fees, but because he refused to learn.
The second born a daughter, completed her high school education and then ran away from home.
Winrose still doesn’t know where she is. But this doesn’t deter her. She has other children to take care of, the youngest being in class one.
I ask about her husband and she says he is unemployed, only does manual work once in a while, leaving her to single-handedly support her family.
The last house I visit is Eunice’s. When I enter the kitchen, I find a pot boiling on the hearth. She is at work, and begins by saying that never in a million years did she think she would ever do this kind of work.
Eunice was orphaned at an early age but was raised in a Christian home by relatives.
She has five children of her own, and two orphans that she takes care of after the death of her brothers and sisters.
She began this business in 2007 after buying and selling maize for a while but only got a little profit. The first time she brewed the “chang’aa”, she borrowed her neighbor’s pot and sufurias, but was caught in the act by the police after betrayal by one of her neighbors’, she says.
In addition to paying fine, the pot and sufurias were confiscated. She had to pay her neighbor too.
This made her lose hope, but her mother-in-law encouraged her to keep brewing as she didn’t have any other means of survival. She gets support from a local chama that she’s a member.
The money she invests in her business is from the chama. Her husband is unemployed; the full responsibility of taking care of the family is hers only.
These are strong-willed independent women, who never dictated the course their lives have taken, who cannot compete in the professional world, but who choose to battle the tough economic times for their families in the only way they know “chang’aa” business.
Every day, they face the risk of developing chest complications from the heat and smoke they inhale in the kitchens.
They have to often hide from the area police to avoid arrest because when this happens, they pay fines of up to ten thousand shillings, an amount which they do not afford and are forced to borrow or sale property to raise it.
These women have to purchase a special kind of firewood (dried burnt sugarcane) and deal with customers who fail to honor their debts.
Given a chance, all of them say that they would never do what they do. These are mothers who care too deeply to ignore their families’ needs.
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