The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Why Illicit Brew Trade Is Flourishing

MANY STORIES of police seizing illicit brews and arresting suspected dealers or consumers are commonly published and aired by several media houses in the country.

Late last month, Police in Gisagara district arrested 12 suspects and seized about 2,000 litres of the locally brewed Nyirantare beer.

In September last year, 29 individuals suspected of dealing and consuming drugs and other illicit beverages wBut, despite efforts to fight the vice, alcohol abuse remains one of the major challenges to the country's development.

In the Southern Province, manufacture, trade and consumption of banned beverages has caused frustration among local leaders and security organs, who have relentlessly but vainly struggled to put an end to the business.

According to grassroots leaders, the most common illicit brews in the province include the locally - produced and notorious Nyirantare, Igikwangari and Muriture, among others -names which allude to their negative effects on health of consumers.

The names of the brews differ from one village to another, but the production process is almost the same for all the drinks. According to residents and leaders, the brews are produced using several ingredients, including water, sugar, sorghum and yeast, but some sources allege that brewers use other crude materials, like bricks - mainly as colouring agents.

Kanyanga, another banned liquor, has also been found in some parts of the province.

But, despite long-term efforts to end the sale and consumption of the illegal brews -including impounding the narcotics and arresting key drug barons-, the trade remains rife is some parts of the province.

Being the major cause of physical assault, drug consumption ranks among the major causes of crime in the province, according to Police sources.

"Lucrative business"

Though The New Times could not readily establish official figures of those who have been arrested for making or selling the banned beverages over the past months, the extent of the vice in the province can be analysed through media reports.

For instance, late last month, Police in Gisagara district arrested 12 suspects and seized about 2,000 litres of the locally brewed Nyirantare beer.

In September, last year, 29 individuals suspected of dealing in and consuming drugs and other illicit beverages were arrested in Matyazo and Kaburemera areas, on the outskirts of Huye town, Huye district. And, in May, over 1,000 litres of illegal liquors had been confiscated in Cyarwa area of the same district and 18 suspects arrested.

So many other suspects had been arrested and thousands of litres of the banned liquors have been seized in regular police crackdowns on suspected drug dens across the province, at least for the last 12 months.

However, one question remains: why does the manufacture and sale of illicit brews remain rampant despite the numerous strategies to stamp it out?

According to the Provincial Governor Alphonse Munyantwari, the sale of the liquors is a lucrative business which generates a lot of revenue for people dealing in it.

"A lot of people, who do not understand the health risks of consuming the liquors, keep taking them and that brings a lot of money to the sellers," Munyantwari says.

"Even the production [of such brews] is cheap and takes less time to produce than the traditional banana beer (urwagwa)."

However, various other reasons might as well be contributing to the persistence of the illegal business. According to sources, the cost of a bottle of such liquors is far cheaper to buy than of ordinary banana wine.

Residents say a 72cl bottle of the banned liquors goes for less than Rwf200 which is far cheaper than the traditional and well-packaged banana beer, which goes for Rwf300 for a bottle of about 33cl.

"If I had the means, I would drink wines like the rich. But, in my capacity, I can only afford this [beer]", a cyclists found drinking in a bar in the rural part of Tumba sector, Huye district, told The New Times.

But, other sources have also pointed an accusing finger at some local leaders whom they accuse of complicity in the make, sale and consumption of the illegal brews.

Governor Munyantwari confirms he has been receiving such reports.

"Not many leaders are involved in the trade," he emphasises. "We have been looking into the reports and any leader who might be involved in the trade or just covering up the dealers will be dealt with accordingly," Munyantwari warns.

According to the Governor, the sensitisation of residents on the negative effects of such beers and the involvement of local leaders will help to stamp-out drug abuse.

"We are also encouraging the setting up of macro-factories which will manufacture standard but affordable beer for our residents," Munyantwari says, noting that they are studying modalities to set up a sorghum beer factory in the province.

Inside a bar

It is almost impossible for someone to acknowledge his role in the make or sale of the illegal brews as they are aware that it might possibly land them into custody.

Obviously, those involved in the business prefer to remain under cover, and sources allege that those selling the gins often keep a small portion of the traditional banana beer which they use to disguise just in case a suspected leader or security agent unexpectedly appears.

But, on a sunny day, I undertook a long journey with the hope that I would finally meet with a possible manufacturer or seller of the banned liquors.

I had earlier received reports from a resident in one of the suburbs of Huye district that a bar in his locality regularly sells the illegal beverages. I arrived in the area around 10.30am and met with a man who, had apparently, been working in his garden. We discussed the possible manufacture and trade of the illegal liquors in the area, and he confirmed that indeed 'some individuals' were making and selling them.

But, he made it clear he would not give me any indication of who makes the brews and where they are sold 'for fear of reprisal'.

Another informant showed me a bar he said was engaged in the illegal trade. But he warned me it was very risky and dangerous for a stranger to visit the place and told me that if I am taken for a police officer or a spy, I would regret it.

Shortly before 11:30am, I entered the half full bar with people sipping away on shared bottles, in groups of more than four.

I approached the first group of four young men who sat on a bench outside the bar.

I realised I was not welcome, but decided to join them anyway.

We discussed a range of topics-from their occupations to drug abuse among the youth and the making and consumption of illegal brews in the area.

As I expected, none of them was eager to talk about the Nyirantare and the likes - they all kept bringing back stories of the poor conditions they live in.

When I insisted, one of them, a 26-year-old man, told me they have no other choice rather than consuming the locally-produced brews "because of poverty".

But he declined to tell me whether what they were drinking was a common banana beer or just the illegal liquors.

The bar attendant categorically denied he was dealing in illegal liquors.

"Instead we assist leaders in identifying any person suspected of dealing in the [illicit] brews," the man claimed.

He later showed me a half-filled plastic vessel containing the beer he was selling and told me it contained about 15 bottles. The liquor's colour was something like khaki with a thick head of sorghum froth. He insisted it was a cocktail of banana and sorghum but refused to sell me any.

As I left the bar about an hour after, one question remained unanswered. Was the man in the bar selling one of the banned liquors or it was just the ordinary banana beer with a strange colour?

I am still wondering.

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