Kenya: As Business Thrives, Mombasa Declares War on Muguka

17 January 2020

Every day, five canters arrive at Kongowea, the biggest market in Mombasa, laden with miraa and muguka.

The herbs are sourced directly from Embu and Meru counties, the main cultivators of the crops in Kenya.

Makeshift structures at the market are the first stop for the mild stimulants that are chewed by the young and the old alike.

It is where the boxes are opened and some dispatched to other parts of the county to be sold mainly in sit-in kiosks.

HIGH EARNINGS

It is an early morning, the precise hour when fresh muguka and miraa arrive, when the Nation visits the bustling market.

Money is exchanging hands amid all the noise, and a confusing maze of umbrellas and stalls.

The sale of the stimulants thrives at the market, with muguka selling like hot cakes.

An estimated Sh500,0000 goes to the suppliers' pockets each day, traders and county officials told the Nation.

But that is about to change.

LEVY

The Mombasa County government is waging a war against the stimulants, that is threatening the trade.

Already, vehicles that transport muguka and miraa to Mombasa are required to part with Sh45,000, up from Sh14,000, at the Miritini barrier.

Traders are unhappy with the new fee contained in Finance Bill, 2019.

The sellers have protested against the decision, saying Governor Hassan Joho's administration is unfairly targeting them.

LONG BATTLE

The prevalence of muguka in Mombasa has been the subject of a long-standing debate pitting sellers against authorities.

In 2018, the traders suffered a blow after county askaris demolished their stalls near Tononoka grounds, which served as the county's biggest market for the product, forcing them to relocate.

The demolitions came a week after Mombasa ward representatives revisited a proposal to ban sale and consumption of the herb over addiction.

The county assembly, however, did not pass the ban.

MAIN CONCERN

The ward reps say their main concern is the widespread consumption of the leaves by the youth.

Its legality and cheap price, they say, makes it attractive to the youth, who believe it is safe for consumption.

The government also notes that stimulants are sold near schools, allowing students easy access.

"Muguka is being sold to school-going children so many residents want it to be banned, "said Mombasa County Health Committee Chairman Kibwana Swaleh.

NEGATIVE EFFECTS

Approximately 31.4 per cent of Mombasa residents chew muguka, according to a recent report by the county's health committee.

The report tabled in the assembly said increasing consumption has caused health and socio-economic effects among the youth, significantly threatening productivity and the county's Vision 2035.

Effects of chewing the leaves, according to the report, include lack of sleep, hyperactivity, anxiety, impaired memory, poor appetite, sexual dysfunction, teeth discoloration, constipation, increased heart rate, stigma and discrimination.

Majority of respondents in the survey by the committee said they had lost money and time, while some said they engaged in crime to raise cash to feed the addiction.

The study also revealed the biggest users of muguka are aged between 19 and 44 years, Kenya's most productive age bracket.

While most chew muguka while taking soft drinks and chewing gum, some use it together with marijuana, shisha, kuber, kukumanga, rohypnol, tambuu, largactil and cocktails of the substances.

NACADA'S VIEW

The National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) flagged the growing appetite for muguka in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

Nacada recommended a ban on the stimulant as its use has surpassed that of heroin and cocaine.

Parents in the coastal city have also complained about muguka use.

They say that while muguka is perceived to be harmless, its use triggers appetite for other drugs and leads to addiction.

MENTAL HEALTH

Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa, Organising Secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, notes the issues of addiction, unemployment and crime

Sheikh Khalifa further contests the idea that miraa and muguka do not affect the mental health of those who chew it for hours on.

"Muguka is a very big problem because with around Sh20, one gets a packet of the leaves. Everyone - men, women and children - walks around holding those packets," he said.

"Increase in cess will only lead to a hike in the retail price, which will lead more addicts to engage in theft and crime due to desperation to buy the drugs. The government should ban miraa and muguka. We consider them drugs."

POLITICS

Sheikh Khalifa said that while people have been agitating for the stimulant to be classified as an illicit drug, with countries such as the UK and Tanzania banning it, political reasons make the Kenyan government lenient when it comes to farming and consumption of the leaves.

Paradoxically, a ban would devastate another group of Kenyans who depend on the crops for a living.

Mr Zachary Nyaga, a miraa trader, says effects of climate change have taken a toll on crops throughout Kenya and that muguka, which is less vulnerable to erratic weather conditions, is his fall-back plan.

In Mombasa, he says, more than 2,000 people depend on the sale of miraa and muguka.

"We are making losses every day. The cess increase will really affect us. There is someone who needs to pay school fees and support a family. I cannot go back to maize or coffee farming," he said.

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Mr Nyaga believes it is hypocritical to condemn muguka while turning a blind eye on palm wine, bhang, alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

"They are many people who are using bhang and cocaine. What has the county of Mombasa, including the assembly, done to stop and eliminate those drugs?" he said.

"They have not sat at the county and said mnazi (palm wine) which is openly taken is spoiling people."

Many traders shrug off criticism of their work and say miraa no negative effects on health.

Yona, who was buying a bunch of muguka at Kongowea market when the Nation visited, agrees.

"It does not make men impotent. I am a pastor and I take it every day. Go to Meru and Embu counties and see the huge population there," he said.

'MIX-UP'

Mwenda Machoki, chairman of miraa traders in Mombasa, said the county has a problem differentiating between miraa and muguka.

"The county has categorised muguka with miraa. Locals want muguka banned. That is why the cess has been increased. Miraa traders do not sell it to children," he said.

"Our stalls are located in different sections. The two crops even come from different parts of the country. We are trying to get a court order to stop this."

Mombasa's Communication Director, Mr Richard Chacha, said muguka's fate is good as sealed due to its adverse effects.

"The increase in the cess is a deterrent measure. It may be reviewed in the next finance bill, which has to go through public participation. The reasons are obvious. They are drugs," said Mr Chacha.

OTHER COUNTIES

Mombasa is not the first devolved unit to push for the ban of the stimulant.

In 2018, the Kwale assembly unanimously passed a motion to ban the sale and consumption of muguka.

In Kilifi, women held demonstrations and petitioned the assembly to consider banning sale and consumption.

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