MURANGA DISTRICT, Kenya — Bar owner Paul Minua knows this much: Hell hath no fury like women scorned, neglected and abused by their drunken husbands.
Minua, 35, was tending his bar in this scenic region of central Kenya one recent Sunday when about 30 angry women carrying sticks and stones stormed in. They demanded that he stop selling the high-proof alcohol known to leave sons and husbands helpless, violent, even blind or dead.
The ringleader was Mary Watiri, a 43-year-old grandmother Minua had known since childhood. Despite his protests, Watiri and her comrades jumped behind the counter, grabbed bottles of the cheaply made moonshine and emptied them on the floor.
Others broke open a storeroom, where they found more cases of the liquor. Taking hundreds of the plastic bottles outside, the women emptied them of their dark brown contents one by one--to the cheers of a small crowd that had gathered.
"We have come to bury changaa," the women sang out in their native Kikuyu, using the local name for moonshine. "All we want is peace. Until sales of these brews are stopped, the sellers will never sleep."
"You could see the anger on their faces," Minua recalled. "I had to run for my life. They would have killed me."
Watiri and her neighbors in this coffee- and tea-growing region are part of a grass-roots movement sweeping Kenya and other African countries, from Uganda to Swaziland. Fed up with governments' refusal to take action against distillers of dangerous alcoholic concoctions, women from urban slums to rural villages are forming posses and shutting down bars and so-called drinking dens.
High-proof alcohol has proliferated in recent years as distillers, bar owners and makers of traditional brews have targeted poor people looking for a cheap high. One Kenyan company boasts that its assortment of alcoholic drinks--including a product it calls Vatican Special Wine--was created "with the hard-hit Kenyan in mind." Studies have shown that many rural villagers and slum dwellers in African countries have resorted to alcohol production in a desperate attempt to eke out a living.
When husbands virtually abandon their homes for strong drink, wives have to take over providing for their families.
In Kenya, the behavior of the female activists sometimes borders on mob justice. Even so, top lawmakers, the country's anti-drug czar and even the Roman Catholic Church have given the movement their blessing, calling it the only effective way to halt rampant alcoholism.
"These women should be saluted," said Joseph Kaguthi, whom President Daniel Arap Moi recently appointed to lead Kenya's anti-drug efforts. "I am not going to have sleepless nights because these women are pouring harmful liquor."
Catholic Bishop Peter Kihara, who oversees 31 parishes in Muranga, calls what the women are doing "the only way to stop the total destruction of this community."
"Changaa is turning men into zombies and wrecking families. The community needs these women to save it," Kihara said.
Unlike the women of the temperance movement in the U.S., the Kenyans are not railing against consumption of all alcohol. They are targeting mainly changaa--moonshine made largely from maize, sorghum or sugar cane. Government chemists say it is often laced with methanol, battery acid, embalming fluid and even industrial toilet cleaners.
"Some of these brewers add everything to boost their potency," said Henry Mokaya, a senior chemist with the Kenya Bureau of Standards. "Many of these brews have the kick of a mule, but they are poisonous."
Kenyan media frequently feature reports of people who died after drinking changaa. This month, seven people died after drinking a beverage they looted from an overturned vehicle in Mt. Kenya. Among them was a 15-year-old high school student.
Two years ago, about 150 people died and 500 others were hospitalized after drinking hooch sold in two slums of the capital, Nairobi. The beverage was known as kumi kumi, Swahili for "10-10," because a mug cost only 10 Kenyan shillings--a little more than a dime.
Many women woke up to find their husbands' corpses lying next to them, while some of the drinkers woke up to permanent darkness. They had gone blind because the kumi kumi contained methanol, which can destroy the optic nerves.
Watiri lives in the village of Wanjerere, on the slopes of the Aberdare Range. The year-round temperature averages about 50 degrees--cool enough to nurture the pear orchard in her front yard and perfect for growing tea, which Watiri and other villagers rely on for their livelihoods.
Until recently, the Muranga district was among the most prosperous in Kenya. Coffee from the region fetched among the highest prices at gourmet coffee shops around the world. But in the mid-1990s, Muranga and its 400,000 people were hit by plummeting coffee prices and a Kenyan government decision to halt subsidies to farmers.