By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
One man called into a radio show to brag about it.
By morning he was dead.
When Esau Karimunda and his son, Enoch Karimunda, stopped to have a drink at a bar in Kikolegyi suburb in Kabale town on April 8 after the days work, nothing appeared unusual. Unknown to them, however, it was the last time they would drink together. Before morning, the son was dead. The father was rushed to Rugarama Hospital for treatment. He is alive today but totally blind.
Adulterated waragi, a locally brewed spirit, is suspected to have killed the son and blinded the father. Karimunda says they drank both crude and sachet waragi. He says he and his son felt terrible headache and general body weakness even before they reached home.
When I visited Karimunda’s homestead which is on a top of the hill about 10 km from Kabale town on April 21, a blanket of fog made it hard to see beyond the hill. The compound had two buildings, a mud and wattle iron-roofed four-roomed house and a papyrus thatched house adjacent. It was exactly two weeks since Karimunda, 60, and his son Enoch Karimunda, 32, drank waragi from a bar in Kikolegyi in Kabale Municipality before heading to their home in Kaburara Cell in Kitumba sub-county, Ndorwa West constituency.
Karimunda’s elder sister was seated outside. When my guide went into Karimunda’s house to announce our presence I notice that the ground where she sat was littered with beer bottle tops. Clearly someone had been drinking here recently. Fortunately, it was not waragi.
When he finally comes out of the house, Karimunda, is guided to a bench. As he blinks one might think he is able to see but that is no longer the case after he took the lethal waragi, suspected to have been contaminated with methanol, a highly poisonous chemical. He asks if we have brought him medicine.
I am not feeling any pain. Not even my head or the eyes are paining. I can hear people’s voices and recognise familiar ones but I cant see, says Karimunda. His eyes are red.
He says the doctor at Rugarama Hospital told him to report back to the hospital after seven days.
He asked to be discharged from hospital after the medical bills had accumulated to Shs45,000 which he says was not easily raised. I have sold most of my things to take care of myself and the family. Now with the loss of sight I m not sure of how my family and I will survive, he says.
He was a causal labourer in Kabale town; slashing people’s compounds. Strangely though, Karimunda finds it hard to believe it is waragi that killed his son and blinded him.
I have been drinking since I was 20 years old, he says.
Many people still refuse to accept that contaminated waragi kills. They all argue they have been drinking it for years without any harm. During a sensitisation radio programme on Voice of Kigezi fm, a caller identified as Dan Muhumuza called it abused the presenter and penalists. He said: Stop deceiving people that waragi kills, as I call you now I am emptying my second glass of waragi.
The following morning, it was announced on the same radio that he was dead. Postmortem results showed he died of alcohol poisoning.
At least 75 people in Kabale district had died reportedly after taking tainted waragi by April 21. The blindness is partial or complete depending how fast the case reported to hospital.Â Of the 17 cases that were admitted at Kabale Regional Refferal Hospital, five died, three ran away, nine were discharged but blind. Three of them were aged 18 and the others were in the age bracket of 33 to 71.
Dr Gilbert Mateeka, the hospital administrator at Rugarama, says methanol, the chemical in the laced waragi, is highly poisonous. He says once the person loses their sight, as in the case of Karimunda, their blindness is permanent.
Most deaths have been in Kabale Municipalityâ€™s South, North and Central divisions and the neighbouring subcounties of Kitumba (12 deaths), Bubale (11 deaths), Kyanamira, Rwamucucu (2 deaths), Kaharwe (11 deaths), Kamugaguzi, and Bugongi in the town itself, among others.
Most of these places are inhabited by low income earners and waragi is the cheapest alcoholic drink they can lay their hands on. But Kabale District Police Commander, SP Charles Ssebambulidde, says it is now killing even the well do persons in the area.
In the third week of April an elderly but middle class woman, Merab Nyakamire of Kamwigira Kirijime in south division succumbed to waragi after she stealthily packed it in a soda bottle and was drinking it from her bedroom.
At first the locals attributed to the deaths to witchcraft until a young woman who lost her husband said he and the others who had died had drunk waragi before they died, according to the residents The Independent interviewed. Kabale deputy RDC Shafiq Sekandi corroborated the information. Later those who were admitted were interrogated but would reluctantly admit to having taken a few sips of waragi. It is then that the district authorities stepped in to ban the sell, consumption, and transportation of waragi in Kabale. We are going to revoke the licenses of the local distillers as we ascertain the source of the problem, said Sekandi.
The most puzzling thing about these alcohol related deaths is that this time round, they are concentrated in Kabale town and its neighbouring areas yet the waragi is brought into Kabale from far away areas such as Kasese, Kabarole, Kagadi, Kamwnge, etc. Unlike the waragi-related deaths experienced in the country last September that were scattered across the country, this time round the deaths are being reported in Kabale district alone. This could imply that the contaminated waragi is within or made in Kabale. Four cases have been eported in kamwenge district but on April 22.
Most of the residents in Kabale that The Independent spoke to pointed fingers to some unscrupulous waragi dealers who reportedly mix methanol in the crude waragi they buy from genuine distillers. Their aim is to increase the quantity and concentration levels. They are reportedly pushed by the desire to make quick money and the emerging competition in the business which pushes them to desire to control the market.
The deputy RDC intimated that the authorities had raided the premises of one Amos Akankwasa in Kekubo Rutoma in Kabale Municipality where they found machines that he uses to duplicate various brands of waragi. Akankwasa was fronting his premises as factory for making pineapple juice which was later found to be food colour mixed in water and packed in sachets. Inside the house cartons of sachet waragi of brands like Empire Cane spirit, Signature waragi, Liberty, Coffee spirit, Soft waragi, and crude waragi in jerrycans were impounded. Akankwakasa escaped. We arrested his wife to assist us in investigation, Sekandi, who heads the taskforce on the waragi ban, said. Whereas Akankwasa’s case is seemingly counterfeiting, the authorities in Kabale say they cannot rule out the possibility of the area being the source of poisonous waragi. Three other people have been arrested but have denied any wrong doing. They are yet to appear in courts of law although one of them has escaped. Samples of waragi sent to the government chemist, according to Sekandi, were found to have seven times more methanol than the recommended proportions. Others had 220 times methanol more than the recommended one.
SP Ssebambulidde says the raw material stocks for making waragi ran out and people are resorting to chemically processed alcohol to meet the increased demand. He said they are also investigating all waragi brought into the area and that crude waragi which is locally distilled in such villages as Rwene and Rubaya. At this time it is hard to certainly say where poisonous waragi comes from. But we cant rule out anything. Why do we have deaths concentrated around in and villages around Kabale town? Why have we not heard deaths in areas like Kasese, Kabarole and Kampala where waragi comes? The problem could be in Kabale. We have banned local production of waragi, says Ssebambulidde.
Waragi is being sold in some places in Kabale despite the ban. In the evening at a bar near Essocorner in Kabale town, just a kilometer from the Kabale Police Station, a middle-aged man stands next to the tree with a 10 litre jerrycan full of waragi. He is selling only to customers well known to him. He disguises it in mineral water bottles.
The next evening I am in Bugongi in South Division. Here two-roomed bars are operating early in the evening. The sellers are wary of new faces and demand IDs or proof of residence. Outside the bar, they have a sentinel who alerts the bar owner of the presence of the authorities such as the police. Inside the bar, a crate of beer is prominently on display but inside the second room is where waragi is being put in beer bottles and served to the consumers.
On my second visit to this bar I learn that it is only the new comers who are allowed to sit in the first room and are served genuine beer. When I started asking questions about what could be the source of contaminated waragi, the drinkers wink to each other as signal not to say so much. Those who do not want to drink from the bars put their waragi in soda bottle and go to drink from home. Despite the deaths, waragi consumption still goes on. Even most bodaboda cyclists will tell you where you can buy the drink if you asked.
It is this stubborn attitude of the people that has to change if more waragi related deaths are to stop.