I come from a village called St. Mary’s in the rolling hills of Mùrang’a. We call it Thanda Maria. It is a place that I love dearly.
Thanda Maria is a place of beautiful hills, winding rivers and is known for many things. There is one particular area where we excel however; the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It has been an area of core competency for us for as long as I can remember.
Around here, there are gentlemen, and ladies, who know how to drink alcohol. If it was a competitive professional sport, we have Ninjas who would be competing in the major leagues. What Tiger woods can do with a golf club, a gentleman named Hungry Tiger can do with throat wetting fluids of the judgement impairing variety.
One of the thing that first strikes you when you first spend time around here is the number of intoxicated ninjas per square foot.
As far as the production of alcohol is concerned, we are very good at producing illicit alcohol contrary to the alcoholic drinks control act. Or at least we used to be until regular police beatings, rides in police land cruisers and lengthy custodial sentences made us reconsider.
The ultimate deterrent has been the Gathigiriri GoK Prison in the searing hot plains of Mwea. There are no oxen to pull ploughs in the rice paddies of Gathigiriri. They have prisoners for that. There you will offer your body to pull the ploughs of the prison industries of the Republic of Kenya through rice paddies in near fatal conditions for the duration of your sentence. Your consent will not be sought. Huko utakuwa funzo kwa wengine wenye tabia kama zako!
Many Ninjas have abandoned their brewing careers after a stint of Kùgucia aporo at Gathigiriri. Kùgucia aporo or “pulling the apollo” is the backbreaking exercise of dragging the ploughs named apollo through knee high mud in the rice paddies. You pull the plough with prison warders on top of it for ‘traction’. Government officials don’t touch mud when they are guarding convicted persons.
Illicit alcohol has been brewed in Thanda Maria for decades though. Scotland has whiskey, Russia has Vodka, the Caribbean has rum and we have Matinga. Matinga is our version of moonshine in the village. It is loved dearly and was consumed religiously in years past.
It is pretty easy to make. You just need warm water, a little sugar, yeast, sukari nguru and two to three working days. Do not let the benign sounding ingredients fool you; Matinga is highly potent. When the sukari nguru is replaced with molasses during the brewing process, matinga becomes a more potent and feared version of itself called múranjí. Mùranjí is considerably more potent and it will dispatch you to heaven very fast if you play games with it.
One of the many Ninjas in the village that knows how to drink is the Hungry Tiger. There are many funny characters around here and then there is the Hungry tiger. He is in a league of his own. The HT, as he calls himself, possesses one of the most arid pair of tonsils around Thanda Maria. He is by popular consensus, the third or fourth most competent throat irrigator here. He could be third or he could be fourth; it depends on who you ask really.
The HT is however, by unanimous consensus, the consumer of alcohol with the least regard for his own personal safety. His drink of choice is the feared Diamond Ice ready to drink vodka. It has a claimed alcohol concentration by volume of 8%, a highly disputed and polarizing figure. Many industry insiders, competent drunks and all round larynx hydration experts around the village maintain that any figure below 50% alcohol concentration by volume is grossly misleading.
The industry standard, and most feared throat wetter in Thanda Maria, is my former classmate Mbía. Mbía is the only individual known to down four 500ml bottles of Diamond Ice ready to drink vodka in a single sitting and not nearly die. The HT has made several attempts at swallowing four bottles often with near fatal results. If he cares about the attendant risks of alcohol poisoning, then he makes a very bad attempt at showing it.
There is another gentleman around our thicket by the name Jembe. He is the local pig slaughtering expert. He has killed swine for as long as I can remember and I have hired him many times to kill mine. Jembe had a budding Matinga brewing career in the mid to late nineties until the prison industries had him reconsider his career choices.
Jembe had one specific brush with law enforcement circa 1995 that is the stuff of folklore around here. This is his story.
Jembe once brewed a few jerrycans of matinga for commercial and entrepreneural purposes. He set aside an unadulterated jerrycan of potent itinga for his own private consumption. This was a two day vintage that had not been ‘baptized’ by adding more water for commercial purposes. It was customary to set aside some premium stuff in the spirit of rewarding the body that toils.
Two weeks prior to this, Jembe had been arrested by administration police officers for possession and sale of illicit alcohol. He had appeared before magistrate Aggrey Muchelule at the Mùrang’a Law courts where he entered a guilty plea. Since he was known to Muchelule, he was let off with a small fine.
On this particular day, and in line with the virtues of charity and philanthropy, he could not wet his tonsils alone. So he invited none other than the very loud Hungry Tiger to also enjoy the fruits of his labour. This was the first of a few mistakes that day that he would later regret.
At the time, Jembe doubled up as a caretaker for a certain stone walled rental house in the village. He would sell his matinga in the thicket near the said stone house. On this material day, the house happened to be vacant and he decided to enjoy a more relaxed drink in the comfort of a stone walled house away from the harsh elements. He was about that good life. Ndùngíethera riùa-íní na ùríre ríùaní. This was his second mistake.
So they drank to their hearts’ content and made merry. They poured out too many Njukus for themselves. A njuku was a used 500 gram kasuku cooking fat container that was used as a standard measure of matinga. The downing of an unregulated number of njukus was Jembe’s third mistake.
The Hungry Tiger is a very timid Ninja but in the presence of alcohol, all bets are off. When his throat becomes hydrated beyond a certain threshold, he starts to boast of his ‘’tigritude’’ at the top of his lungs. He also threatens anyone in the vicinity with untold physical violence. That is exactly what he did on this day.
This racket would later attract the attention of AP officers who were passing by. These officers were well acquainted with Jembe’s source of supplementary income. The APs came into the compound and knocked on the locked steel door.
Jembe begged the HT to stay quiet. The APs knocked violently. The APs threatened to break down the door. The HT told Jembe that the APs sounded like really good Ninjas that just wanted to talk. Jembe flatly refused to open the door. The HT panicked due to the continued threats from the AP officers. He expressed to Jembe his intent to open the door.
So Jembe decided to abandon ship. He quickly climbed onto a stool and hid in the ceiling via a trap door. Once in the ceiling, he crawled into an adjacent room.
The HT, now shaking in fear, buckled and opened the door for the officers. Once inside, the good officers issued the HT with a standard clobbering for the 5 minutes of their lives they spent knocking and would never get back.
They then instructed him to pick up two jerrycans full of matinga to be used as evidence against him in a court of law. He told them that he was just a guest and the merchandise did not belong to him. They beat him up again on general principle since there was no one else in the room. The officers of the law didn’t like lies.
Due to the clear and present threat of incarceration, the HT started singing like a canary. He shamelessly pointed to the ceiling and sold out Jembe. The officers then called out Jembe and he kept quiet. They cocked their guns loudly and started hitting the ceiling with the barrels of their standard issue, G3 rifles. When they threatened to discharge their firearms, Jembe came down faster than a fat kid on a see-saw.
A few minutes after this, I remember seeing Jembe being marched across the Kíharù stadium by the AP officers with two 20 litre mitungis in hand. We were playing there with a group of boys. He was taken to the nearby AP camp.
The very next day, Jembe appeared before magistrate Aggrey Muchelule. He pleaded guilty to all charges leveled against his person. Muchelule was now sick of seeing him there for the same offense. So he gave him míeri ítandatù kafu.
That is six months without the option of a fine if you don’t have a flair for the dramatic. He would serve his time at Mùrang’a GoK prison, a stone’s throw away from Thanda Maria.
A week later as my mother and I were preparing Chapatis in our outdoor kitchen, I saw Jembe again. It was a sunny Saturday mid-morning. I was at home because chapatis were an incredibly rare occurrence in any home around the village. My Gùka had offered his granary as storage for digging tools being used by prisoners to excavate trenches for a nearby government water project.
A group of prisoners, accompanied by armed prison guards, walked into our compound. This was before Moody Awori’s prison reforms and the now standard stripped uniform. There, dressed in very tattered, off-white prison uniform, was Jembe. His uniform had more holes per square foot than actual cloth. His shirt had no back and his buttocks were out in the open.
Jembe looked pretty emaciated. He looked like he had marasmus. It was not a pretty sight for a Ninja whose only offense was an intention to hydrate the palates of fellow villagers with unlicensed alcohol.
My mother clandestinely slipped him two chapatis out of pity but none saw the inside of his mouth. It was a Darwinian free-for-all with the other equally emaciated prisoners. They wrestled the chapatis out of his hands with reckless abandon. The whole incident was unnecessarily violent. I was there, I witnessed it all. You do not forget things like this on a day chapatis were made.
Of course we did not issue him with more chapatis to replace the ones’ he’d lost. Chapatis were worth their weight in gold. Despite being understanding of his plight, we had very strong feelings for our chapatis. We reasoned that it was survival for the fittest and Jembe just wasn’t fit enough. They collected their equipment and left.
It would also interest you to know that HT would later join Jembe there for an unrelated offense before his sentence lapsed. A case of poetic justice that I will share with you in time.
My friend Jembe did the time. His brewing career did not last long after that.