This is a guest post by Reece McMillan.
People do drink alcohol in Kenya but, more than alcohol, soccer is gospel, and everyone has their team. In fact, the only thing that trumps soccer in the eyes of Kenyans, is gospel itself. Kenya is, indeed, a religious nation, and it shows in the drinking culture. At times, you can actually struggle to find an eating establishment which hasn’t been ‘saved’, taking the decision of a dry night out of your hands.
That said, those that choose to drink definitely choose to drink. Drinkers can be roughly divided into two general categories: the poor and the rich. In the slums and the poorer area of the country a local – often lethal – homebrew is consumed. Despite being an unregulated concoction of ingredients that can even include battery acid, it is the drop of choice due to the low asking price and high alcohol content. Any occasion is excuse enough for a drink – grieving, depression or just the need for something to do – with some men starting just as soon as they are able to drag themselves from the couch in the morning. Within this setting, you are far less likely to see women drinking than men.
In more well-to-do areas, the drops of choice are beer (Tusker) and vodka. Again, consumers often drink to get drunk, but they tend to keep to more regular hours of drink: it’s reserved for after work and the weekend. Among the young expat community, the cost of living is low and wages are comparatively high. As a result, many an entrepreneur can be seen at the local watering holes of Nairobi, drinking their large earnings away.
Alcohol isn’t the only drug here; there’s also miraa (khat) - a plant which is chewed for its properties as a stimulant, and something which is subject to abuse in its own right.
Not Drinking in Kenya
The religious beliefs of most of the nation mean that alcohol is looked down on, so non-drinkers certainly aren’t viewed with distaste. Also, the large missionary presence in Kenya, means that locals don’t expect all foreigners to drink.
Get out there, tear up the dance floor, and take comfort in some of the more questionable dance styles around you
Economic factors also play a part: many living in Kenya don’t have a large disposable income, so most nights out you can see numerous tables of Kenyans sipping, or even sharing, bottles of soda, which sell for roughly half the price of alcoholic drinks.
Find yourself seated next to a committed drinker, however, and they will lay the pressure down hard, especially after they’ve had a few beers. But don’t stress too much about refusing: the chances are that their memory will be pretty foggy by morning.
Meat is a big deal in Kenya, and eating nyama choma (barbecued goat) is more an event in itself than a meal. While some at the table will opt for a beer or wine, the focus here is definitely on the food. Football is another passion, so if there’s a game on (English Premier League and Champions League being favourites), get yourself to anywhere that has a screen, and settle in with the energetic crowd.
Not drinking doesn’t mean you can’t go clubbing, and the more ‘local’ the establishment (i.e. the less upmarket), the more sober revellers you will find. You will always find loud music, and Africans love to dance, which becomes more and more evident as the night darkens. Get out there, tear up the dance floor, and take comfort in some of the more questionable dance styles around you. If you don’t feel like dancing, Kenyans are friendly people, so join a table and start a conversation with the locals, or just try your hand against the pool sharks.
You might want to avoid any late night strolls, however – given the lawlessness of some individuals, the streets of Kenya, especially larger areas like Nairobi and Mombasa, aren’t the safest. In fact, most markets will close at sundown, and after the restaurants quieten down, the only ‘safe’ excitement is found in the bars.
Chai, a milky tea containing significantly more sugar than tea leaves, is the day’s starter, though may be drunk throughout the day, too. Soda, meanwhile, is bigger than water, and is both cheap and unavoidable. Bars will always be stocked with water, soda, and some bottled juices.
Non-alcoholic beer is virtually unheard of, but ginger beer can be found from time to time. Your best chances for both of these these are in the larger supermarkets in larger cities. ‘Fancy’ drinks, alcoholic or not, are hard to find away from the coast, and tend to come at a premium.
No eyebrows will be raised by your choice of drink, unless it’s something ‘fancy’, but even then, this is more likely to be out of curiosity as to what the concoction actually is, rather than any alcohol-related judgement. But whatever you’re drinking, bear in mind that constant electricity is hard to come by and refrigeration can’t be guaranteed. So be prepared to receive a bottle at room-temperature rather than the refreshing baridi (cold) drink you were hoping for.
There’s plenty going on in Kenya for the non-drinker: the people here love their soda, soccer and booty-shaking. Just don’t forget to bring your sweet tooth.
Reece McMillan is a nomad who has settled in Nairobi, and has spent the last few months exploring the social behaviours of locals and expats alike. He definitely enjoys an ice cold beer, but doesn’t require it. Well Worn Soles is the speaker box for his experiences from the road.