"Kill Me Quick": A History of Nubian Gin in Kibera*

Article excerpt

Distilled liquors were largely unknown in East Africa until their introduction by John Hanning Speke and Samuel Baker in the 1860s. These British explorers distilled alcohol based on banana and sweet potato on several occasions for the local kings, who were very impressed with the strong drink. One of the kings, Kamurasi of Bunyoro, even wanted one of Baker's Sudanese soldiers to stay behind to distill for him.1

The spread of distilled liquors in East Africa was closely associated with colonial rule, and particularly with the Nubi (Sudanese) soldiers of the colonial powers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the British and German East African armies relied heavily on the Nubi soldiers, and their "Nubian gin" spread with them across East Africa.

Demobilized Nubi soldiers and their families settled all over East Africa in socalled "Nubian settlements" that were established close to garrison towns and military barracks. This article will focus on one such settlement, Kibera, located adjacent to Nairobi, Kenya, and now one of the largest slums in Africa. Kibera's proximity to army barracks and a major town created a huge market for Nubian gin, which was exploited to a considerable extent: many Nubi women became involved in producing and selling Nubian' gin and the amounts of money they made allowed the Nubi community to live a very good life indeed.

Both Christine Obbo and Nicci Nelson have written extensively about how African women attempt to escape male control and gain economic independence and the options they have and strategies they use to achieve it, which often involved migrating to town and cutting ties with the family back home. Nairobi was a male-dominated town in its early days with few formal employment opportunities for women, who were expected to stay at home. Apart from prostitution and trade, the production of alcohol was a commonly used survival strategy because it required little in the way of capital or skills.2 Women involved in alcohol production in Nairobi's Mathare slums in the 1970s did very well financially. However, over the years they lost control over the business: by the 1990s men had taken over the manufacturing of alcohol and women were only marginally involved in retailing distilled alcohol, earning much less than before.3

The Nubi women were at a clear advantage, as they already lived in (near) town, and had easy access to a market for their product. In addition, their fathers or husbands did little to interfere with alcohol production (they too benefited from the profits), nor did they try to take over the business. As a result of their income, the Nubi women became the economic power in Kibera.

The huge influx of people of other ethnic groups into the settlement in the 1970s had a significant impact on the production of Nubian gin (by Nubi). Gin production had to be reduced due to lack of space and out of fear of exposing the illegal alcohol production to so many strangers; ultimately, gin production was stopped. But many Nubi women maintained their relatively strong economic position by switching to another source of income- the rental business. This process had started earlier in other parts of Nairobi, with women investing their own money, often earned through prostitution or alcohol, in houses and land. Luise White describes this process for women moving to Pumwani, the first legal African settlement in Nairobi, in the 1920s. Nelson and others have identified "housing and property" as "one of the most important financial goals of single women migrants' strategies for survival in Nairobi." House ownership was a good investment of their savings, and allowed women to earn a regular income and be completely independent in terms of receiving clients for sex or drinking. Moreover, "landlady" was a more respectable position.4

This paper tells the story of "the rise and fall of the Nubian gin" in Kibera, and shows how alcohol production in Kibera led to shifting gender relations and women's empowerment in a male-dominated society, resulting in Nubi women dominating the local economy. …