Chang'aa the cash crop in Soweto slum

Residents speak in low tones for fear of both rogue police officers and illicit brew cartels cartels

In Summary

• Battle lines are drawn between police officers and residents who brew and consume the cheap and potent illicit liquor. 

• It's said Baby Duncan Gethengi was shot as police confronted women brewers after pouring out their chang'aa.


Residents head to Soweto slum Kahawa West, Kasarani, on Tuesday September 10. It's known for high crime and bh. known for high levels of criminal activities even at broad day light in Kahawa West, Kasarani on Tuesday.
Residents head to Soweto slum Kahawa West, Kasarani, on Tuesday September 10. It's known for high crime and bh. known for high levels of criminal activities even at broad day light in Kahawa West, Kasarani on Tuesday.

Though little known, Soweto slum next to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison has been in the news because of the police killing of Baby Duncan Gethenji as they were confronting women chang'aa brewers.

An investigation by the Star reveals that battle lines have been drawn between police and residents in the lawless settlement in Kahawa West, Kasarani subcounty.

The high rate of lawbreaking in broad daylight is visible even to strangers visiting the small but populous settlement of mabati structures.


Residents who spoke to the Star painted a picture of a rotten society, with some calling it a man-eat-man society.

Residents do not fear only rogue police but also cartels in the illicit chang'aa trade who will do anything to anyone who obstructs their business. They are the slum's mafias and pay protection fees to some officers. Police commanders deny bribes are sought or taken.

Chang'aa, the poor man's drink, is considered the cash crop in Soweto, Mathare, Kibera and other slums in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya. It fuels the settlements.

The Star returned to the slum on Tuesday, two days after the two-year-old boy was shot dead on Sunday evening. Residents, especially youth, claim they are being targeted by police and said bodies are collected in several areas.

One observer claiming to be a witness said the child was killed by a stray bullet after police shot in the air to disperse angry women brewers, furious that their liquor had been destroyed in a raid. 

Two officers have been remanded at Kasarani police station for 14 days as DCI investigates.

Some residents said that police were doing their best to ensure law and order.


“We cannot blame the police, our society is rotten. Suppose the officers were not patrolling Soweto where chang’aa is the cash crop and robbery happens in broad daylight?” We support our officers,” said another.

Administration Police pour out chang''aab eing brewed.
CHANG'AA Administration Police pour out chang''aab eing brewed.
Image: FILE

Residents had a lot to say but in low tones for fear of being targeted not only by police officers but also the 'mafias'.

They claimed that there are only a few chang'aa cartels in Soweto, but the business has penetrated the entire slum.

The few distillers bribe police as a protection fee and to frustrate those who attempt to encroach on their territory.

An elderly man who said he had lived in Soweto for more than 40 years blamed the increased violence, numerous crimes and drug abuse on the cartels.

Lawlessness makes it hard to do legitimate business, he said.

He said there were also many cases of drugging drunkards, robbing them of their few valuables, phones and money.

“Strangers are not entertained here, even you can be robbed now in broad daylight. Men, women, youth are all idling with their grandparents the whole day drinking chang’aa and using drugs,” he said.

Prostitution and sexual violence are high. Girls in their teens and early 20s have children.

Though the circumstances of Baby Duncan's death are not clear, some residents said women argued with police who demanded a bribe and destroye the liquor when it wasn't paid.

Nairobi regional police commander Philip Ndolo rejected the bribe claims and said the officers were on official duty.

Despite the arrests and police raids, chang’aa remains a staple 'crop'. It's usually made with the leftovers from busaa made of fermented maize but sugar and water or molasses are added. It could also be distilled from sorghum.

There's more cooking and other ingredients are added to give chang'aa a 'kick'.

Some chang'aa is dangerous or lethal, made with contaminated water, battery acid, jet fuel or embalming fluid.

Responsible residents have called on Interior CS Fred Matiang’i to restore order in Soweto and its environs.

“Children don’t go to school. If they do, they drop out before even sitting KCPE due to drugs and alcohol. This has contributed to high crime rates," one woman said.

(Edited by V. Graham)