Before coronavirus led to the closure of bars, alcohol was a big part of Jackson Otieno’s life. He was a regular at bars in Nairobi's Westlands and Kilimani. His days and nights at the bar started on Thursday and ended on Sunday and the cycle resumed the next week.
“I used to go out every single weekend with my regular crew of friends and I would easily spend Sh12,000 a weekend,” he says.
“On Thursday evenings, we would usher in the weekend, up through Sunday where we’d normally meet in the afternoons to have our cars washed as we talked over a bottle of single-malt whisky.”
He works in healthcare and since the first coronavirus case was announced in Kenya on March 13, he tightened his social circle, limiting interactions with people.
“I stopped going out completely, and with the closure of bars, I don’t even host people in my home anymore. These days, I drive around to get out of the house, or I’ll visit my mom and elder brother,” says the 29-year-old.
But he has not stopped drinking, just that his taste and appetite for alcohol has changed.
Jackson says he has a new-found pastime: discovering and drinking new and vintage wines from the comfort of his couch.
Admittedly, Jackson says he does not drink hard liquor as much anymore.
“Wine is my new thing. I come home after work, and have a glass of wine or two with my dinner as I watch an NBA game and call it a night,” he says.
Part of the reason for shifting to wine is to limit consuming types of alcohol that suppress the immune system.
“Wine calories are less and I don’t wake up with a hangover,” he adds.
Covid-19 has forced many indoors and gifted a majority with time to rethink their lifestyles. Others have become alcoholics during the lockdown and some have cut down consumption after realising that alcohol played a big part in their lives, and they had developed a toxic relationship with it.
Over the years, millennials have driven up consumption of alcohol in Kenya. The future of beer and whisky consumption was pegged on young adventurous drinkers, prompting brewers to introduce new flavours and bars to up their game to lure big spenders to the flourishing nightlife scene.
But Covid-19 shut down nightlife and bar owners have been left with unsold alcohol after President Uhuru Kenyatta linked the “aggressive surge” of infections among young Kenyans to socialising, “particularly in environments serving alcohol.”
So will normalcy return when the ban on alcohol sale is lifted especially among Kenyans who have realised the savings they can make from not drinking so often and that they can act responsibly by engaging in other distractions such as caring for their pets or learning how to play an instrument? Jackson says he is not in a rush to go back.
“Based on what I understand about coronavirus and how it spreads, I won’t put myself or my loved ones at risk just for a drink even if the ban is lifted,” he says.
End of social life
For Andrew Kimani, drinking in Nairobi’s pubs gave him a social life.
Having lived in the US for 18 years, Andrew packed his bags to return to Kenya in 2019. With practically no social life, Andrew began to frequent establishments in Nairobi to make new friends.
The full-stack software developer attributes bar-hopping to his increased social capital, and it even landed him a job at a multinational company.
However, these days his social life has come to a screeching halt.
“When Covid-19 happened, I felt like it was a setback as I had just gotten a social life in Nairobi. I was still meeting with pals and colleagues, albeit in compliance with social distance measures, but then the alcohol ban happened, that completely threw a curveball at my social life,” he says.
The self-proclaimed ‘Guinness guy’ went from easily spending Sh4,500 in a week on alcohol to Sh3,700 in the past three weeks.
“I bought a crate of Guinness from a wholesale distributor and kept it at home, and that crate has lasted me an entire three weeks,” he says.
To make drinking solo and at home fun, Andrew went as far as creating the bar vibes in his apartment by purchasing a sleek, gold bar cart and all the necessities; glassware, artisan mixers, and mints.
Besides spending less money on alcohol, Andrew has picked up an old pastime.
“I had stopped running months ago since my knees hurt, but I’ve picked it up again,” he says.
“I’ve lost some of the weight that I packed on at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Will the changing drinking habits affect bar business in future?
Kevin Kamau, a founder of Bar in the Bush, a mobile bar company, seems optimistic of Kenyans’ relationship with alcohol, even after the pandemic and relaxation of restrictions.
“Alcohol goes in tandem with celebrations, big or small. Weddings, birthdays, concerts retirements, celebrations of life and death,” says Kevin, adding, “Drinking is a common custom and when done safely and in moderation, it's a wonderful thing.”