On a Saturday night, Oasis Mall is a buzz of activity with a sea of youngsters having the time of their lives.
The new cool thing on Saturday night for high school girls and boys is binge drinking as they dance to booming music from car boots. The drink of choice is an assortment of alcoholic drinks —drinks they shouldn’t be having at their age.
In the group of five, one of them explains how they get to the parking lot. Tobias, who requests that his surname be withheld for fear of repercussion from his guardian, says:
“We plan it all out. During the school term, we save our money, anticipating to catch up during the holidays. It is a good feeling to be around friends in a different environment and because night clubs charge a high fee for entrance we prefer to chill here, at the parking lot.”
Another boy, Eric, adds, “It is fresh out there and the beer is cheap. In a bar or club I will buy this beer between Shs3,000 and Shs6,000 yet here I can get it for as cheap as Shs2k (Shs2, 000). And we are having a blast (a good time) man.”
The entire group goes to a school in one of the suburbs of Kampala. They are all in Senior Three, placing their average age at about 16.
Yvonne the other girl in the group says that she is well aware that people think they are spoilt kids, which she argues otherwise. “Drinking is just part of socialising. We normally drink a little but not a lot to get crazy and do risky things,” she says.
Why this is common these days
However, what Yvonne might not understand is that when young people take alcohol when they are underage, it not only affects them but also reflects on their guardians and parents.
Stephen Langa, a counsellor with Family Life Network says, some parents today are busy chasing career lives and have not spared time to find out what takes place in their children’s lives.
“Plus, companies selling alcohol have promoted alcohol drinking among young people quite a lot. They have also packaged the alcohol in packages that are affordable to young people,” Langa adds.
Former under-age alcoholics for change
Martial Magirigi is the executive director of National Care Centre, an NGO that provides rehabilitation and treatment to individuals and families suffering from addictive illnesses.
He explains that many young people are driven into under-age drinking due to peer pressure and environmental factors like the fact that there is a lot of alcohol readily available in society.
“Plus when young people see adults drinking alcohol they also start drinking and there is no one to stop them. When we go back to our homes, we grow up seeing alcohol being brewed and produced. Sometimes parents give wine to children because it is seen as a ‘soft’ drink, which is wrong,” Magirigi, a former alcohol addict, explains.
He confesses to have taken his first sip of alcohol at the age of three in Kiyaga village, Bumbaire Sub-county Bushenyi District.
“My parents brewed tonto for a living. That sip started a long journey that cost me my childhood ambition of becoming a priest. When I left the seminary, I got a job with Kenya Transport Company in 1980 as a clerk manager in the Uganda office. I could afford to buy myself all manner of alcohol” he adds.
He argues that sometimes drinking alcohol is a generic, with children inheriting the habit from their parents. “I have gone to classes of primary school children and asked them if they have ever tasted alcohol and 40 per cent raised their hands,” he reveals.
Bill Kahirimbanyi Bekunda confesses to have been an alcoholic from a tender age and after suffering a great deal from consuming the intoxication, he chose to help other people who are still suffering.
He started Stop Underage Drinking Uganda, a community organisation, that provides “objective, independent, comprehensive and evidence-based information about alcohol as well as raise awareness and changes attitudes to responsible drinking, through practical tools and support, acting as a catalyst for behavioural and social change”.
He says, “I started this basically because I am a victim to the results of under-age drinking. There is scientific evidence to prove that underage drinking affects the brain and hinders required development.” Bekunda spent the first half of 2013 in Kabale where he had gone to close down a bar he had opened and operated since the World Cup of 2010. Today, he talks to teenagers at any opportunity he will get.
“The grown-ups I talk to about sharing with their children about alcoholism at an early age simply brush it off, some think I am over enthusiastic and zealous,” says Bekunda.
“I try to get people on board to organise talks at schools, with parents but the reception is not yet good. I also talk to alcoholic beverage sellers and suppliers and I am trying to involve the big players in the production and distribution processes to take part in addressing these problems and they always claim to have that area covered,” he further explains.
He argues that underage drinking is something people only take seriously when they are directly affected. “Most of the Retailers I have talked to have claimed they cannot easily identify children under 18 because of lack of identification and will be able to enforce when identity cards are available. And most of these are at highly reputable outlets,” he adds.
Dr Paul Semugoma of International Medical Centre explains that underage consumption of alcohol directly damages brains, causing epilepsy and convulsions, poor memory where one cannot concentrate on anything and mental confusion.
“When this sets in, they start behaving uncontrollably and violently, can easily fight or undress in public, which in turn puts them at the risk of injury. Some of them even die because they cannot distinguish between the safe and unsafe types of alcohol,” Dr Semugoma further explained.
A case of peer pressure
Bryan Mckenzie real name Bryan William Sabiiti, is a radio presenter at Radio City. He says he started drinking due to peer pressure. “I started really late. I started when I was 21 and that was because of social pressure really,” he explains.
He says he does not drink alcohol anymore. “I have never been a ‘drinker’, however most of my friends started as early as 16 and it was all because drinking beer or spirits seemed cool,” he says.
Sabiiti, a young parent himself adds, “The fact that the ‘below 18’ law is not really heavily effected makes it very easy for many of them (teenagers) to start it (drinking alcohol) early and it is very hard to quit. I also believe there is no clear identification of citizens so bars and clubs are open to all ages as long as you look ‘mature enough’, which is one of the main causes of under-age drinking.”
46% percentage of youth aged between 12 and 18 who take alcohol
18 % Percentage who were offered free alcohol by a brewery firm
39.6 % Percentage of youth who feel they need a drink for stability or to get rid of hangover
Source: A study conducted by Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL) among 1,134 individuals in selected slums in Kampala.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor