By Romanus Okoye
They go by many names. Paraga, shepe, kaikai, akpeteshi, ogogoro. Experts have issued warnings about the negative health implications of fake beverages, even as the government has placed a ban on its public sales and consumption. But locally-made alcoholic concoctions have continued to flourish in kiosks and bowls of young and old women, vending the drinks around Lagos and other cities.
A visit by the reporter to various bus stops in Lagos, including Mazamaza, Orile-Iganmu, Iyana
Ipaja, Okokomaiko, Agbado Ijaiye, Iyana Iba, revealed that such drinks are in high demand. You see a sea of heads, surrounding the women selling the concoctions. Its consumption cuts across all social strata, with both the young and the old besieging the shops and consuming several shots of the drinks.
They also come in different packages. Some are in bottles or sachets, while many are prepared and dispensed at the seller’s discretion. If not as malaria medicine, it could be for waist pain. Some are believed to cure haemorrhoids while some are plain aphrodisiacs. Many consumers also confessed that the real attraction for them is the high alcoholic contents of the concoctions.
One consumer, who gave his name as Gregory, told the reporter why he was a regular patron of the vendors of the cheap concoctions.
“Anytime I’m angry, if I want to make myself okay, then I come here. I’m cool and calm and ready to go after taking a few shots. Drinking helps me deal with my problems,” he said.
Another patron told the reporter: “Many people drink too much in order to forget their troubles, or drown their sorrows. As for me, it gives me a good time. It makes me high, happy and cool. It also keeps me warm when it’s cold out there.”
Another patron told the reporter: “I can’t have a drinking problem, because I drink beer and wine most times, not this hard liquor. I only drink it now because all my friends drink it too.”
But a young man in the joint at Mazamaza, who actually looked like a stranger in the environment, said unemployment and poverty were the main reasons people patronise the paraga joint.
The young woman in charge of the joint said she had been in the business for five years now, boasting that she had never been in short supply of customers.
“What we sell is cheaper, much cheaper than beer,” she noted. “A man with N100 can get drinks that will make him high. And sales are usually better in the early morning hours and late in the evenings,” she said.
Sometime ago, locally-brewed gin was banned, following the deaths of some men who collapsed and died after consuming locally-brewed alcoholic beverages in Rivers and Ondo states. The then Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr. Paul Orhii, had, in his reaction, told journalists that the incidents were associated with the consumption of locally made gin.
He said it had become imperative to warn the public to desist from the consumption of unregistered locally made spirits (ogogoro) and other unregistered bitters. He also warned that the government would confiscate all illegally brewed alcoholic beverages across the country.
A preliminary investigation by the National Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation (WHO) ruled out any infectious diseases as was rumoured then and confirmed the possibility of poisoning as the cause.
“The symptoms suffered by victims included vomiting, abdominal pain, blurred vision, headache, dizziness and loss of consciousness with subsequent sudden deaths,” NAFDAC had noted then.
The agency also informed that the deaths, from all indications, were a result of methanol poisoning. “The results of the laboratory investigation revealed methanol toxicity. Five samples were found to contain high concentration of methanol in them. Blood methanol concentration above 1500-2000mg/L will certainly lead to death in untreated patients,” he said.
Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol. It is closely related to ethanol, the type of alcohol normally found in beer, wine and spirits – but much more toxic. Medical experts explained that the potential for its presence in drinks made from home-distilled spirits is a serious health risk.
Investigation revealed that methanol is formed in very small amounts during fermentation; the process by which alcohol is made from plant products like grape juice or cereal grains.
“There are small amounts in wine and beer, but not enough to cause problems when these products are made at home,” says Leigh Schmidtke, a senior lecturer in wine microbiology and production at Charles Sturt University, Sydney, Australia.
“But home distillation to make spirits like gin or rum concentrates the levels of both ethanol and methanol. Commercially-made spirits are very safe because manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated from the ethanol. But home-brewed
systems are typically not so technically advanced, which makes separation more difficult. There are no really safe ways of differentiating methanol from ethanol at home,” Schmidtke said.
Also, Professor Paul Haber, the head of Drug and Alcohol Services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney said that methanol was converted in the body into formic acid, the same toxin that is found in the venom of ants.
“It’s the build-up of this in the blood that causes the devastating problems,” he said. “These include kidney failure, problems with your heart and circulation, liver damage, visual disturbances, such as blurred vision, tunnel vision, changes in colour perception and temporary or permanent blindness, nerve and brain damage.”
A senior pastor in Warri, Malcolm Oteri, once expressed dismay with the persistent potentially self-destructive habit of consuming the deadly ethanol-filled drink by locals.
“In spite of all the deaths caused by ogogoro, the warnings and the ban, some people don’t give a damn. I was at a traditional marriage somewhere and you need to see how they were gulping ogogoro like the latest brand of water. In fact, the ceremony was held up for sometime because of the delay in arrival of the man who went for the local gin. As soon as he arrived, people heaved sighs of relief.
“That was when the elders prayed. No one raised any objection, as the water-like liquor was served round. In fact, I was served. But my countenance told the young man serving that I must be a stranger. Anyway, the ceremony went on. But I pondered; can anyone stop ogogoro, especially among my people? I wish I could, knowing all the pains, sorrows and heartbreaks ogogoro has caused many families.
“But they will tell you that death would come somehow. Well, maybe one day, my prayers would be answered. And ogogoro will be no more.”