Ann Njeri Mathu walked a bumpy road as an alcoholic for many years and in the process wasted many precious opportunities. Today she walks with her head held high after conquering the monster that was part of her life – alcohol. She candidly shares her story of pain and triumph over alcoholism with FAITH MURIGU.

“Alcohol consumption is like a cancer if not taken in moderation. It has the power to ruin individuals and families and is no respecter of gender, race, socio-economic status, or academic achievements,” says Ann Njeri Mathu, a recovering alcoholic.

Looking at Ann, one cannot see the signs of the struggle and pain she has been through in her many years of alcohol abuse. At 49, she looks youthful, is charming and eloquent, and comes out as a very social person. She was born in Murang’a County in a family of four siblings. Her father, a functional alcoholic, worked in Murang’a town before being transferred to Thika Municipal Council in 1968, as a senior administration officer. Her mother was a devout Christian and primary school teacher.

A SIP OF ALCOHOL AT TEN

“My father doted on me due to my jovial and outgoing nature. He often took me to bars and restaurants in Thika town, which he frequented for his favourite drink. Thanks to him, I had my first encounter with alcohol when I was ten years old. He started offering me a sip of alcohol whenever I went to the bars with him and in my innocent mind I thought it was okay,” Ann explains how her long journey with alcohol abuse started.

Her father died in 1977 in a grisly road accident while driving to Murang’a under the influence of alcohol. By the time of his death, Ann was no longer sipping alcohol when she went to the bars with her father, but drinking it. His sudden death left her feeling empty, angry and hopeless, and she drank more alcohol to dissipate any lingering thoughts of him. At the time, she was a high school student at Ngandu Girls Secondary School in Nyeri. Together with her friends, most from affluent families, they would sneak alcohol and cigarettes to school.

Ann lost focus in her schoolwork due to her deviant behaviour and although she completed secondary school education in 1980, she had such low grades that her dream of joining university was thwarted. All the same, she enrolled at the Kenya Polytechnic in 1981 for a two-year diploma course in institutional management.

“I put up at the institution’s hostels in Upper Hill, Nairobi. Being a government-sponsored student at the college I got Ksh 500 monthly stipend, most of which I spent on alcohol. At the time a bottle of beer cost only three shillings,” explains Ann.

Ann had grown into a beautiful woman and she dreamt of one day winning a beauty contest. She contested for Miss Kenya beauty pageant in 1982 and scooped the first runners-up position. This great achievement came with money and exposure. She rubbed shoulders with prominent personalities and wined and dined in places she would never have imagined before. In the process she sank deeper into alcohol and since she was out celebrating her new status most of the time, she neglected her studies. In the end Ann never graduated.

She got a job at Moi Equator Girls Secondary School near Nanyuki town as a  cateress. Due to her sociable nature, she quickly made many friends at the nearby Laikipia Air Base who facilitated her to buy alcohol cheaply from the Armed Forces Canteen Organisation (AFCO). Her house was always overflowing with alcohol and she drunk as and when she wanted.

ON THE DOWNWARD PATH

“I got into a relationship and got pregnant. My daughter, Valerie, was born in 1983. Valerie’s father loved me and wanted me to stop drinking as he could see the harm it was doing to me. He selflessly cared for my daughter and I for two years while trying to get me stop drinking. On realising that he couldn’t help me, he left. His departure made me miserable and I drowned myself in more alcohol. I became careless to the point of allowing my daughter to sip alcohol when she was three. I became just like my dad. Fed up with life in Nanyuki without my boyfriend, I quit my job and relocated to Nairobi,” Ann explains.

“I got a job at the Panafric Hotel’s housekeeping department. By this time I was a true alcoholic and couldn’t function without a drink. I would disappear after payday for days and nights of drinking and would only return to work after the money ran out with fake reports from doctors showing I had been unwell. When the HR personnel realised my problem was alcohol related and that I was cheating, I was lucky not be sacked. Instead, I was transferred to Kericho Tea Hotel as an assistant housekeeper,” she narrates.

Ann was so deep into alcohol that she would even add vodka into her tea and coffee. She lived with a brother who was also into drinking, chewed miraa and smoked bhang. Ann knew that she and her brother needed help but they couldn’t help each other.

After the 1992 tribal clashes, she returned to Thika where she met a doctor in a bar she frequented in Thika town. They became intimately involved and eventually moved together. This doctor, also an alcoholic, fell sick and was diagnosed with pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma and was advised to stop drinking and smoking. He didn’t and eventually died.

Ann was not allowed to participate in his funeral arrangements as the man’s family didn’t approve of her and were opposed to the relationship right from the beginning. Her way of mourning her partner was indulging in more drinking and she also started abusing food, eventually suffering from anorexia. She didn’t have the energy to take care of herself, leave alone her children, who were now three in number, and her mother eventually took the children to live with her.

RELOCATING TO GERMANY

By 2004, Ann’s self-esteem and health was at its lowest point. She was in such a bad state that when her German friend, Cathy Wanjiku, visited Kenya, she was touched by her pathetic state and invited her to Germany with the hope that she could turn her life around. On arrival in Germany, Ann spent the first few days establishing alcohol outlets near where she lived. To make a living, she started working as a stand-up comedian telling Germans funny stories about Kenya, which they loved. All the money she earned went into alcohol.

Alcohol diminishes one’s ability to reason out things. When a 75-year-old German man who was a regular at her comedy shows expressed his desire to marry her, Ann jumped at the proposal seeing it as a lifetime opportunity. They travelled to Kenya and had a civil marriage at the attorney general’s chambers. Shortly after the wedding, her husband returned to Germany but suddenly died while there from complications of an existing intestinal cancer. Since they had not been married long enough for him to have changed his will; Ann did not inherit anything from him.

“My life came tumbling down after the death of my husband. I moved out of the four-bedroom apartment he had rented for me to a single-roomed house in Makongeni in Thika. The chang’aa dens in Makongeni became my home. I craved alcohol all the time. I lived for it. Any little money I got went into buying alcohol. I couldn’t keep up with rent payments and was kicked out into the cold. My mother got wind of my plight and came and paid my rent,” Ann recounts the depth her life sank to.

 A CRY FOR HELP

Ann’s wake-up call came when someone she was drinking with in one of the dens recognised her as a former beauty queen. Ann got very angry for being reminded where she had come from and hurled obscenities at him. However, when she went home that night, she thought about her life and how alcohol had ruined it. When she woke up the following day, she sought help from a church in Westlands but was not allowed in because she was drunk. She went back home determined to end her life. She took a drug overdose and was lucky to be found by her brother at the nick of time and taken to hospital.

It didn’t help when family members visited her in hospital and all they did was to reprimand her for ruining her life. Feeling rejected and unable to get out of alcohol, she tried to kill herself again when she left hospital. Her mother was depressed about her daughter’s condition and shared her fears with a friend who referred her to Nick Muguro, an addiction counsellor.

Nick promised to walk with Ann on the road to recovery. It was not an easy journey as she continued visiting the chang’aa dens and at one time almost died when she drank jet fuel thinking it was chang’aa. She was so sick that she had to be admitted in hospital for detoxification. Nick recommended Ann to go to Asumbi Rehabilitation Centre in Homa Bay and this is where her road to recovery started in September 2005. She went through an

Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme for three months. Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of persons who share their experiences, strengths and hopes for the purposes of overcoming their common problem of alcohol.

Ann was discharged in November 2005 ready to face the world without alcohol. She made peace with God, her mother and children and continued attending Karen Asumbi Centre for support from other recovering alcoholics and experts. In March 2006, she went for a three-month intensive training on addiction counselling and qualified as an addiction counsellor. She got a job with the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) where she worked until March 2010. Ann is a single mother of three children and currently works as a consultant at NACADA. She has been free of alcohol since 2005 and has authored a book, Sober Again, in which she talks about her struggles with and triumph over alcohol. The book is available in leading bookshops countrywide.