Alcohol is strictly not for sale to persons under 18. All alcoholic drinks come with this warning.
But despite this warning, the rate at which minors are consuming alcohol is alarming. And it’s not that they are consuming it in hiding. In most bars, alcohol is served to these minors without a question being asked.
I visited several bars to establish the magnitude of this problem. My initial background check showed that most of the minors drink during the day when their parents are at work. Bars that sell alcohol to them are also more interested in money than identifying if the customers are of legal drinking age.
At around 8pm last Friday, my first stop was Le Mole bar near Hopital Croix Du Sud (KwaNyirikwaya). I sat in a corner as I waited for my colleague, a 16-year-old Paul. My worry was that he would not be let in. He showed up dressed in nice fitting trousers, a long sleeved shirt and moccasins in company of other minors. But at the entrance they were not asked anything, despite the obvious physical appearance that these were minors.
Paul came with friends who are around the same age; he sat with me but his friends, a group of four, including one girl, went straight to the bar and one boy bought four beers. Without batting an eyelid, the bartender reached for the fridge to serve them.
Paul said that they never have problems getting alcohol because most bars are after making money, so as long as they have the money, they easily get alcohol. After sitting in this bar for three hours, Paul and I decided to try out La Poete Bar in Nyarutarama just after the MTN Centre. As we looked around for where to sit, I noticed two girls entering the bar; one girl was wearing tight jeans and a see-through top while her friend was in shorts that exposed her thighs.
They ordered for Smirnoff Black Ice and sat in one of the rooms at the bar. Paul asked if we could go and talk to them, but I declined. He, however, was free to do so.
After 15 minutes, he came back and told me that they were students at one of the secondary schools in Kigali. He also said that they were there to meet some friends. Not long after, the friends, two guys and another girl also walked and joined in the drinking.
At around midnight, I asked a waitress at La Poete why they sell alcohol to minors.
Her reply was startling: “If the boss doesn’t stop us, who am I not to serve them, besides, some of them look old enough to drink,” she responded.
With that answer, I left with Paul but we were to continue the survey the next day.
The next day, my destination was Kabeza at a bar known as Heri Kwetu just before Marie Mercie modern market. When I walked in, I saw a young couple engrossed in a hearty conversation.
The girl, with a long wig and big eyes, was smoking while the guy had a big bottle of Turbo King beer in his hands.
After this, I asked for the owner’s number but the manager (who identified himself as Hodari) refused to give it to me and insisted I talk to him. After asking him why there were minors in the bar drinking, he replied “Children are already home sleeping, these are grownups. As long as they pay their bills, I have no problem with them because they have been coming here constantly.”
My final destination was in Gikondo at Bar Nyenyeri which I expected to be a bit more serious.
Alas! It was the same story; this time around I sent Paul to the counter to get two beer bottles and within a split second, he was back - with the bottles.
I also talked to the owner of Bar Nyenyeri , Bonaventure, who explained that he didn’t know such things went on in his bar. “I have a tight schedule with my other side dealings which leaves me unable to keep up with the daily routine at the bar, but I have a manager who runs the place. I will investigate this case and take possible action. I really didn’t know about this.”
All these places had one thing in common, they don’t ask for identification even when someone looks a minor from appearance. And this also goes for supermarkets. Regardless of the fact that most young people say that they were sent by their parents, it is a lie that is easily told and they always get away with it.
I managed to go to three supermarkets which all had no objections to Paul buying beer. The first supermarket Paul and I went to is Colombe Supermarket in Nyamirambo. I had carried empties, so Paul entered with them and bought four beers. The teller took a close look at him and asked if it was his alcohol. Paul said it was his father’s alcohol who was seated in a car outside. And he was let go.
The owner of Colombe Supermarket, Clementine Nyirishema said that it’s difficult to regulate sale of alcohol to minors because most parents send minors for alcohol unless the child is too young.
“Children are sent for various things in a supermarket and sometimes alcohol is also included which is the same thing that happens with kiosks in residential places. So, it’s really hard to tell what the truth is. However, if such a habit is to stop, then it would require collective efforts from everyone who is concerned.”
Our next stop was Gihozo Supermarket in Remera. The same thing happened and Paul got out with a quarter bottle of Uganda Waragi. Crystal Supermarket in Kacyiru and La Bonne Source in town were next. Both supermarkets did not hesitate. Paul walked out with bottles of Uganda Waragi.
In countries that have strict regulations, Paul should be in the company of an adult or should verify if he came with an adult or his parents. But the manager of Gihozo Supermarket, Christian Manzi says it’s tiresome if they were to go after every minor to check if they came with the parents.
“It’s not applicable to follow every minor who buys alcohol here. What if the parents are at home, do we follow them at home? No way! But if a minor comes in to buy alcohol and we suspect that he/she has been drinking, we don’t sell to them. “
Police Spokesperson Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Celestin Twahirwa acknowledged the problem but was quick to add that a lot is being done to address it.
“We know that the problem is still there and we are trying our best to combat it in partnership with other concerned stakeholders. We have sensitised people and we are still doing so. It’s an offense punishable by law for a minor to be given alcohol,” Twahirwa said.
What the law says
Article 219 of the penal code states that; “Any person who offers or sells alcoholic beverages or tobacco to a child or involves him/her in the sale of such products shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of at least three (3) months but less than six (6) months and a fine of three hundred thousand (300,000) to one million (1,000,000) Rwandan francs or one of these penalties. These penalties shall also apply to any person who encourages a child to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke or go to bars.”
Solina Uwera, a mother of four children including three teen boys, says, “Children drink because as society we have led them to believe that it’s cool to drink alcohol at a young age. When you walk into bars, you find minors drinking alcohol while adults are there looking on. Instead of stopping them, they buy for them more. Secondly, it’s not because parents give money to their children because money is given to children to ease their life at school, or use for transport or lunch.”
Uwera added that sometimes there are men who lure the young boys into drinking because they want them to hook them up with some girls. “It is a big problem and it will continue being a problem if the drinking restriction age is not enforced.”
Other parents that we spoke to said that the main problem is with parents because they no longer focus on their children’s welfare. Others hinted on parents who leave their children at home without any adult to watch over them.
Diogene Kambari says, “I blame the parents, especially those that are away from home for many days. I know they have to work but at least they should leave an adult behind to exercise some control. As a parent I would make sure I call to check on my child and even get daily reports of what they did during the day. The biggest problem with today’s parents is being too liberal with their children but sometimes as a parent you need to be strict. “
Ronald Wandera, a teacher at Riviera High School says, “As a teacher I can categorise the causes of underage drinking in three levels. The first level is environmental factors. When people in the environment are not concerned about a child’s welfare, then whoever they socialise with ends up having greater influence on them than the law that prohibits such an act.
Secondly, family neglect is also a big cause of minors drinking at a young age.
“We know of homes where alcohol is usually laying around the house where minors can easily access it. Parents have left the role of parenting to people who are not directly involved, such as teachers and maids. And lastly, peer pressure. This is a stage where most minors want to experiment and discover new things; if they are not guided properly they will end up drinking at an early age.”
Wandera added that if such a problem is to stop, we need to identify the root cause and in this case it all starts with good parenting.
How can we curb underage drinking?
Law enforcement agencies need to put more effort into apprehending shop owners who sell alcohol to minors because it’s those shops in Quartiers that sell a lot of alcohol to minors. Alternatively, they could introduce local security agents to patrol those areas and arrest the culprits. Otherwise, without such measures in place we risk losing the youth to alcoholism.
This problem requires collective efforts from parents, teachers, authorities and sellers of alcohol. Parents and teachers should teach these young people the risks that come with early alcohol drinking and the consequences. Police needs to be vigilant whereas the sellers of alcohol should always ask for ID’s as proof if any minor tries to buy alcohol. Secondly, any place found to have breached the law should be heavily punished. Otherwise, we might find ourselves with a big problem that would be difficult to handle.
It depends on the age we are talking about. There are some underage children who actually sell alcohol in their parent’s shops or supermarkets yet they are still in school. Eventually, they end up consuming it. I also know some children who are underage and own small businesses that sell alcohol, especially plastic bottles. I think we even need a law prohibiting underage children from selling alcohol and according to my observation; it’s the children of the rich who drink too much since they don’t have any problem getting money to spend. We need to do research about this issue if we are to curb it.
I find that the problem is not alcohol but the people who give alcohol to minors and the weak laws. The only place I’ve heard that was closed because of underage drinking is Lebanese restaurant but it’s not the only place. And what happened to the owners? We don’t know if they were punished or not. Authorities need to send a clear message to people who operate businesses that sell alcohol and the only way that can be done is by heavily punishing anyone caught in such acts.
Actually I don’t think alcohol sold in bottles is the biggest problem. Cheap liquor sold in plastic bottle (Suruduwili) is now the biggest problems. To make it worse they are readily available in most shops and the owners don’t take any caution when selling them to minors. Most students keep them in their pockets or backpacks and no one will tell if they are carrying alcohol. I wouldn’t be shocked if alcohol sold in plastic bottles accounts for a big percentage of alcohol consumed by minors.