Last year, I happened to attend an anonymous music festival where I was a personal witness to the light-year speed at which jaba juice flew off the shelves. Despite the fact that jaba juice was ubiquitous at these events in previous years, no one ever paid it any mind. This time however, all the jaba juice in the bar was out within the first hour the consignment arrived. 

It’s no secret that concerts and festivals are peak season for drug dealers to offload their wares of cocaine, molly, MDMA, LSD, and any other illegal psychoactive substance of an individual’s choosing. But what I observed at that festival was that more of my friends and acquaintances had shrugged off the hard drugs, in favour of jovially sipping their jaba juice. 

It was cheaper, retailing at about KES 400 a glass, or KES 200 a shot, when you compare it to the thousands of shillings one usually spends to procure psychedelics. 

Even more, jaba juice provided festival goers with the vital bursts of physical, mental and social energy one requires to survive a 3-4 day festival, without the catastrophic next-day crash where all the serotonin and dopamine is drained from your body.

It almost made me pity the drug-dealers, not going home with the pockets of profits they had been accustomed to making in the previous years.

Jarell, co-founder of jaba juice brand Petiole, begins to tell me about their first experience vending Petiole at an event in Nairobi.

“We set up our stand between a small alcohol vendor and a big alcohol player. This is our first time vending, so we’re guessing. We don’t know how we’re selling, whether we’re selling bottles or shots or mocktails, we don’t know.

We tell the small alcohol vendor next us, ‘take a shot of this and tell us the best way to mix it into a drink’- because we really just raw-dogged this event, we didn’t even have ice. She told us that the juice was best paired with a ginger base and gave us everything we needed: stoney-tangawizi, cranberry juice, and ice. We take her word as the gospel and boom! We’re prospering. 

We outsold the big-brand alcohol vendor. We ran out, had to bring in a new batch, and it still sold out – and it just showed me pretty much that guys don’t like alcohol that much. It was a Sunday so most people don’t want the next-day effects of alcohol. It also validated our theory that women love us more.”

“So women are your biggest demographic?” I interjected again. 

You can’t talk about jaba, or jaba juice, without talking about women. Historically, jaba is a man’s game, with a few women outliers here and there. Step into any Mafrish or jaba-base as a woman and you’ll probably be accosted with hostile stares from men with wads of gomba stuffed into their cheeks, wondering why you’ve come to invade their safe masculine space with your feminine guiles. 

“These are the theories we have,” Jarell continues, 

“The safety element. You’re drinking jaba juice, you’re having fun but still uko rada: you’re aware of your surroundings and you still have your wits about. You’re not blacking out, you’re not waking up in a random scene, and you’re not making bad decisions. I feel like jaba juice suffrages jaba because, and not to sound sexist or patriarchal, but chewing is not the most beautiful thing to do.”

Jarell backs up this statement by saying that even he, as a man, doesn’t chew. 

“But it’s not because I care for how people see me,” he disclaims, 

“It’s just so much work. It’s your tongue getting fucked. It’s brown teeth. It’s a sore jaw. It’s mouth sores. It’s high effort and low returns. Or rather, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” The copywriter inside him jumps out with that last phrase. 

Alcohol culture has never been safe for women. In clubs, the drunker people get the more likely it is for women to get groped, harassed or assaulted. Men fill their tables with all shapes and sizes of liquor bottles to convince women, and society, that they are men of means; as well as to persuade women over to their table. To an ill-intentioned person on the hunt, an intoxicated woman is regarded as an easy conquest. 

Jarell, and many of Petiole’s female clients, believe that jaba juice provides an alternative to women just trying to feel safe and have a good time in male-dominated spaces. And they’re not the only ones.

Together, Zion and Malaika run an alternative jaba juice brand named Catha. I visited them on a Friday afternoon at their idyllic apartment with sprawling square footage a little outside Westlands. As I munched on a luxuriously rich homemade chocolate-oatmeal muffin, they vented about how terrible club culture in Nairobi has become. Zion and Malaika partly attribute the harassment culture so prevalent in Kenya, to club culture. Especially Nairobi club culture. 

“No-one dances because everyone is too afraid to dance and what’s the point in going out to have a good time if you won’t even allow yourself to dance? It’s all a show of wealth and a brandishing of egos. The men have all this pent up anger which comes out so aggressively. Everyone is on their guard. That doesn’t sound like a good time to me,” spoke Zion. 

For Zion and Malaika, their mission is bigger than jaba juice. It’s creating a network that encompasses ideas around wellness, health and feeling good in one’s mind, body and soul. 

Zion reflects on what jaba means to him. 

“In South C, jaba would connect so many different guys.” Zion reminisces about his young adulthood spent in South C, one of Nairobi’s most popular hoods for the miraa enthusiast.
“Kids like us from the estates, the guys who are conductors in javs (matatus), the guys who are washing cars, taxi drivers- we would all meet there to buy jaba. Guys who are working big jobs at like Barclays- that guy has parked his benz there, he’s waiting for his bag. It united so many different people, it’s crazy.”

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