The first time I tried jaba juice, it was a green-pulpy mess in a shot glass that glued my buttcheeks to the toilet seat for what seemed like an eternity of diarrhea; no end in sight. Thereafter, I resolved to limit my liquid substances to coffee and alcohol, at least their laxative effects were less…violent. I had tried my hand at chana-ing before, but my only reprieve came in the form of childhood nostalgia while savouring that plastic pink slab of Big G bubblegum. Chomping on those bitter leaves for what felt like a lifetime only left me sore in the jaw, aching in the cheeks and a bucket of water more sober than when I’d started. I gave up on miraa. I didn’t get it. Maybe it just wasn’t for me.
Until one afternoon, my homegirl takes me on a walk through South C to visit a friend. She mentions that his roommate makes jaba juice and suddenly, my mind flashes back to that goopy verdant shot of slime I hesitantly downed once upon a time. I shudder.
However, the bottle my homegirl’s friend’s roommate slams onto the table looks more like apple juice than leafy vomit.
Tentatively, I take a sip. Hints of ginger and pineapple play on my palate. I take another.
One bottle later, at around 2 a.m., my homegirl calls it a night and takes herself to bed. Meanwhile, me and her friend are deep in a conversation where we bare the traumas of our childhood, wax political about the mess that is the Kenyan economy, and agree on why fulfillment is more important than money. This exchange continues until while standing up to stretch, he draws back the curtains and a perky 8 a.m. sun surprises us both.
In my younger and less politically correct days, the mention of miraa would illustrate in my brain the mental image of the matatu conductor with the bulging cheek, green liquid frothing at the corners of his mouth. As I approach my stop, I hand him a KSh 500 shilling note, to which he tells me to add KSh 150 so that he can give me KSh 200 in change- in a style of mental arithmetics most mathematicians wish they could. Miraa / Muguka or Khat is a flowering plant whose leaves and stem barks contain the alkaloid cathinone; a stimulant whose effects are akin to South America’s coca leaves, or the betel nut from Asia. Energy is physical. Clarity is mental, and you might even feel like you have the bandwidth to tackle the hardest algebraic equation any form 4 Maths Paper 2 could throw at you. The point is though, whatever beautiful thing is happening in the brain of the chewer, chewing remains not the most pleasant sight to see. Enter jaba juice.
Jaba juice is democratizing the miraa industry for millenials, Gen Z and the folk who would rather pay more taxes to the government than be caught chana-ing in public. But are we losing our culture because new generations don’t want to chew as their forefathers did?
Jarell* believes that this is only symptomatic of a developing industry.
“Chewing has taken the industry as far as it can take it. I don’t think there are any new recruits to chewing, or if it’s as big as it was a while back. For the industry to survive longer, it needs product development and don’t get me wrong, chewing is still primary- but for more people to experience miraa, I think jaba juice, and every jaba juice player, is important.”
Jarell* is arguably one of the best marketing gurus this country has to offer. We first met a few lifetimes ago, he was my senior copywriter when I was a lowly junior copywriter at one of these big time Nairobi-International ad agencies with the toxic work culture everyone knows about. While jabbering [do you see the pun?] and catching up, he tells me that he’s now a Creative Director at another big time Nairobi-International ad agency. In his downtime, he handles communications for Petiole: a jaba juice brand he partners in.
I met up with him on a hot sunny day at Lava Latte. He came channeling his inner island boy, decked in hoochie daddy shorts and sandals, an African bead swung on a single braid dangling from a thick wolfy beard. He begins to narrate his origin story, i.e: how he found himself in the jaba juice industry.
“I always had a weird relationship with alcohol. I liked buying people alcohol and having people over for drinks, but I never really liked alcohol.
Every January, I’d start my year by hitting the ‘refresh’ button with a Dry January. In January 2019, a friend introduced me to jaba juice. At the time Handas (another jaba juice brand) was Handas-ing and I think they were the only players in the market. I didn’t think much of it and I didn’t take it again, until I moved into my current place, where I have this neighbour who’s a doctor, and doctors love jaba juice.”
“Have you ever tried jaba juice?” Jarell’s doctor friend asks him, and that’s how he found himself back at Handas again.
As his Dry January came to its natural conclusion, Jarell found no inclination to return to alcohol and decided to make jaba juice his medicine of choice, after all-it was doing its job: providing a sipper with an alternative to alcohol that isn’t the passionless soda, the lifeless tea or the spiritless juice.
“I got another batch of jaba juice from this vinyl spinning music head who to me is one of the best DJs in the country, and a close friend. And as I’m sipping it I think to myself, ‘alcohol is never going to give me this’,” Jarell says.
It was at this point that Jarell realized how boring alcohol is as a product. To him, alcohol doesn’t provide a variety of experience but rather a template high: whether it’s a 50-year old bottle of Macallan Red whiskey aged in seasoned sherry casks and retailing for KES 10,623,739, or a 300 bob quarter of Konyagi from the wines & spirits down the road.
You know the drill, you’ll be a merry drunk shouting “that’s my song” after every five tracks the DJ throws at you. Another couple of gulps later and you’re talking to everyone like they’re your bosom-bestie: “I love you so much dude!”
Three glasses later and you begin to feel a bit groggy, everything around you is pissing you off: from the harsh club lights, the uncomfortable seats, the cigarette odors coming from the table next to you, the fact that you’re somehow outside when you’d rather be sinking into your living room couch drunkenly singing along to 90s R&B with your best friend, Mary J Blidge.
One more shot and it’s light out. The drop that concluded the titration experiment.
You’ll probably wake up in the morning with a case of the spinnies, a nauseating feeling in your bowels, a pounding headache, an aversion to light and sound, and the ambiguous emotion of shame which you can’t quite put your finger on. Ladies and gentlemen, the hangover.
“So, when you’re drunk you’re just drunk. It doesn’t matter what you’re drinking?” I pose this question to Jarell.
“Exactly!” Jarell responds, making the motion of a hammer hitting the head of a nail with his fists,
“and it’s probably our fault as advertisers. Alcohol has always been positioned as this social drink; you drink at bars and clubs or at home with friends, but alcohol is not a personal drug.”
“However when it comes to Jaba,” Jarell argues, “It’s very personal. The high depends on the context you’re in, whether it’s a conversation, music, a movie – your situation informs the high.”