In the African beer brewing pot ferments an occasional crisis
Posted Thursday, April 22 2010 at 16:46
African societies have proverbs for every situation, drinking included.
“He who is drunk from palm wine can sober up, he who is drunk from wealth cannot,” say Nigerians.
Such proverbs and wise sayings on alcohol were invariably about men, since in most traditional settings, drinking was primarily an indulgence of the adult male.
African drinks most of them illicit, come with quirky, drunken names. While Kenya has chang’aa or “kill-me-quick,” Botswana takes the gold in naming its backyard brews. It has Tho-tho-tho, (the dizzy spell), a lala fa (you sleep right here), laela mmago (say goodbye to your mother) chechisa (hurry up) and motes o teng godimo (there is home in heaven).
DR Congo can claim silver with kasiki (I regret,) and mokoyo (the dog that bites.)
If there was a medal higher than gold, Uganda would win hands down. According to the 2010 World Health Organization report on Global Status Report on Alcohol, the East African state has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world, with Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, staggering closely behind.
The country with Waragi as its most popular drink, has upset African champs Zambia where 42.3 per cent of its imbibers begin boozing between ages 13 and 15.
These suggestive names and statistics notwithstanding, home-made brews boast a frothy history in most African societies. Alcohol was used to appease ancestors as libation, loosen tongues during slippery dowry negotiations and to celebrate new seasons or victory in war. Then there were drinking sessions to celebrate births, mending rifts between warring factions and repentance. Or simply to while away time.
Among the Kofyar people of Jos Nigeria, for instance, presenting a brew was viewed as an act of affection and respect. Alcohol, give or take, had blessed status in Africa irrespective of class community or geography.
No licence, no drinking
In pre-colonial Africa, drinks were fermented — not distilled. The Kikuyu of Kenya brewed and still brew muratina from honey and sugarcane, the Swahili at the Kenyan Coast have their mnazi fermented from the coconut fruit. In eastern Kenya the Kamba staggered and still do stagger on the strength of uki, brewed from fermented sugar or honey.
And even though seeing double was an occasional menace, traditional brews rarely killed, and certainly didn’t blind as modern ‘poisons’ do.
Colonialism introduced foreign drinks to Africa. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta ran Kinyatta Stores where he sold cigarettes and Nubian gin to whites and Asians in Nairobi’s Dagoretti area in the 1920s as biographer Jeremy Murray-Brown informs us in Kenyatta.
But the onset of colonialism in most parts of Africa corked brews up. Liquor laws were enacted banning “natives” from consuming bottled beer, or issuing Africans with liquor licences, preferring to allow indulgences during specific ceremonies and rites on the strength of a letter from a stern-faced chief.
The laws aside, offshoots of colonialism had made it easy to brew. Maize had replaced millet as the primary grain in alcohol production. Sugar, which has ethanol enhancing properties, became easily available making distillation the choice process of brewing chang’aa, the preferred drink of Kenya’s low, or no income earners.
A dollar buys you 10 glasses.
After independence, African governments upheld the colonial liquor laws. Traditional brews were deemed “illicit” since their distillation and lack of packaging fell outside government and public health regulations.
Tragedy in Machakos
In August 1998, more than 80 people died in Machakos, Kenya, after drinking chang’aa laced with methanol. Tragedy struck again when, in 2000, 130 people perished and over 390 were hospitalised in various stages of stupor in the same town. Over 20 went blind. And as if the deaths of ’98 were a pat on the back, 49 others drinkers died in the same place.