I squinted into the white-hot sunlight of southern Africa at high noon.
Before me was a black, mud-brick shack with a roof made of bound field grass. Augustine, my friend and translator, stood beside me. We were in a remote village in Malawi, one of the smallest and poorest nations on earth.
“Come,” Augustine said. “Now you will drink like an African.”
Inside the shack a bent old man stood behind a counter. He cocked his head in surprise upon seeing me, an azungu (white man), in his shop. Behind him were a few boxes of stale-looking crackers and a calendar from 1994, but mostly his shelves were bare. Augustine asked him for a bottle of kisasho.
“For you?” the old man asked in Timbuku, the local dialect.
“For him,” Augustine said, sticking a thumb in my direction. The old man smiled then, teeth dazzlingly white and straight against a dark, lined face. He pulled an empty hip flask-sized bottle from beneath the counter. It was then that I noticed the tall metal trashcan that stood next to him. He produced a long, rusted dipper, plunged it into the can, and, without spilling a drop, filled the glass bottle.
“Thirty-five kwacha,” the old man said, placing the bottle in front of me. I handed him the equivalent of 30 cents, U.S., and stared long and hard at the drink before me.
First of all, the bottle was filthy. No getting around that. It was covered in brown grime, though its mouth was less soiled. I attempted to scratch some of the dirt off the side to get a better look at the liquid within. That was when I discovered that most of the dirt was inside the bottle. Also inside the bottle were half a dozen dead mosquitoes—as well as a few other small, formerly airborne creatures—floating face up in the kisasho.
The liquid itself was clear with a golden tint. Flecks of gray-and-white sediment—I hoped it was sediment and not bug parts—hung suspended in the viscous fluid. As I held the bottle up to the light streaming through the window, I noticed that a crowd had gathered outside. In this far-flung village, an azungu is a rare thing, and an azungu who is willing to drink the local hooch is rarer still.
Villagers crammed their faces into the door and jockeyed for a glimpse into the bare and paneless window. Even the old man who had filled the bottle looked up at me expectantly. What was he expecting? I couldn’t say. Not sure what to expect myself, I brought the bottle to my lips for a long, deep sip.
It was remarkably smooth. Kisasho is maize liquor, so it has a mellow corn flavor reminiscent of nsima, the cornmeal porridge that is Malawi’s staple food. I’ve tried bootleg corn liquor in the southern United States and its raw finish left me with a feeling that I can only describe as “fire-belly.” The kisasho was much gentler. An after-bite lingered on the back of my tongue, but there was almost no warmth going down. After removing the bottle from my lips, I looked to the expectant crowd and grinned, raising the bottle high.
“That’s damn fine!” I yelled, hoping my exuberance would break the language barrier. It worked. The small crowd cheered and laughed as I poured half the bottle down my gullet, and people clambered into the small shack to buy the azungu another round.
During my travels in southern Africa, there were times when I felt as if God had actively forsaken that part of the world. Death is everywhere. It stalks the land in the form of AIDS, malaria, and cholera. All day long they build coffins in the streets. Illiterate children, crippled by malnutrition or war, are ubiquitous, playing in filthy rags while their mothers prostitute themselves to feed large families.
At first blush, this place seems gripped in pandemic suffering. A closer look reveals the true nature of southern Africa: It is a drinker’s paradise. Hundreds of miles of beaches with names like Monkey Bay and Candy Beach line the eastern coast of Mozambique and the enormous lake Malawi, providing the perfect setting for canoeing, fishing, and drinking the hot days away. Homemade liquors and bottled beers are available at almost every roadside shack, some conveniently attached to rest houses where one can sleep off a particularly frightening bender in a cheap, clean bed. Pocket change will buy a round for the entire bar and, of course, the police have never, and I mean never, heard of a Breathalyzer.
Women do almost all the daily work in southern Africa: cooking, finding food, raising children, and tidying up around the hut, which leaves men free to spend the day pursuing more amiable interests, like drinking until they can barely stand or form sentences.
And because the possibility of finding a job is laughable and property ownership largely hereditary, there is no expectation that the people of this region become clock-punching cubicle drones or slaves to a mortgage. While they lack the amenities we Westerners couldn’t imagine living without—such as hot, clean water, electricity, or a life expectancy greater than 35 years—they do have the luxury of being able to relax with good friends and a few dozen drinks every single day of the year.
And, boy, do they drink. From the rooster’s first call to the hour when night descends—or until they collapse from drinking in the sun, which in that part of the world can burn like a death ray—Africa’s heaviest drinkers have it pretty good in both lifestyle and beverage selection.
In rural Malawi they drink kisasho and Chibuku, a popular brand of millet beer. In Northern Mozambique they imbibe sweet wine that comes in plump little plastic jugs with screw tops. And in the black-only townships of post-Apartheid South Africa, millet beer is passed around in smoky little shacks, everybody gulping greedily from the same big metal bucket.
No matter what you call it or how you make it, these home-brewed liquors are the respite of Joe Africa, not only allowing escape from the crushing poverty that defines his existence, but adding an opulence unheard of in the so-called modern world—the ability to consume alcohol guilt free, all day, every day.
This is not to say that everybody in the region is a dedicated boozehound. I met a lot of folks who never touch the stuff. Nice girls aren’t found in bars, and there are plenty of Muslims in Africa. But in some of the rural areas there is a multi-faceted culture of drinking that underscores life.
Southern Africans dedication to drinking creates a local economy that for some is all that stands between them and starvation. Women who have lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS are often forced to feed large families with almost zero income. By manufacturing small batches of home-brew and selling them to local shops like the one that Augustine and I visited, they have a better shot at putting food in their kids’ bellies. In fact, after finishing my second bottle, we visited the lady who brewed the very kisasho I was in the process of consuming. It was her sole means of feeding three children.
The woman lived in a one-room mud hut much like the one in which I bought my first draught of the beverage. By the time we got there I was quite drunk. A kisasho high is not the warm, sloppy buzz that you get from gin or whisky. No, it is sharp and edgy, the kind of inebriation that triggers a high-pitched whine deep in your ears. As I tried conducting an interview with the old woman, I found it increasingly difficult to focus both my eyes and my thoughts.
She showed me the works of her little still, proudly displaying the distillation coil that she had gotten from God-knows-where.
“I cook the maize all night under pressure,” she explained through Augustine. “I use every part of the maize: husks, cobs, everything.”
Walking through the darkened villages at night, the smell of cooking corn is everywhere. I had always wondered who would be preparing food at that late hour, but now I knew better. “Jesus,” I thought, “Everybody must be making this stuff.”
The distillate travels from the brew pot through the coil, dripping into another pot. I had seen a contraption like this once before. It was at the Iowa State Fair. The exhibit was titled “Corn: Gasoline of the Future!”
It was then that I realized what I had been drinking. “This is fucking ethanol!” I gasped, looking at the mostly empty bottle in my hand.
“Of course, my friend,” Augustine said laughing. “You could power a motorcycle with that.”
In Central Africa it takes a village to make a drunkard. Everybody has to do their part to make sure that this paradise unfound functions from day to day. No place is this community ethic more apparent than in the Chibuku bars found in every town in Malawi and Northern Mozambique.
Chibuku is a thick brown millet beer that costs less than a dollar and comes in two-quart paper cartons identical to those in which milk is sold in the United States. The red, white, and blue container heralds the drink’s status as an “International Beer.” It also implores the Chibuku drinker to “Shake-Shake” the carton. And you had better. Even when shaken vigorously, a thick layer of sediment the color and texture of sand collects on the bottom of the carton.
A Chibuku bar is little more than a room that serves only Chibuku. Usually, it’s just an enclosure made of reeds and tree branches with wooden tables and benches. There is almost always more than one such bar, even in the smallest of towns and rural districts. A Chibuku bar must always have music. Often it’s a local reggae artist, but people in southern Africa also really, really love Lionel Richie. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been in an isolated and remote part of Africa, enjoying a round with the local tipplers, only to have the vibe completely ruined by “Say You, Say Me” or “Hello.”
A server brings the Chibuku, shakes it, and then cuts the top off. You are now faced with a soggy carton full of milky brown sludge that looks like Ovaltine garnished with sawdust. Drink up. You’ll have to if you want to get drunk. Chibuku is only about .5 percent alcohol—better suck it up, and fast, if you want to catch anything resembling a buzz.
The drink has a powerful yeast flavor that is offset by a lemony tang, surprising given the color. When the liquid has been consumed and you reach the bottom of the carton, standard practice is to slurp up the pile of sludge that remains.
Africans don’t have a problem with any of this. In one afternoon spent Chibuku-bar hopping in a village in central Malawi, my companion, a fellow journalist from the region, downed six cartons of Chibuku and boasted that he could have easily finished six more. He said he’d only tempered his appetite because we were “working.” I managed to choke down two and felt more nauseated than drunk.
The best part about all of this is that these guys are able to sit around long enough to get drunk on a drink that has almost no alcohol content. For one thing, their wives know exactly where they are, whom they are with, and what they are doing, and don’t have a big problem with it. For another, as these men sit and drink, the village comes to them. Boys will make the rounds of each Chibuku bar, selling cigarettes. A village woman will arrive with pieces of meat on a skewer or hardboiled eggs with little baggies of salt and hot-pepper flakes on the side. Down the street someone may be roasting corn or making maize fritters. The whole community does their part so the drinking can continue uninterrupted.
In short, the drinkers of Africa have it made. Sure, they have no healthcare, the literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, and December through March is the “famine season,” but they can drink and hang with their friends pretty much all day. Also, the word “nag” doesn’t even exist in any of the more than two-dozen languages spoken in the region.
What rural African regions lack in material wealth, infrastructure, and modern conveniences, they more than make up for in drunken leisure time. Even in places where basic human rights are a fairly new concept, a culture of drinking prevails, bringing happiness to a long-suffering people.
Drinking Against the Odds
By any standard, much of Gugaletu is a reeking shit pile. It is one of South Africa’s largest townships: black-only zones created by the apartheid regime to keep a cheap, exploitable workforce close by to serve the all-white cities. A lot has changed in the 10 years since apartheid ended in South Africa, but the townships are much as they have always been: filthy, disease-ridden, and dangerous. Many people in Gugaletu live in shacks or cement dormitory buildings, often with no electricity or plumbing. In these buildings three families will live together in a 10-foot-square room. It is essential, therefore, that the good people who live in this awful place have somewhere to go and get very, very drunk.
In South Africa, as in Ireland, that place is called a shebeen. A man whom I met in Cape Town, I’ll call him Nick, lives in Gugaletu and offered to take me to his favorite shebeen.
The place was a one-room, dirt-floored shack with a corrugated tin roof and walls made of scrap wood. Located on a dusty back street, it perched on the edge of a vast hole filled entirely with garbage. The smell of a nearby open sewer, combined with the scent of the garbage pit, was pungent and damn near overwhelming.
The front door of the shebeen hung crooked in its frame and there was no name or sign above it. By 10 o’clock in the morning it was packed. At least 50 people—men and women—filled every possible inch of the dark and smoky place, sitting on long, hard wooden benches or standing with their backs against the wall. Shiny metal buckets the size of paint cans circulating the room. Customers would take a few gulps of the liquid inside then pass the bucket to their neighbor. Three women sat on raised chairs, as if in judgment, at the very back of the room. They owned the place.
Behind them sat four blue trashcan-sized plastic containers marked “UNAID” in white letters. I would soon find out just what kind of “AID” those containers held.
We pushed our way to the back of the shack and I spoke with the women. They sat, left to right, in order of age: daughter, mother, and grandmother. I was standing before three generations of women who had kept this township buzzing. They were dressed identically: barefoot, with colorful headscarves and dirty white dresses.
“Before the end of Apartheid,” the mother said, “The shebeens were the only way that we had to relax, to enjoy life. Now that those days are gone, people still come here because it’s cheap, and, for the old ones, it is all that they know.”
Not only did these women own the shack, they made the brew passed around in metal buckets and stored in the blue UNAID containers. For just five rand (about one U.S. dollar), customers can sit in their shebeen all day and drink their fill from the circulating buckets. Nick and I took seats in the middle of the room, but when one of the buckets came our way, Nick demurred.
“No way, man,” he said in a low voice, passing the bucket my way. “In the new South Africa I don’t have to drink that crap.”
I shrugged and held the giant metal chalice before me, peering into its foamy depths. The brew had a pure white head on it, thick and stiff. A pungent yeasty smell permeated, reminding me of the Chibuku that I’d had weeks earlier. I raised the bucket to my face and sucked down a few big gulps. It was slightly carbonated with a full, chocolaty, flavor. Brown, thick, and fizzy, it looked and tasted like unsweetened Yoo-hoo.
It was early and I was parched, so I gulped more of the stuff, the dark brew spilling down the sides of my face. The man next to me patted my shoulder gently.
“Not so much at once,” he said. “The bucket will come back again.” I reluctantly handed him the bucket, amid laughter and some teasing.
The people in that shebeen did a lot of laughing that morning, not to mention the afternoon. One of the worst slums I had ever laid eyes on surrounded them, the shack they drank in was in danger of being swallowed by a giant garbage pit, but they would still go to that shack and be happy. And take a piece of that happiness with them as they weaved their way home to crowded hovels.
Throughout southern Africa, people are able to lead the kind of lives that we in the West can only imagine. They drink as much as they like, as often as they like, and no one—save for the odd azungu missionary—will say a word to object.
Sure, they need more food and medicine, but we have both those things in abundance, and how happy are we?
Africa is not perfect. But to the drinking man, it comes pretty damn close.
— P.J. Tobia