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from: Eastern Africa

Pombe, Tembo, and Máwá (traditional beer and wine)

People in every part of the world have their traditional alcohol. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa home-made beer and wine are very common, especially in small villages and rural areas. (The distinction between beer and wine is this: beer is brewed, i.e., it must be heated before fermentation; wine is fermented without heatthough the terms are sometimes used as if they are interchangable.) Traditional African beers are made from various kinds of millet, sorghum, corn (i.e., maize), or plantains. Some of the names of these traditional beers are: Pombe (Eastern Africa); Dolo, Burukutu, Pito, Shukutu, and Tchakpalo (Western Africa); Bouza (Egypt, Ethiopia); and Merisa (Sudan).

havest of palm sap

Wine, that is, Palm-wine, called Tembo or Tombo is made from the sap of various palm trees (usually the African Oil Palm or Coconut Palm), or sugar-cane juice. Once the sap or juice is obtained, it begins to ferment on its own. It must be consumed within a day or two before it becomes too sour. A sort of wine is also made from plantains.

The Congo Cookbook has no recipes for these traditional beverages. They are documented by Richard F. Burton, Samuel White Baker, and Herbert Ward.


Samuel White Baker

The principal requirements of the natives were supplied by this most useful tree

In the early 1860's Samuel White Baker and his wife, Florence von Sass, explored the sources of the Nile in the regions that are today's Uganda and Ethiopia. His time in Uganda, in the area of Lake Albert (Albert Nyanza or Lake Mobutu Sese Seko) and Lake Victoria (Victoria Nyanza), is documented in his book The Albert N'Yanza: Great Basin of the Nile and Explorations of the Nile Sources (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1962; first published 1866). This excerpt is about plantains.

Curious as it may appear, although we were in the land of plantains, the ripe fruit was in the greatest scarcity. The natives invariably eat them unripe, the green fruit when boiled being a fair substitute for potatoes--the ripe plantains were used for brewing plantain cider, but they were never eaten. The method for cider-making was simple. The fruit was buried in a deep hole and covered with straw and earth; at the expiration of about eight days the green plantains thus interred had become ripe; they were then peeled and pulped within a large wooded trough resembling a canoe; this was filled with water, and the being well mashed and stirred, it was left to ferment for two days, after which time it was fit for drink.

Throughout the country of Unroya, plantains in various forms were the staple article of food upon which the inhabitants placed more dependance than upon all other crops. The green plantains were not only used as potatoes, but when peeled they were cut into thin slices and dried in the sun until crisp; in this state they were stored in the granaries, and when required for use they were boiled into a most palatable soup or stew. Flour of plantains was remarkably good; this was made by grinding the fruit when dried as described; it was then, as usual with all other articles in that country, most beautifully packed in long narrow parcels, either formed of plantain bark or of the white interior of rushes worked into mats. This bark served as brown paper [in England], but had the advantage of being waterproof. The fibre of the plantain formed both thread and cord, thus the principal requirements of the natives were supplied by this most useful tree. The natives were exceedingly clever in working braid from the plantain fibre, which was of so fine a texture that it had the appearance of a hair chain, nor could the difference be detected without a close examination. Small bags netted with the same twine were most delicate, and in all that was produced in Unyoro there was a remarkably good taste displayed in the manufacture.
(At Home in Kisoona)


Other African gastronomical excerpts


Richard Francis Burton

The principal inebriant is a beer without hops, called pombe

In the late 1850's Richard Francis Burton traveled from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika and back, and then wrote The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860; reprinted by Dover Publications, and by Scholarly Press). In the "Village Life in East Africa" chapter he wrote about the traditional beer and wine.

In East Africa every man is his own maltster; and the "iwánzá" or public house of the village , is the common brewery. In some tribes, however, fermentation is the essential occupation of the women. The principal inebriant is a beer without hops, called pombe. This [beer] of the negro and negroid races dates from the age of Osiris: it is the buzah of Egypt and the farther East, and the merissa of the Upper Nile, the... xythum of the West, and the oala or boyaloa of the Kafirs and the South African races. The taste is somewhat like soured wort of the smallest description, but strangers, who at first dislike it exceedingly, are soon reconciled to it by the pleasurable sensations to which it gives rise. ... When made thick with the grounds or sediment of grain it is exceedingly nutritious. Many a gallon must be drunk by the veteran malt-worm before intoxication; and individuals of both sexes sometimes live almost entirely upon pombe. It is usually made as follows: half of the grain--holcus, panicum, or both mixed--intended for the brew is buried or soaked in water till it sprouts; it is then pounded and mixed with the other half, also reduced to flour, and sometimes with a little honey. The compound is boiled twice or thrice in huge pots, strained, when wanted clear, through a bag of matting, and allowed to ferment: after the third day it becomes as sour as vinegar. ... As these liquors consume a quantity of grain they are expensive; the large gourdful never fetches less than two khete or strings of beads, and strangers must often pay ten khete for the luxury.
...
The use of pombe is general throughout the country: the other inebriants are local. At the island and on the coast of Zanzibar, tembo, or toddy, in the West African dialects tombo, is drawn from the cocoa-tree; and in places a pernicious alcohol, called mvinyo, is extracted from it. The Wajiji and other races upon the Tanganyika Lake tap the Guinea-palm for a toddy, which, drawn grawn in unclean pots, soon becomes acid and acrid... "Máwá," or plantain-wine, is highly prized because it readily intoxicates. The fruit, when ripe, is peeled and hand-kneaded with coarse green grass, in a wide-mouthed earthen pot, till all the juice is extracted: the sweet must is then strained through a cornet of plantain-leaf into a clean gourd, which is but partially stopped. To hasten fermentation a handful of toasted or pounded grain is added: after standing for two days in a warm room the wine is ready for drinking.
(Chapter XVIII -- Village Life in East Africa)



Ryszard Kapuscinski

The beers can be various & a hot local beer made out of millet

These two excerpts, about home-brewed beer in Nigeria and Uganda, come from The Shadow of the Sun (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) by Ryszard Kapuscinski, which is a collection of nonfiction stories from from Africa. Kapuscinski, who may have witnessed more revolutions and coup d'etats than anyone else, reported from Africa between the 1950s and 1990s

Whoever has a shilling goes to the bar. The bars are numerous -- in the back streets, at intersections, in the squares. Sometimes these are humble places, with walls cobbled together from corrugated iron, and calico curtains instead of doors. Even so, we are meant to feel as if we have entered an amusement park, found ourselves at a carnival. Music is coming from the old radio, a red lightbulb dangles from the ceiling. Glossy photographs of film actresses cut out from magazines adorn the walls. Behind the counter stands the usually fat, powerfully built madame: the proprietress. She sells the only thing available in the bar: a home-brewed beer. The beers can be various -- banana, corn, pineapple, palm. Generally, each of these women specializes in one kind. A glass of such a beverage has three merits: (a) it contains alcohol, (b) being a liquid, it quenches thirst, and (c) because the solution at the bottom of the glass is thick and dense, it constitutes for the hungry an ersatz nourishment. Therefore, if someone has earned only a shilling in the course of a day, he will most probably spend it in a bar.
(My Alleyway, 1967 [Lagos, Nigeria])
. . .
It was called Club 2000. On the second floor was a little salon for important guests, where we were seated at a long table. The waitresses came in, young, tall girls. Each knelt down before her designated guest and said her name. Then they walked out, and returned carrying an enormous steaming clay pitcher filled with marva, a hot local beer made out of millet seeds. You drink marva through a long, hollowed-out reed called an epi. This reed now started to circulate among the guests. Each drew a few sips and passed it to his neighbor. As this was going on, the waitresses poured into the pitcher either more water of more marva: this -- what they poured in and how quickly the epi circulates -- determines the revelers' degree of drunkenness.
(The Ambush [Soroti, Uganda])



Herbert Ward

One of their favorite beverages

In 1884 Herbert Ward worked with Henry Morton Stanley, who, in the employ of the king of Belgium, was laying the foundation for what would become the Congo Free State. Beginning in the 1890's, Ward wrote several books and magazine articles. This excerpt, from "Life Among the Congo Savages" published in Scribner's Magazine (Volume 7, Issue 2; February, 1890; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), is part of a section which describes work in a "native village" (near Bolobo, on the Congo River): how people make fishnets, baskets, pottery, metal items, and alcohol:

Some of the villagers are occupied in catering for the thirsty nature which seems to belong to mankind, whether black or white, and which must, at times, be satisfied by something stronger than water. This is provided by pounding up sugar-cane, and, having obtained the juice, allowing it to ferment a day or two, when one of their favorite beverages is formed.

. . .

It is a mistake to imagine that these people are incorrigibly indolent when we come to consider the enormous amount of time and patience they bestow upon their industries. In the morning, when people are at work, a native village strikes one as a very busy place indeed.


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