The Role of Beer in the African Culture and Traditions

It is believed that “Thirst rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grains such as sorghum  agriculture in Africa.”

‘’We are to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization that criticised beer in Africa were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication”

The role of beer in African culture and traditions

Let us look into the role beer plays in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the world. We will find that beer is an essential staple for many communities, often considered a food rather than a beverage. Importantly, the consumption of beer adds considerably to daily caloric intake. It has more protein, vitamins and minerals than unleavened bread, and the low alcohol content kills bacteria that may be present in the unprocessed water.

The importance of beer in many communities today is illustrated by the fact that one-eighth to one-fourth of all grains grown in sub-Saharan Africa are used for the processing of beer. Beer binds people together and serves to reinforce social hospitality and communality during ceremonial and everyday activities. It is a common cultural marker of wealth and status; it may represent a payment of tribute to chiefs, and it is essential in the redistribution of wealth. The processing and consumption of beer pervades many cultural acts, and because of its social, economic and political value it is of great significance, both as a dietary staple and as a luxury food.

Beer’s Long History

As the popularity of craft beers continues to grow, the debate about whether early Neolithic peoples were domesticating grains for beer or bread rages on. This long-standing debate reaches back to 1953, when archaeologist Robert Braidwood assembled a number of prominent anthropologists to discuss whether bread or beer prompted one of the most dramatic changes in human history, the domestication of grains. Although this issue has not been settled, there is important archaeological evidence that beer and other forms of alcohol have a deep history.

Beer has fed the living and the dead in societies around the world, both past and present. For example, in the past, the Incas poured chicha beer down stone carved altars that mimicked the towering montane peaks. The Ainu of Japan celebrated a beer feast and used beer as a connection to their ancestors. Today, the Rarámari in northern Mexico use beer as a currency of reciprocity to motivate the community to engage in work parties, and the contemporary Gamo of south western Ethiopia pour beer on the earth to feed their ancestors for the health and fertility they bring to the people, land and nature.

Beer in Africa has been an important staple food since the first pharaohs more than 5,000 years ago; archaeologist Jeremy Geller discovered a large brewery at the site of Hierakonpolis. Early Egyptians were similar to contemporary cultures in drinking a variety of beers, from a sweet beer to “beer of eternity” to “beer that does not sour.” Beer was used to pay workers and for the pharaoh to drink after he had been resurrected in his tomb. Egyptians drank beer for curing a number of ailments, including strengthening gums, dressing wounds and even as an enema to treat diseases of the anus. Beer was also tied to health; George Armelagos and others found that people living along the Nile 1,400 years ago were producing a beer from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. Tetracycline from the beer was found in the bones of a majority of individuals, improving their sense of well- being and helping to prevent bone loss due to age.

These examples suggest beer’s long history in helping to form complex societies around the world. Beer continues to be a critical food for people living today, and re- search on beer in contemporary societies can lead to new discoveries about how to interpret its importance during ancient times.

The Social Hierarchy of Beer

Some contemporary indigenous societies produce and consume beer as a medium that bridges the ancestors and the living. Ritual, economics and status all come together through feasting, with beer acting as the social lubricant. Beer is tied to wealth in some societies, as only the wealthiest, high-caste families have the grain production to make beer. In such societies, beer is an integral part of their lives.

Many indigenous societies think of beer as a food, and among some societies beer is considered a luxury food. Wealthy, high-caste males whose fathers are deceased are sometimes chosen to become ritual-sacrificers for the community; they bring fertility to the people, land and animals partly by providing beer feasts for community members.

Beer is also an indicator of status and wealth in other societies around the world. The payment of tribute with beer indicates its economic and political importance. Robert Carlson found that when the Haya of Tanzania produce beer, it is their obligation to pay their leader four or more gallons of banana beer. They present the leader with special gourds of beer that have wrappings of banana fiber and are tied with twigs and leaves from a plant that symbolizes purity and strength.

Brewing beer in association with slaughtering cattle among the Koma of Cameroon also provides a means to improve an individual’s status, as Igor de Garine discovered. The cattle dance ceremony celebrates the hard work and good qualities of a man’s wife as a good mother to their children. The ceremony in her honor is a redistribution feast that increases the husband’s social status by distributing meat and beer to their kin and religious leaders. Once the husband has hosted up to seven ceremonies his status in- creases because he is knowledgeable about the secret rituals and places, and he can drink beer from his own pot without sharing.

Beer as Sustenance

Although beer may reflect a person’s social standing, in many indigenous societies the majority of people consume beer as an everyday food product. Beer also plays an essential role in the establishment of social obligations. The importance of communal consumption is one of the reasons people process their grains into beer rather than bread. In many societies, beer gives strength, happiness and hospitality. This is seen in cultural ceremonies such as give-away and weddings where the groom’s family gives beer to the bride’s father, which acts to symbolically unite the two families and reduce ceremonial tension.

Many cultures consume their beer as a social activity rather than as an individual act. This drink is a staple for all social gatherings of some cultures and is tied to their religious, ritual and economic life. For example among the Raramari of Ethiopia, whenever beer is drunk, it is dedicated to tata diosi, the spirit who gave the Rarámari the knowledge of beer-making. The beer is symbolically placed in the four cardinal directions so that tata diosi can drink first. Whoever makes the beer presents it to the most influential elder, then the elder serves beer in order of social rank. Newborn babies are protected by beer; the ritual specialist dips his cross in the beer and places the cross on the newborn. The infant is fed a small amount of the sacred beer as well. In addition, if a person is sick the patient and doctor will drink small amounts of the beer, and the doctor will dip a cross into the beer and place the cross on the wrists and head of the patient. Beer is also placed on new corn and young animals as a medicine. Finally, beer is an important part of rituals for rainmaking and protecting the economy of the Rarámari.

Beer as a Motivating Ingredient

Beer has an important economic aspect. Since it is considered a food, individuals who have the means to produce large quantities of beer will use it to pay people to do work such as plant and harvest their crops. In order to gather a work party, beer is essential; without beer, it can be impossible to bring people together to cooperate on the task at hand. Beer is used by most societies as a motivation to work for the community, or by wealthy individuals who can afford to produce enough to pay workers. Feasts also ac- company work parties; in Southern Africa leaders and wealthier commoners organize large work parties and then provide an abundance of beer. The Pondo of South Africa rate their beer feasts higher than meat feasts because they say beer makes the work seem more like a party. Among the Kofyar of Nigeria, beer is the primary means for repaying voluntary labor to hoe and harvest agricultural fields and for building corrals and houses. These examples demonstrate that beer is a motivating force for labor, and beer also has a role to play in the formation of elite.

Among most African societies, cooperative work is one of the most important reasons for making beer. They prefer to plant and harvest their crops with cooperative labor, and beer is part of the payment for communal work. The beer acts as a binding force among individuals, families and communities and reinforces the social and economic obligations and reciprocity that cooperative work instills.

Beer is more than just a beverage to many African indigenous societies; it is a critical component of their social, religious, economic and political wellbeing. Current archaeological research indicates that beer was an integral part of past people’s lives.

Tales of Tonto-Ugandan Local Brew

Tonto as was customary presented on cultural weddings and introduction parties in traditional Ankole kingdom as well as other prominent traditions in Uganda. Baganda called it ‘’Omwenge’’ while Batooro called it ‘’Amaarwa’’.

The role of beer in African culture and traditions 2

If there was a cultural unifying factor among the people of Ankole especially, the agriculturally settled community that was a locally brewed beer made out of Matooke and sorghum called Tonto.

People used to rotate across families in the whole village, seating in circles and drink, deliberate on social issues and mostly solve conflicts.

It used to be done communally and for free with lots of entertainment, dancing and singing.

But as modernity struck, it became a show of the past, not because the brew is no longer there but the purpose it used to serve, and the mode of consumption has changed or evolved.

Today people have become more selfish and very individualistic that’s why the unity this drink used to encompass is no longer there.

“There used to be forums where people could meet deliberate on issues concerning society like  discipline, development and issues relating to strengthening people’s culture’’

Strict discipline was maintained during these drinking gatherings for example, children were not allowed to join the elderly as well as women drank differently from men.

Residents also who misbehaved during these drinking gatherings were fined. They often were tasked to bring a goat that would be slaughtered and consumed during one of the gatherings. Even a resident who produced a brew that could not conform to standards, they too would be fined. So you had to ensure you maintain good standard during brewing like standard good measurement on the ingredients to be used during brewery.

In the past, drinking beer used to play a very significant role especially in uniting and keeping bonds together unlike today when it is abused and has become source of evil to all ages. “These days alcohol consumption has become a source of evil unlike in the past, whereas we used these drinking gatherings as a way to instill discipline in our societies, reflect on our cultural norms and values, these days it’s the opposite. The drinking joints have become hubs for thieves, rapists and murderers”.

Ceremonies like marriages, introductions never went without blessing of this brew. “It was a must to have by the bridegroom’s entrouge as they went for introductions; we had special known people to test it especially on these occasions to ensure it was very good. Should one bring the ‘fake’ tonto, one that does not conform to standard, this could bring the function to a standstill”.

During the helm days of Ankole Kingdom, the subjects of the King used to brew tonto and bring to the palace. Those that did it best of it will be rewarded with land, exempted from paying taxes among others.

Tonto is a traditional fermented beverage made from bitter bananas (embiire). It’s also referred to as mwenge biggele’ among Baganda

It’s made by ripening green bananas (embiire) in a pit for several days. The juice is then extracted mostly using feet in a wooden trough, filtered and diluted before being mixed with ground and roasted sorghum.

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