Ugandan Home Brews Result In More Than Hangovers

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The World Health Organization named the people of Uganda the world's No. 1 consumers of alcoholic beverages in 2004.

Ugandans quibble with that ranking. But none would dispute the fact that alcohol consumption in the country — where homemade brews can be stronger than lightning in a bottle — is a public nuisance.

Uganda's land is so fertile that anything can grow there — cassava, sugar cane, millet, potatoes, wheat, bananas, even hops — and farmers harvest the same crops two or three times a year. Then, the harvests are often brewed into strong, and sometimes deadly, alcohol.

Why else would a drink be called "Kill Me Quick"?

Literally, Picking Your Poison

Sheila Ndyanabangi, a medical officer in the nation's Ministry of Health, says there have been at least 50 deaths related to home-brewed alcohol this year.

"People brew at home. People brew in a garden. People brew in a garage somewhere. So they have no means of testing how much alcohol is in the contents of what they've produced. And then they go on and sell it directly to the people to consume," she says.

The availability and consumption of home-brewed alcohol isn't Uganda's biggest public health concern, but it makes every problem that much worse: HIV, domestic violence, car crashes.

Ndyanabangi is working on a new alcohol policy to better regulate the entire industry. Beer manufacturers in the country say consumption of local brews is four times what they sell. And local brewers often boost their drinks with beer or marijuana — or the same stuff that goes into race cars at the Indianapolis 500: methanol.

"And some of them who didn't die are blind. They remained blind," says Ndyanabangi, explaining that the high levels of methanol in the home-brewed drink can kill the optic nerve.

Brewing In The Slums

In an outlying slum of Kampala, Acholi women from northern Uganda work stills behind wooden shacks at the bottom of a treacherous hill. The smell is as strong as a team of horses. At 11 a.m., their husbands are already lit.

They came to Kampala looking for jobs. But they've ended up doing exactly what they were doing up north. Florence Adong makes her brews in big oil drums.

"It doesn't take me long because I'm used to it. In a day, I can make two drums, in the morning and in the evening," she says.

The Acholi women make their home brew with cassava leaves — no malt, no yeast. The Ateso people from the east make theirs with millet — plus malt, plus yeast. In Central Uganda, they make theirs with bananas.

Moses Musisi says many locals are masterful at making delicious brews, and he should know. As Uganda's first brewmaster, Musisi has a keen palette. He works for a multinational brewing company.

"You'll also find there are families who have been brewing over generations as well. The knowledge is being passed on from person to person," he says.

Nile Breweries could not be more different from the slums of Kampala. First of all, the brewery is tidy. There is constant testing of the brews. There is a "no drinking on the premises" policy. And they can fill 38,000 bottles an hour.

In The End, Alcoholism's Universality

It's hard to say why Ugandans drink as much as they do. Some believe it's cultural and begins when people drop homemade brew on a newborn baby's tongue. Drunkenness is also one of the few publicly accepted vices.

But alcoholism is a disease. And for those who want to quit drinking, there's a sparsely attended Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in downtown Kampala.

It takes less than one meeting to unlock the secret of Ugandan drinking. The secret is: There is no secret. As the cars lurch and screech outside, the participants talk about the same things alcoholics talk about across the globe: loneliness, loss and so many dreams deferred.

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