STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, let's stay in Africa for our next story on this New Year's morning. As you consider all the alcohol consumed overnight, consider this: Uganda was once ranked as the world's number one consumer of alcoholic beverages. Some Ugandans dispute that distinction, which came from the World Health Organization, but all concede that alcohol is a problem. NPR's Gwen Thompkins traveled to the capital Kampala and reports on the many varieties of potent home brews.

GWEN THOMPKINS: It's all Uganda's fault, of course. Anything can grow here -cassava, sugar cane, millet, potatoes, wheat, bananas, even hops. The land is so fertile that farmers harvest the same crops two or three times a year.

And before you can say, set 'em up, Joe, people brew their harvests into alcohol that'll make you feel like leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Why else would a drink be called Super? But Ugandan hooch can be deadly. Why else would a drink be called Kill Me Quick?

Sheila Ndyanabangi is a medical officer in the nation's Ministry of Health. She says there've been at least 50 deaths this year.

Ms. SHEILA NDYANABANGI (Medical officer, Ministry of Health): People brew in their home. People brew in their garden. People brew in some garage somewhere. And they have no means for testing how much alcohol is in the product they have produced. And then they go on to sell it directly to the people to consume.

THOMPKINS: 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 accidents.

Ndyanabangi is working on a new alcohol policy to better regulate the entire industry. Beer manufacturers here say that consumption of the 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.

Ms. NDYANABANGI: Methanol, the alcohol, or alcohol, methanol. And some of them who don't die are blind, and they remained blind.

THOMPKINS: How would you be blind?

Ms. NDYANABANGI: Blind in the eyes, the methanol - they pump very high levels of methanol now, so it will kind of kill the optic nerve

THOMPKINS: Here, in an outlying slum of Kampala, women from northern Uganda are working the stills behind wooden shacks at the bottom of a treacherous hill. The smell is as strong as a team of horses. It's 11:00 in the morning, and their husbands are already lit.

They came here looking for jobs. And they've ended up in the chaos of this open latrine, doing exactly what they were doing up north. Florence Adong makes her brews in big oil drums.

Ms. FLORENCE ADONG: (Through Translator) That 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.

THOMPKINS: The Acholi women of northern Uganda make theirs 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 here.

Mr. MOSES MUSISI: You'll also find that there are families who have been brewing for over generations, as well. The knowledge is being passed on from person to person, from one person to another, to the children, like that.

THOMPKINS: Nile Breweries Limited could not be more different from the slums of Kampala. First of all, this place is tidy. There's constant testing of the brews. There's a no-drinking-on-the-premises policy. And they can fill 38,000 bottles an hour.

It's hard to say why Ugandans drink as much as they do. Some here believe it's cultural and begins when people drop homemade brew onto 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.

Unidentified Man: Take on those lives which seem especially significant to you and leave the rest behind. What is said here, stays here. Please respect the privacy of each person and what they have to say.

THOMPKINS: And 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 that alcoholics talk about across the globe: loneliness, loss and so many dreams deferred.

For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins.

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