#198 Indigenous Alcohol
If you’ve worked overseas for any length of time and spent your share of hours (or weeks) in local bars, chances are you’re a beer snob. But you’re not the kind of insufferable beer snob who annotates each visit to the pub with thoughtful descriptions like “bready” or “ephemeral,” oh no. You’re the kind of beer snob who, when back in your home country, will derail a drinking session by waxing poetic about ‘faraway brews’.
You’ll go into an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC and, if they don’t have bottled Dashen or St. George to wash down your tibs, you’ll wrinkle your nose and question the establishment’s authenticity. You’ll be sitting on a longtime (but non-expat) friend’s porch in the heat of the summer drinking Coronas but, all the while, letting everyone know that Kenya’s Tusker beer is a much better way to beat the heat.
You are as well-versed in the world’s panoply of alcohols as you are fluent in acronyms and aidspeak – and you aren’t afraid to bludgeon others with that knowledge at any time. What you’ve drunk – and where – is a boozy but indispensable part of your personal mythology.
For many of you, it started in Peace Corps. You might have dabbled in beverages in college, but you earned your postgraduate degree in drinking as a Volunteer. Most likely, you learned more about your host culture while drunk than you did sober. You participated in all kinds of drinking rituals in many villages because, if you didn’t, “it would have been very rude.”
You were tipping the gourd, or metal bowl, or shot glass and offering a libation to the ancestors before Tupac was pouring one out for the homies. Then, whether it was rice wine, millet beer or any of the thousand kinds of moonshine around the world, you drank it all down. And in those moments, you weren’t only building up an ungodly tolerance for alcohol, you were building knowledge.
Say, for example, your life as an expat aid worker began with an agro-forestry gig for Peace Corps in southern Togo. There you were, early one morning, at a farmer’s house when he pulled out a bottle of clear liquid with no label, corked with a corn husk. You caught a whiff of the stuff as soon as he unstoppered it; it smelled like reckoning.
Immediately after he’d handed you a brimming shot glass and you’d ingested it like a vessel of holy fire, he offered you a second shot. “That one went to your right leg,” the farmer explained. “If you don’t take another for your left leg, you will tip over.” Not wanting that to happen – and, obviously, not wanting to offend – you obliged.
And somewhere between that second shot and the hazy beginning of your actual work day, you learned the origin of the indigenous spirit you’d just consumed. According to the hospitable farmer, the process began with palm sap. Only the bravest souls dared tap the tree, because deadly mambas made their homes in the scruff. When the sap was procured then fermented for a day or two under the sweltering sun, it was run through machinery hidden deep in the jungles. The name of the finished product? That was another story.
Legend had it, the wizened farmer continued, that a British explorer passed through a nearby village a long time ago. He sat down on a small wooden stool in a hut much like this, and his generous host offered him a small glass brimming with a clear, strong-smelling liquid. The British chap threw it back with one gulp, promptly fell off the stool into the dirt and vigorously exclaimed, “So that be!”
And that name stuck, although slightly altered (possibly slurred) in the intervening years: Sodabi.
This may have been your first taste of indigenous alcohol – and it was certainly a story you’ve told at every stop since that fateful day. After all, it’s not only a fascinating look into Togolese culture, but also an important analogy of how powerful local know-how can knock Western ways squarely on their ass.
Since then, you haven’t missed a chance to continue your learning. You might publicly disapprove when you ride up to a village, step down from your Land Cruiser and catch the overpowering funk of banana beer but, secretly, you’re trying to figure out when you can come back for some capacity building over bowls of local hooch.
Of course there’s also the element of danger that indigenous alcohols bring. After all, who knows where the water came from or through what sort of ancient contraption with lead pipes the liquor was distilled? But therein lay the adventure, the intrigue and the sheer boast-ability of it all. Because, just imagine uttering a line like this to an old (again, non-expat) friend during your home leave:
“Yeah, you’re right, hangovers are bad. But a hangover from Togolese Sodabi that’s been cut with kerosene? That’s the worst.”
As expat aid workers, we will not only drink all comers under any table anywhere, but we’ll also tell them exactly where, how and with what indigenous booze we acquired such powers of fortitude.