Food & Drink

The role and history of beer as a beverage in Zimbabwe

By Dr Michelina Andreucci ||

AS I was growing up, I often heard my grandmother Rudo discussing with her friend ambuya Ratisayi about beer and why beer is such an important component in indigenous cultures.

I also recall a classmate who told us of her ‘ukudunduzela’ celebration which took place a year after she experienced her first menstruation.

Beer was brewed at her home and neighbours as well as other girls who had just had the experience were invited to join in the celebration.

For Shona girls, the ritual is known as ‘kubvazera’, where beer is drunk by the ‘machembere’ (grandmothers) who instruct the girls in matters of marriage and motherhood.

Ambuya Ratisayi lived in a nearby village in Kariba where she was known for brewing a sweet, potent beer reputed for its rich creaminess, pleasant taste (said to be not too sweet, not too sour) and its potence.

She brewed her beer by soaking rapoko (rukweza, sorghum), or maize, for several days in a hari (clay pot) to allow the grain to absorb moisture and begin to sprout.

After draining it, she spread the mixture out to allow it to germinate and dry in the hot Kariba sun and subsequently ground into a meal which she then mixed with maize meal into a light paste then added the requisite amount of cold water and brought it to the boil while stirring.

She allowed the mixture to cool and ferment overnight, repeating this process over a number of days according to taste and potency.

This led me to research the role of traditional beer as a heritage.

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, apart from the Muslim people, beer is an integral component of African agronomical, cultural and ritual ceremonies.
Beer was consumed as a means of communicating communal solidarity and cohesiveness and as a celebration of the renewal of nature.

Beer pots reflected in the pre-historic Rock Art friezes allude to a long tradition of beer-brewing industry in Zimbabwe; marking the various cycles of human progress, and showing the Bushmen drank to be transported into trances and get visions; sometimes resulting in the elongated figures.

However, the missionaries and the Christian church recognised the importance of beer as a factor in inducing spirit possession and for the reinforcement of cultural empowerment, thus colonial laws were introduced and prohibition against African beer drinking was enforced by the white settlers.

Having said this, there was also a contradiction to this fact whereby they introduced and built more beer halls than schools or libraries in urban areas, thereby promoting and encouraging heavy drinking among indigenous people.

Each of the small grain varieties used in the brewing of traditional beer such as zviyo, mapfunde/imfe (sweet reed grain), finger millet, chibage (maheu) and sorghum provided the main ingredient of the beer; each beer had its specific rite or occasion at which it was drunk by the community.

Traditional beer has been such a large part of traditional culture that it has inspired much of contemporary popular music.

The ‘tsva-tsva’ music that originated on the farms and mining compounds was often associated with the wide-spread brewing of elicit alcohol such as: ‘chi-oneday’, ‘seven days’ and skokiaan.

In fact, so popular was urban beer drinking in the 1950s that August Musarurwa (1922-1968) produced his hit ‘Skokiaan’ that topped the American Hit Parade in 1954.

Celebrated African-American jazz musician Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong (1900 – 1971), recorded his own version of the hit under the title ‘Happy Africa’, which sold millions of copies worldwide.

Other well known beer songs include: Willy Mahlangu’s ‘Manwele Beerhall’ which was an ode to the increase of beer-drinking and the establishment of beer halls in the townships in the mid-1950s; Safirio Madzikatere’s ‘Imi Vachidhakwa’ (Hey you Drunkard); and Thomas Mapfumo’s ‘Hwahwa’ and ‘Shabhini’.

Most of these songs dealt with societal ills caused by excessive beer drinking.

Today we are also familiar with the South African popular township song ‘Thathi Isghubhu’.

Most occasions that called for the gathering of people, even kutambira vayenzi, called for a hari (pot) of indigenous African beer; said to have a cohesive quality for communal gatherings, discussions, planning; celebratory birth, marriage and harvest as well as death ritual gatherings.

Its secular role in community co-operation cannot be overlooked.

Several indigenous rites necessitate the brewing and offerings of traditional beer as libation.

Beer is also brewed to receive blessings from ancestors through invocation, as is often depicted in some contemporary Zimbabwean sculptures as in ‘Beer for the Spirits’.

Socio and economic problems were discussed and resolved by community heads over much feasting and drinking in ceremonies such as ‘Umlandu omncane and inxwala encane’ among the Ndebele in Matabeleland, usually attended by chiefs and clan heads to review the past year and make resolutions for the new year prior to the impending annual harvest dance.

At Great Zimbabwe, archaeologists excavated shards of pottery dating back to archaic times where they identified beer sediment in the bases of the pots.

Some grains were also discovered growing around gravesites; which further testified to the importance of beer in traditional culture and to the custom of breaking a hari (pot of beer) at the graveside, usually of a chief.

Copious amounts of traditional beer are also consumed during a traditional gata – a ceremony for the investigation into the cause of death.

In Zimbabwe, lagers were first brewed in Bulawayo in 1895 by the Charter Brewery and in 1898, the foundation stone was laid for a larger brewery in Salisbury (Harare) which later became a famous landmark and was the first brewery of its kind north of the Limpopo River.

Castle Lager was first brewed in 1903 in old brewing plants relocated from Kroonstad in South Africa.

The British South Africa Company (BSAC) built a seven-story malting house in 1910 that was for many years the tallest building in the then Salisbury (Harare).

Four years earlier in 1899, lagers brewed by Rhodesia Breweries Limited won a gold Medal at the Central African Federation Agricultural (CAFA) Show.

By 1973, six beer varieties were brewed in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the most popular beer being a lager.

In contemporary times, the traditional beers are named Rufaro, Mhamba, Chibuku, Ngwenya, Ingwebu and others, which the Rhodesians called ‘opaque beer’ in the past.

While traditional beer is of great nutritional value and is an essential part of African traditional customs, providing social cohesion, its abuse also brought about a fair share of societal problems in urban communities such as prostitution, delinquency and broken homes.

Needless to say beer is best drunk in moderation.

According to a traditional saying: ‘Mhamba ingonaka panamahiyo’ – beer is only enjoyed in the company of the women of the village.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For views and comments, e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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