Wednesday April 16 2014

What Kawa Kawomera coffee of Amin’s days tells you about Uganda today

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A few days when I was contending with the early onslaught of a cough, a good man introduced me to a medicine that he said was “homemade” (i.e. made in Uganda).

He said it was “highly effective”. The bottle is not elegant, and the taste had a rough edge, but he was right. The damn thing worked miracles.
The medicine filled me with nostalgia about “homemade” Ugandan things that are no longer famous, or are little known, and the special story they tell about our country.

Older Ugandans will remember a coffee called “Kawa Kawomera”. I think it is no longer in production, or if it is, you won’t find it in a self-respecting shop or supermarket. These are stylish times, so the old Kawa Kawomera package could frighten a rich Ugandan child who is more used to fancy sights.
Kawa Kawomera, was the most available and affordable coffee during the rule of Field Marshal Idi Amin. It was the age of scarcity and some of the most difficult times in Uganda’s history.

But it took a lot of learning to make the best of it. If you just put some in a mug and poured hot water into it, the tiny coffee balls would float to the surface and you would have to do a lot of spitting as you drank it.
If you used a coffee blender, you would get a result that was five times better--but it would still be ordinary. Having to conquer Kawa Kawomera turned some of us into coffee aficionados at a very early age.
First, we discovered that you needed to brew in an airtight container, for example, a Thermos flask.

Those days there was not much to do. There was only one TV channel, no European football on TV, no silly soaps, nothing. We had time.
Thus one day during vacation, we brewed Kawomera in a metal kettle, then covered it with a tea cosy-- and forgot. Nearly eight hours later, we remembered. We decided that we would just chuck the coffee because, surely, it would be useless.

Before doing so, we decided to taste to confirm just how messed up it was. What we discovered blew the slippers off our feet. The Kawomera had brewed to a point where it had turned into an instant coffee. There was hardly any fine dregs at the bottom of the kettle.

However, the taste and aroma that was nothing like we had encountered. And to truly savour it, you needed to drink it without sugar – which was scarce.
Back at Makerere University, we would all share the little breakthroughs we had made in making life bearable in the scarcities of the Amin age.
We developed some perfect rituals around the six to eight hours needed for Kawomera to brew. It was dangerous to be out after 7pm those days, so most things – including night clubbing – took place during the day.
We would brew the Kawomera, then walk to downtown Kampala in a large group to watch a 12 O’clock Bruce Lee film. After that, we would walk to Nakivubo Stadium to watch a football match or motorcycle race, then hoof it back to the Hill. It would be coffee time, and the aroma of a transformed Kawomera would waft through the halls.

We learnt many things. One we survived during Amin’s days by mastering the art of patience – eight hours to brew a coffee. Secondly, that we couldn’t give up. We would never have learnt how to turn a crudely thrown up coffee into something magical, if we had.
Finally, that you should not read the Bible superficially. The good book says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You can’t, unless you let your imagination fly.

Now Helen Epstein, that wonderful writer on health issues, has authored a stinker on Uganda in the New York Book Review, “Murder in Uganda” ( The article is causing quite a buzz in cyberspace.
The article suggests, among other things, that MP Cerinah Nebanda’s death in December 2012 was an assassination. It then examines why, and says the corruption and shambolic state of the health sector, over which the MP agitated a lot about, was one reason she was killed.

Epstein notes that; “In 2012, women were seven times more likely to die in childbirth at Mulago Hospital than when Idi Amin was president 40 years earlier”, and also adds that “Uganda loses one child to malaria every seven minutes, the highest death rate from that disease in the world.”
I would add that one of the reasons fewer Ugandans died in hospitals, and other diseases, compared to today, was that the parents – and doctors – of that period were forced to do what we did with Kawomera. They were infinitely more creative. & twitter:cobbo3