Uganda is Africa’s alcoholism capital according to World Health Organisation’s Global status report on alcohol and health 2014. The study, which focused on people of 15 years and above, puts Uganda among the top drinking nations in the world, on the continent and undoubtedly, well ahead of all our regional counterparts.
With drinkers alone as the focus group, the report says that on average, each drinker in Uganda guzzles a whopping 51.7 grammes of pure alcohol on a daily basis. Annually, each Ugandan drinker consumes 23.7 litres of pure alcohol.
But Uganda is not exactly a lone drinker in the region, Rwanda and Burundi could come in as Uganda’s drinking friends given that each drinker in the two countries pumps in 22 litres of pure alcohol every year. This leaves Kenya and Tanzania as the somewhat sober nations in the region, standing at 18.9 and 18.4 litres respectively.
Putting Africa into perspective, Nigerians and South Africans too seem to be holding the bottle with both hands, recording 23.1 and 27.1 litres respectively. Some of the traditionally renowned drinkers in the world like Russia and Germany stood at 22.3 and 14.7 respectively. Croatia (15.1), France (12.9), Nepal (28.8), Moldova (25.4).
In the report, the licensed alcoholic beverages are beer, wine and spirits. And for a country like Germany, all the alcohol consumed is the regulated type that falls within the boundaries of these three beverages, and given that the alcoholic content in these drinks can be measured with certainty, it is almost safe to say that Germany’s recorded consumption of 14.7 is accurate.
For Uganda’s case, however, only 9.4 per cent of the alcohol consumed is regulated and licensed as beer, 1.9 per cent spirits and a very tiny 0.1 per cent is wine. The remaining 88.6 per cent is of the unlicensed alcohol, classified in the report as “others.”
This 88.6 per cent is where all the locally made brew such as Malwa, Kwete, and Tonto are classified. These are the most widely consumed, partly because of the fact that they are often cheaper than licensed alcohol. But this is mainly as a result of the social-cultural drinking practices that are so deeply rooted in Uganda.
Malwa for example is known to hold so much significance among the Itesot, where it is called Ajono. To them, a pot of Ajono is not only what they desire to make merry at weddings or celebrate the birth of a new born child, it is also what consoles bruised souls when it is time to mourn the loss of a loved one.
“To us, Ajono is not just a drink, it is a lifestyle,” proclaims 23-year- old Isaac Omachi, an Itesot and now a resident of Mbuya, a Kampala suburb. “Back home in Tororo, we take Ajono to celebrate a good harvest or a long-standing friendship. We take Ajono to reconcile feuding siblings or friends. We also take Ajono to just be happy. It is even used in the naming of children.”
Kwete also holds similar relevance, but mainly among the Karimojong. Tonto, also called Mwengebigele, is a delicacy in the banana region of Uganda, majorly holding traditional significance among the Baganda where calabashes of the brew are by some unwritten rule a must composition of the bride price package.
It is consumed mainly at introduction ceremonies and other traditional gatherings.
Kasese and Lira-lira, on the other hand, are not aligned to a particular tribe, rather it has come to be a reservation for the urban poor who cannot afford to buy the licensed and obviously expensive spirits but who still crave the feeling of a fiery liquid searing their lips then their throats and finally exploding in their tummy.
How much alcohol is in unlicensed?
The fact that most of the alcohol consumed in Uganda is unlicensed has for a long time been the basis of debate on how much alcohol Ugandans do actually consume. This is because with 88.6 per cent of the consumption unregulated, it becomes increasingly challenging to get the bigger picture of how much alcohol Ugandans consume, unless of course you are aware of the alcoholic content of our varied local brew.
It is for this reason that Saturday Monitor embarked on a fact finding mission to bring you the truth on the alcoholic content that rests within your preferred local drink.
Much as there are many locally made alcoholic beverages across the nation, we zeroed in on the four most popular local drinks; Malwa, Kwete, Tonto and Kasese. And to ensure that the results are a true representation of the alcohol you usually consume, we picked out the samples from some of Kampala’s most popular outlets.
Kiswa slum in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb, is where most of Kampala’s Malwa is brewed, while Kibuli and Namuwongo are the best two places Kampala’s drinking population flocks to find Kwete and Kasese. Tonto on the other hand is brewed and sold in Bulange, Mengo.
We picked the samples from these respective locations and delivered them to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) laboratories in Nakawa to be tested for alcoholic content.
Widely made using millet and produced by fermentation, Malwa is classified as a beer. In fact, as Nakitto further points out: “Malwa is particularly an opaque beer. These are beers consumed without the mash being filtered out.”
Beers as per the standards employed by UNBS should have alcoholic content that lies between 1.5 and 8.0 per cent. So where exactly in this range is Malwa placed? Well, it cannot be very low, considering the experience of those that have been keen enough to pay attention to the reaction that comes with Malwa.
By 5pm on a Monday evening, Bosco Edunyu is already a resident at his favourite Malwa joint in Kiswa. It is a wooden structure of fair size, the wood only covering the downer fractions, leaving the entire upper section open for aeration as is the case for most such joints. The roof is made of old and rusty corrugated iron sheets that are now a dark shade of brown. This, however, does not seem even the least bit a concern for the drinking population at the joint.
As he raises his voice to cut through the sounds of Jose Chameleon’s Valu Valu that are now blaring from the nearby speaker, Edunyu points out that the house is only starting to pick up. “By 7pm people will be sharing seats.”
Eight men sit in one circle surrounding a big pot of Malwa, engaged in loud banter and each one holding his own drinking straw, one end to their mouth and the other dipped in the pot. Edunyu, however, is not part of the pack. He sits alone a few yards from the main circle nursing a small pot of Malwa of his own. As he reveals, this is how he usually likes to see off the sun-set—alone, just him and a pot of malwa.
“I take all sorts of alcohol but mostly Malwa. It is cheap. This, for example, is only Shs1500.” He says pointing at the small pot before him. “If I am to buy beer from the shops, I will buy a maximum of two bottles because it is expensive. But I will not feel anything. For Malwa, however, this pot alone will shake me up.”
Well, Edunyu is not bluffing when he says he finds more magic in a small pot of Malwa than in a couple of beer bottles. Going by our results, Malwa had alcoholic content of 6.91 per cent. This means it has way more alcohol than most of the licensed beers on market.
With this percentage of ethyl alcohol, it means that someone who consumes the smallest pot of Malwa, which is usually one litre will have consumed the same amount of pure alcohol as someone who takes almost one and a half bottles of bell lager since alcoholic content in Bell is 4 per cent. Double your Malwa consumption to two litres and you will have consumed an equivalent of seven bottles of Bell lager.
The norm, however, especially where fairly large groups of people are involved has always been to buy a full 20-liter jerrycan of Malwa and just make merry. This is the same thing as taking 69 bottles of Bell (about 2.8 crates). It is also the exact amount of pure alcohol derived from consuming a little over 49 bottles of Nile Special (almost two crates) given that Nile Special has alcoholic content of 5.6 per cent.
A woman brewing Kasese waragi
A woman brewing Kasese waragi
Seated a metre away in the main circle, Joseph Etiang does not hesitate to throw in his two pence on the strength of Ajono. “I have not taken many beers that are as strong as Malwa. In fact, the one in this town, especially that I have taken at Kasoli stage down in Kitintale and in Makerere is not strong compared to what is brewed back home in Tororo. The other side, the same pot Edunyu is taking will spin you around in circles when you are just half way.”
The variation in alcoholic content in Malwa, at least according to Hellen Apolot, who runs a Malwa joint in Mbuya, is usually a question of the maturity stage.
“Obviously, Malwa that has been around longer is stronger due to the extended fermentation. But the strength could also be affected by the amount of millet used.”
Kwete, just like Malwa, is also an opaque beer made from cereal and produced by the process of fermentation. From our results, the alcoholic content we found in Kwete is 4.1 per cent, which is so close to that found in Bell and Tusker Lite (4.0 per cent).
Usually, the avid consumers of Kwete procure it in one litre mineral water bottles and small 5-litre jerrycans. With a 4.1 per cent alcohol by volume content, someone who gets knocked out by two bottles of Tusker Lite will still find himself on the floor if they consume a litre of Kwete because in both cases they will have consumed the same amount of pure alcohol. And if it is the same person in question, then they had better not attempt to guzzle a 5-litre jerrycan of Kwete because this will set the world around them in top-speed motion. The alcohol consumed in 5 litres of Kwete is equivalent to that found in 10 bottles of Tusker Lite.
For someone whose beer of choice is the Nile Gold, which comes in a 330ml bottle with alcoholic content of 4.8 per cent, five bottles of this beer will be the equivalent of galloping a standard 2-litre jag of Kwete.
Unlike beers and wines which are made by fermentation, Kasese is a spirit, made by distillation. But it is not just the production process that sets spirits apart from beers and wines, spirits are also unmatched in regards to alcoholic content.
Going by the standards adopted by UNBS, alcoholic beverages that are classified as spirits or gins must register ethyl alcohol content of 37.5 per cent or more. And true to this, the alcoholic content we found in Kasese was 39.7 per cent, implying that for any volume of Kasese at hand, a whole 39.7 per cent of it will make for nothing else but pure alcohol!
At this percentage, even the consumer of a very strong beer like Guinness foreign extra stout (7.5 per cent alcohol content) will require more than 10 bottles to match up to just one litre of Kasese.
Of late, perhaps as a result of smaller pocket-size, the trend among ordinary consumers of licensed spirits in Uganda is the consumption of the cheaper 50ml sachet of Uganda Waragi and the also popular Bekham gin, both carrying a 40 per cent ethyl alcohol content. Such consumer will need almost 20 such sachets, also called akavera, to be at level with whomever consumer has it in them to guzzle a litre of kasese.
But given the lethal nature of Kasese, however, people rarely procure a litre. Usually, Kasese is sold in a Fanta bottle which is 500ml. This is the equivalent of taking 10 sachets of Uganda waragi. It is also the same amount consumed when one drinks 1.4 bottles of the 350ml bottle of Uganda Waragi.
Made from fruits, particularly bananas and produced by fermentation, Tonto – also often referred to as mwenge bigere or alcohol produced by feet – is a wine. Traditionally, it was produced by kneading bananas in a boat-like container using one’s feet until a clear liquid is produced.
Going by the standard adopted by UNBS, wines should contain alcoholic content that falls within the range of 6.5 and 16.5 per cent, implying that usually, and contrary to popular opinion, wines are stronger than beers, something 47-year-old David Katerega does not consider news.
He is in Bulange buying Tonto when we find him. You can tell from his convenience while haggling with the sellers that he is a routine customer. They even allow him a few gallops on the bottle as a way of testing.
As Katerega reveals: “Tonto is sweet but very fiery. It is perfect for the kind of consumers who take alcohol to purposefully get drunk.”
Unlucky for us, however, the Tonto we secured from the same popular outlet in Bulange turned out not to be the fiery concoction Katerega sings praises for. In fact, the alcoholic content contained in it was a mere 0.07 per cent, disqualifying it as an alcoholic beverage and putting it in the category of malt cereal beverages or the common juice.
Why low content?
According to Nakito, such anomalies can arise in cases where the beverage has not been allowed enough time to ferment. “Alternatively, this could also be the case when the amount of yeast used is not enough to convert the sugars into alcohol.”
Where the production process is on point, however, Tonto is expected to take on its expected range of somewhere between 6.5 and 16.5 per cent, the safest figure to work with in this case being the middle ground of this range which is 11.5 per cent.
With this content, a 1-litre bottle of Tonto will carry the exact amount of pure alcohol as five bottles of Club Pilsner since Club has a 4.5 per cent alcoholic content. For a 2.5 litre calabash, however, the total number of Club bottles held in it will be 12.7.
Considering most licensed wines on market, Tonto does not have absolute superiority over them. Hibiscus and Altar wine for example, both products of Bella wines are packaged in a 750ml bottle and have alcoholic content of 13 per cent. This means that, with ethyl alcohol content of 11.5 per cent, a 5-liter jerrycan of Tonto will be the equivalent of just about six bottles of Altar, Hibiscus or Golden wine.
For the case of the popular Nederburg wine from South Africa, a 2.5 litres calabash will impose on its consumer the same alcoholic burden as 2.7 bottles of the Nederburg wine.
Testing for alcoholic content in local alcohol
As a matter of procedure, the samples that we delivered to the laboratory to be tested for ethyl alcohol content had to first be categorically classified as either malt cereal beverages, beer, wine or spirits. This is because each category has its own standard range of expected alcoholic content upon which the tested beverage can be judged on whether it passes the test or not.
The malt cereal beverages are basically non-alcoholic drinks, the ones loosely termed as juice and their expected alcohol by volume content has to be a mere 0.25 per cent or less. Given that all the four samples we delivered were alcoholic beverages, we did not have any malt cereal beverages and thus all our samples had to be tagged either as beer, wine or spirits.
According to Maximilia Nakitto, a senior certification officer with the UNBS, the question as of what is beer, wine or a spirit is a matter of the raw material used to make the beverage and the production process employed.
“For the case of beers, the raw materials have to be cereals, usually flavoured with hops and the process used is fermentation. Wines on the other hand are usually made from grapes but because of innovation, we still term a drink as a wine if any other fruit is used and produced still using fermentation. For spirits, however, the production process should be distillation, particularly fractional distillation and the raw material is normally cane sugar,” Nakitto explains.