While CNN recently named Uganda as one of leading consumers of alcohol in the world and the “most drunken country” in the whole of Africa, Wandago village on Jinja-Iganga highway might have been one of the contributing factors for that position. For close to 50 years now, the village has brewing crude alcohol or waragi.
It started as a clandestine illegal business carried out in the forest by a few people in 1964. But later, through the Enguli Act (1965) advocated by the then area Member of Parliament, it was legalised.
According to the Act, distillation of alcohol would only be done under license and all distillers were required to sell their product to the then government-run Uganda Distillers Limited, located in Luzira in Kampala. Here, it was further distilled, bottled, branded and marketed as Uganda Waragi.
“The process of selling enguli to government involved a lot of bureaucracy and we did not generally like it, let alone benefit from it,” one elderly distiller observes. The locals say some of their alcohol was often rejected by the factory, on account of its low quality. It was never returned but sold it in its form in Kisenyi, Katwe and other slums in Kampala. In such cases, the distillers were meant to lose.
However, the Enguli Act did not succeed as unlicensed production persisted up to now in Wandago.
By around 1987, they stopped taking it to Luzira because they had identified better markets elsewhere. Soldiers in Gaddafi army barracks in Jinja, for instance, started coming for the product directly from the source. Many more dealers started coming in from Karamoja, Gulu, Lira, the islands on Lake Victoria, Mbale, and Kampala, all of whom have maintained their clientele up to now. The producers are satisfied with the market. The buyers are not bar owners, but dealers who sell it to local bar owners, and others who take it to South Sudan and Kenya.
“We make more profit in the current market than when we sold it to government,” one Rashid observes. A 20-litre jerrycan is sold at Shs43,000; about five of them can be made from a drum of molasses—the raw material for making crude alcohol. A drum of molasses is bought at Shs150,000 from Kakira sugar factory.
“We buy the molasses but do not need to buy saline because we always have it with us,” explains Ms Safiat Namatende, who has doing the business since the 1970s. However, she claims she has never tasted a single drop of her product on account of her religion, which forbids alcohol—she is a Muslim.
There are no special brewers in this village but many households brew alcohol as a source of livelihood. Mr Moses Zirimenya, a retired primary school teacher, who is LCI chairman, says: “Everybody here including myself, young children and students brew alcohol. It is simply our business on which our survival entirely depends.”
But, as Namatende claims, the business is not competitive. The quantity of alcohol produced depends on how much they have to buy molasses. “Other requirements such as water and firewood are cheap,” she states. “Saline is free.”
It could be assumed that everyone in Wandago is a drunkard. Ironically, most of the brewers in Wandago do not take alcohol. On top of that, according to Zirimenya, there are hardly any bars in the entire village.
“Many people here are teetotallers. They brew alcohol purposely for sale, which explains why even the Muslims are seriously engaged in the business. They are known teetotallers, save for a few drops they sometimes taste to check the quality of their product, which doesn’t make them drunkards,” the chairman observes.
However, many experienced distillers like Tadeo Nsadha, 34, say they do not need to taste it to check the quality. He has more than 10 years experience under his belt. He has been distilling alcohol since the age of eighteen.
“I have never tasted my product. I only have to observe its behaviour and tell whether it is good or better. The more frothy it is at production the better it is,” Nsadha points out. He adds that a drunkard can never brew alcohol because they would not stand the heat involved in the process. The only people who can withstand it are moderate consumers who can not pass for serious users.
Many of the distillers have benefitted from the brewing business. They have acquired assets like land and houses, be able to pay school fees for their children. Zirimenya claims Wandago village is home to 10 university graduates in different fields, whose success he attributes to the proceeds their parents and guardians get from brewing crude alcohol.
Shamim Mugala is a S3 student in Joy Dominion, a girls’ private secondary school in Mayuge District, who helps out her parents in the.
“I know that my school fees comes from brewing alcohol. I must therefore help my parents do it just as my friends at school whose parents are sugarcane growers help them on the farms,” she says.
Nsadha believes he is successful because of the business. “I have been able to buy myself a plot of land and construct a house where I live with my family. This business has facilitated my maturity into a responsible man,” he boasts, while pointing at his recently finished permanent house.
Annet Namususwa, a mother of five, whose her husband lives in Kiboga District, brews alcohol to fend for her family by buying food and other necessities. “I don’t regret having chosen to distil alcohol as my business. I have never thought about quitting it, considering its usefulness. Without it, my family would cease to exist,” she says.
Another of such beneficiaries is Janet Nabwire, a widow and a mother of five. Following the death of her husband, in 2011, she took to distilling alcohol to make ends meet. Her youngest child, who still suckles, stays with her at the brewing place all day while the siblings are away at school.