It has taken me a long time to get my head around Ugandans’ relationship with alcohol. I still don’t fully understand it, but today I got a bit closer.
Lake Bunyonyi from the southern side
Urban Ugandans seem to drink infrequently and reluctantly. Alcohol perhaps takes the place of champagne in Western countries; it is drunk only at very special occasions, such as a wedding. This is partly explained through cost, it is expensive to drink. I suspect that the fact that Ugandans tend to be quite religious also affects their attitudes to alcohol.
It is also possible that urban Ugandans are reacting against a very different attitude towards alcohol that is found in rural communities.
People, and especially men, in rural communities drink a lot. They make a local brew made out of sorghum and honey. It is cheap and strong.
The reason that men seem to drink more is, frankly, because the men have a lot of free time. The relationship between men and women in Uganda is inequitable, at least in rural areas. The women keep the home, cultivate crops and look after children. The men do the manual work and they might also look after livestock, but there is a lot of time for hanging around. This hanging around quickly gets filled up by heavy drinking.
It is not unusual to walk through a town in the morning and find heavily drunk men. At first it’s slightly annoying, then funny and then the tragedy of the situation hits you. These people, some of the poorest in the world, are under the thumb of alcoholism.
One of the great things about collecting folk stories is that I have gone into some very remote, rural areas. These are places where the storytelling tradition is strongest.
Today, I went to the village of Kashasha. It is very close to the Rwandan border and one of the most remote places that I have ever been. There is no road that goes to Kashasha. To get there, you travel across Lake Bunyonyi for one hour and then travel 5km through dirt tracks. We arranged yesterday for Boda Bodas (motorcycle taxis) to pick us up this morning from the lakeside.
It’s a long way, and travelling here is expensive. So Lillian and I grouped together with the owner of a local resort, the Colobus Lodge, Kato. He was born in Kashasha and was visiting his old school with his wife, Irene, and Jan, a Dutch filmmaker who is making promotional videos for charities and other good causes across Uganda.
So the five of us set out on the boat. We didn’t get off to a great start; Kato had accidentally bought petrol and the boats diesel engine wheezed to a halt in the middle of the lake. But after rowing back to land and getting a new boat, we were off. The Boda journey from the lakeside to the school was a little bit edgy at times. I was trying to stop myself, my notebook and a bag of bananas from falling off.
My Boda Boda driver was clearly a bit of a character. Kato would not let him go in front in case he sped off ahead. So we were relegated to the back of the group. Occasionally he would go to overtake the person in front, and then the ominous words mpora mpora (slowly slowly) would put him back in his place.
Not long after hearing our first stories, Kato’s dad came up to greet us. He was drunk. But he was old, as retired as anyone in Uganda is, so why not sit around drinking on a Monday morning?
Then we heard some stories from the school children. I even greeted the assembly in Rukiga. The head teacher came up to me to introduce himself. He stumbled slighty. When he opened his mouth, the stench of alcohol hit me. Then I realised that some of the other teachers were drunk too.
Further down the hill, we walked into the main town. By this time school had finished, so the track running through the middle of the town (a high street, perhaps?) was full of school children. But it was also full of the men of Kashasha who presumably have nowhere else to go on a weekday. The arrival of two white guys was clearly the most eventful thing to happen in Kashasha for some time. I suspect most of the children had never seen white people before.
Yet the thing I remember most about the town, apart from the hundreds of children staring at me in amazement, was the stench of alcohol. The stench was everywhere. The crowd of people stunk of alcohol, the huts lining the track all had the same lingering smell. At one point, a dishevelled man stumbled towards me with what was presumably once a shirt hanging loosely off his scrawny frame. He grinned, showing off a handful of crooked teeth. Slurring, he introduced himself as the chairman of the local council.
It felt like I had arrived in some dystopian world, where brutal poverty mixed with boredom drives everyone (literally everyone) to alcohol and where the entrenched alcoholism keeps everyone locked in brutal poverty. A world where even teachers and government officials are in a drunken, semi-permanent stupor.
I was fairly happy to leave Kashasha without waiting around for too long. I saw the Boda Boda driver, the same one who brought me into the town, and jumped on. He recognised me, and he seemed a bit more talkative than he was this morning.
The thick stench of alcohol filled the air of the town, and I was looking forward to getting away. But to my surprise, as we left Kashasha, the alcohol smell stayed with us. Suddenly all of the pieces fell into place: a bit of a character, more talkative than this morning, the lingering smell of alcohol. Oh God, I thought, the Boda Boda driver is drunk.
I held on more tightly than usual on the ride back. I was painfully aware that falling off a motorbike in such a remote place would be bad news. My imagination kept conjuring up unwelcome images of my unconscious, broken body being taken across the lake to some drab government hospital.
But, needlesstosay, we made it. In fact, I even struck up a rapport with my Boda driver. He was impressed by my limited grasp of Rukiga (Cale, Tugende! OK, we go!). I was impressed by his ability to drive a motorcycle while drunk.
When we were safely in the boat (that’s right; an unstable, wooden canoe felt like relative safety), I excitedly told Lillian about my Boda Boda driver. The surprising thing is that Lillian was even more shocked than I was.
There is no single take on alcohol in Uganda. To some, particularly the rural poor, drinking is quite literally a way of life. But the comparatively better off, urban Ugandans have a very different take on alcohol.