Alcohol and African Society – Rituals, Sociabilities, Social problem



By Momodou Ndow

Alcohol is probably the most ancient and widespread psychoactive substance in the world. It is a naturally occurring substance wherever free-floating carbohydrates are available and thus is widely known and used. Clearly, there are alcohol uses related to health, nutrition, entertainment, religion, and a variety of other social activities. Alcohol has for centuries played a prominent role in the social and religious life of African societies south of the Sahara. As early as the eleventh century A.D., Al-Bakri (The Andalusian Muslim geographer and historian) described offerings of alcoholic drinks in royal funeral rites in the kingdom of Ghana. It is clear from the dotted references that alcohol pervaded the African continent, and the consumption, exchange, or offering of alcoholic beverages was often a central element in the ritual life of communities. Before the latter part of the nineteenth century, distillation was largely unknown and imported distilled drinks were confined to a few areas; but virtually every community produced one or more types of fermented drinks from grain, fruits, honey, palm sap or sugar cane. 

Indigenous alcohol and rituals – Origins of Palm Wine and its ritual use 

Among all the fermented drinks in West Africa palm wine was the most popular. The origins of the use of palm wine in the Gold Coast is masked in myth and mystery, but an examination of these myths shed light on the perception of alcohol as the locus of sacred power and early concerns about the potential profaning of this fluid through substantive abuse. Carl Christian Reindorf recorded two oral anecdotes on the origin of palm wine.

The Fante king had a celebrated hunter called Ansa, who went hunting for him. Ansa had a dog which accompanied him on hunting and scouting excursions. It happened that in one of his hunting excursions, he found a palm-tree which had been knocked down by an elephant, and a hole made in the trunk of the tree by its foot. It seems that the sagacious animal had long known the secret of tapping the palm-tree, and had long enjoyed the delicious but intoxicating sap that it yielded. The hunter, perceiving some sap oozing freely from the orifice made by the elephant, was half inclined to taste it, but fearing that it might be poisonous gave some to his dog, who seemed to relish it greatly. Finding that his dog took a liking to this new liquor, the following morning he drank so freely of the sap of the palm-tree that he got fairly intoxicated.

Ansa soon found the best way of tapping the tree and took a pot to the king. The king liked the taste so much that he overindulged, got drunk, and fell into a deep sleep. The king’s people, failing to arouse him, concluded he had been poisoned by Ansa. Ansa was apprehended and beheaded and since then, the sap of the palm tree received the name of Ansa which is corrupted into “nsa”.

Reindorf records another anecdote of the origin of palm wine. Wirempong Ampong, a hunter of Chief Akaro Fireampong of Abadwiren, with his dog discovered split palm trees on the ground. Again the juice was offered to the dog first and the liquid found to be harmless. The hunter gave some of the palm wine to chief Firampong, who in turn introduced his friend Anti Kyei of Akrokyere into drinking palm wine. Then Anti Kyei over indulged and died as a consequence. To prevent blood shed, as a result of the desire of Anti Kyei’s friends to take revenge, Firampong committed suicide.

Mythical explanation of the origin of indigenous alcohol, as Luc de Heusch has illustrated in his central African study, can, sometimes, shed light on the peoples world view. The Akan myths may implicitly shed light on how palm wine, and later European liquor, came to occupy such central roles in the religious life of Akans and the other ethnic groups of the southern Gold Coast. The early Akan users of palm wine were baffled by its intoxicating quality. In two of the myths on the origin of palm wine, the king and his high priest fell into drunken sleep assumed to be dead. Their recovery amazed their followers: almost “ a return from the dead.” Then alcohol, in the Akan context, was often used in rituals involving the ancestors- for example, when new members were added to the family or when ancestral lands were leased. It is possible that the intoxicating quality of alcohol, enacted in the myths of palm wine in an almost miraculous “return from the dead,” lay its choice as a medium of communication between the living and the dead. That palm wine was discovered by a hunter underscored its spiritual connection. Within most African societies, hunters, in their intimacy with nature, were seen as maintaining close connections with the supernatural world.

An early desire to guard palm wine against abuse is discernible in the myth. In both versions it is not mentioned if the king or Anti Kyei drank with anybody, so it may be safe to conclude that they drank alone. Also, in all the traditions of the origins of palm wine, tragedy (death) resulted. Akans frowned on solitary drinking. It was seen as a sign of a troubled person. Communal drinking was the norm, and solitary drinking was perceived as an antisocial act. In the several Akan traditions about the origin of palm wine, excessive solitary drinking resulted in tragedy. The emphasis on tragedy was reflected in a real-life ambivalence towards alcohol. Although alcohol was central to all important ceremonies like rites of passages and festivals, its use was always public and communal and was circumscribed by rules and regulations.

Social Drinking 

It is in the less ritualized social drinking that one sees the connection between alcohol, generosity, patronage, wealth, and power. The powerful saw possession and use of abundant palm wine as an index of wealth. As male elders had control over land and labor, they had more access to palm wine. In fact, by having palm wine available at all times in the house, an elder displayed his control over land and labor – that is, political power and wealth. Although young men tapped palm wine, they did not control its consumption. Taboos banned women from working on economically important palm trees. Royal largesse and power were reflected in the generous distribution of alcohol to all and sundry. A certain amount of palm wine was made available at the palace for visitors. This generosity was a strong expression of a king’s magnanimity and reinforces his standing among his people. To assist a chief or king in meeting these commitments, it appears that palm wine tappers were required to provide the chief or king a pot of palm wine daily for entertaining their guests. But royal favor was also expressed by gift of alcoholic drinks to the favored.

Trade and Social change 

The link between alcohol, wealth, and power had previously privileged male elders with their control over land and labor. From the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth century, expanding economic opportunities spawned by cash-crop cultivation, land sales, wage-labor, and commerce, dissolved the ties that bound some young men to the land and elder kinsmen. Indeed, the very worldview which endorsed the ritual use of alcohol came under attack from Christian missionary influence as colonial rule was establishing itself. And Islam, which forbids the use of alcohol, was also continuing to spread, especially in West Africa. As trading brought new opportunities, especially in the nineteenth century, wealth and power was now based on commercial achievement, and the possession of land and pursuit of traditional office was no longer viewed as the basis of power. And young male migrants to coastal towns, elaborate patterns of social drinking came to represent their new found freedom. The numerous economic occupations that had sprung up around European commercial activity had afforded these young men an independent source of income, and their quest for power based on new-found wealth was expressed in the abuse of the very fluid they had been denied access by elders. Young men took advantage of the low cost of rum and gin to binge on alcohol – the fluid sacred to the elders.

Exogenous alcohol and restrictions 

The consumption of indigenous alcoholic drinks in traditional settings is almost invariably described in positive terms in the scattered literature. African beers are described as drinks of low alcoholic content and high nutritional value that function – on both actual and symbolic levels – as lubricants for high integrated social systems. The low alcoholic content of these drinks, their high food value, the necessary seasonality of brewing, and the substantial time and labor required in their production supposedly ensured the absence of excessive and destructive drinking. In Robert Netting’s exemplary view of Kofyar society in Nigeria, drinking remained strictly controlled and never in any sense constituted a problem despite the pervasive presence of beer and substantial levels of consumption. In the nineteenth century alcohol began to gradually migrate from the home to the market. A world where alcohol had played vital ritual and social roles was now beginning to see alcohol in local markets. Nineteenth-century accounts of the Niger region show that local grain beer and palm wine were readily available from trading women and at markets.

The gradual expansion in the use of imported spirits in the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the process of the introduction of industrially produced alcoholic drinks that would accelerate rapidly during the century and especially after the Second World War. The flood of spirits soon began to cause disruption and human devastation, and that became a concern for temperance groups. Not only were European spirits stronger than fermented drinks, they were also much less perishable. African beer and palm wine would last no more than a few days, while gin and rum could last years. Prior to the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, African societies had apparently not developed the deep ambivalence that has long characterized Western attitudes towards alcohol. Drinking in Africa was strictly limited and essentially functional.

Rural and Urban 

One of the ironies of the social history of colonialism in Africa is that European liquor, which was now a coveted fluid for rural elders, constituted one of the cheapest commodities in most coastal trading towns. In the light of alcohol’s association with power and wealth, European liquor (rum and gin) represented one of the goods that young male migrants in coastal trading towns could usurp easily to express their new autonomy.

As urbanization grew as a result of increased European trading, the context in which alcohol was being used began to change. Palm wine maintained its ritual use in rural areas, but was no longer a sign of power and wealth. European liquor became a status symbol for young men in the urban areas and they formed their own social drinking clubs. The explosion of drinking clubs among young men in coastal trading towns, and their excessive abuse of alcohol, would encourage a new, forceful form of temperance organization by coastal chiefs, elders and missionaries. With alcohol being a social lubricant, it quickly found its place in urban life as people connect and interact in the public and private space. Aside from the private drinking clubs, bars were operated for the general drinking public to gather and socialize. While alcohol continued to maintain its ritual and ceremonial use in the rural areas for the most part, the drinking pattern among urbanized Africans was evolving. Studies have shown a connection between drinking and anxiety among urbanized Africans in response to economic insecurity. What was once a social lubricant was now turning into an urban social problem.

Era of Islam and European penetration 

Islam’s steady advancement in West Africa and the dramatic success of revitalization movements in the eighteenth century led not only to decline in the use of alcohol among converts, but a broader re-evaluation of the meaning of alcohol. Perhaps more than any other outward aspect of behavior self-denial symbolized faithfulness to Islam. Some Muslims maintained some of the rituals in which alcohol was used, but replaced alcohol with water. For example, water is now used by Muslims to pour on the ground and stepped over to chase away evil spirits, especially, when one is embarking on a journey. In 1867 when Kabaka Mutesu of Buganda, came under the influence of Muslim advisers, he began to fast during Ramadan and stopped drinking; and even when that influence ceased, he apparently continued to abstain. In the interior of West Africa, visitors’ descriptions of the absence or nature of alcohol rituals suggest some of the contours of Islam’s frontiers. In 1830 when the Lander brothers traveled along the Niger River they repeatedly moved in and out of the realm of abstinence. In the bigger towns local leaders offered kola, but in smaller villages the brothers received gifts of beer as well.

The Gambia is full of palm-trees, and I wonder which dog tasted the sap there first. In spite of Gambia being a predominantly Muslim society, alcohol is abundantly available. Banjul Breweries, a factory that manufactures beer and other soft drinks was opened in the mid-1970s. Its opening was initially opposed by some of the influential Muslim elders in Banjul because of the beer element, but the government at the time went ahead and gave the company license to operate regardless. Furthermore, Gambia is a tourist destination for some Europeans and that has contributed in permeating alcohol into the society even more. A good amount of hard liquor is imported every year for sale in the hotels, bars, restaurants and night clubs. Alcohol has always been used by the minority non-Muslim population too. Among the non-Muslim population, the Christians drink alcohol in some of their social gatherings. For them, alcohol is for social use rather than ritual use. They mainly drink commercial beer and other imported gins, spirits and rums, and less of the local palm wine and other locally home brewed alcohol (like fire water). A good collection of imported spirits to entertain guest is a sign of wealth and success in a sense.  On the other hand, palm wine is used both for consumption and for rituals purposes among the Jolas and Manjagos, some of whom still practice their indigenous religions. They use palm wine in their initiation rituals, burial rituals and wedding ceremonies. Even some of those who have converted to Christianity continue the ritual use of palm wine on certain occasions. The main purpose of the ritual use of palm wine is to bring spirits together.

In the past few decades, some of Gambia’s young Muslims have gradually picked up social drinking and the numbers have been steadily rising, both at home and in the Diaspora. For the Muslim drinkers, a good collection of expensive imported alcohol to entertain guests has also become their way of displaying wealth and success. This practice is very common among some of the educated who have adopted drinking and sometimes have their own drinking clubs too. When alcohol is abundant and readily available, there is bound to be abuse, and Gambia is no different. To my knowledge, there are no government or private programs for alcohol addiction treatment or education in Gambia, and I’m not sure if any other form of professional help is available either. If you are unlucky enough to become an alcoholic, you will probably stay an alcoholic, unless, there is divine intervention or family support. Personally, alcohol has never attracted my sensitive curiosity, and I have convinced myself that drinking it will not benefit me. I can search for the health and nutritional benefits of alcohol somewhere else, and I don’t need it as a social lubricant either.

From Globalization to Social Problem 

Alcohol in Sub-Saharan Africa has historically been a medium for religious and political expression controlled by male elders. Over the past century and especially during the last few crisis-ridden decades, alcohol’s ceremonial role has been largely reduced. Rapid income separation and economic marginalization have spurred production and consumption of alcohol. In many localities, expanding supply has led to drinking patterns that impinge on general social welfare. Alcohol consumption and its consequent effects on health are on the rise all over Africa. Reports published by World Health Organization (WHO) have recorded some concerning trends. Despite average alcohol consumption per capita being only half of Europe’s (largely thanks to Africa’s many abstaining Muslims and Christians), the latest WHO report found  Africa to have the highest rate of binge drinking in the world at 25%. “It’s true that most people in Africa don’t drink for cultural, religious and economic reasons, but those who drink, drink a lot”, says Vladimir Poznyak, Coordinator of the Management of Substance Abuse unit at WHO.

In many western countries this would instinctively trigger the implementation of higher taxes on alcohol and better public education. But corporate influence is strong in much of Africa – a relative new market where many companies are hungry to capitalize on profitable expansion. And the prevalence of illegally produced local alcohol is further complicating the issue. These drinks are usually extremely potent, often dangerous, and occasionally lethal – many worry that increased taxation will simply drive more people to resort to these illicit concoctions.

Currently, alcohol is a taboo subject for donors and African government alike, yet it is at the center of many of the continent’s most pressing problems. Decline in the agricultural sector, high unemployment, household instability, and AIDS have also been linked to changing alcohol usage, especially in South Africa.  Over the last couple of years, legislation on alcohol use has picked up pace in Africa. Recently, South Africa proposed new laws to raise the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21, properly license taverns, restrict alcohol advertising, and get tougher on drunk-driving. Earlier in 2012, Zambia banned the sale of alcohol in cheap plastic packets. Meanwhile, back in 2010, a strict regulation known as the “Mututho law” was introduced in Kenya, prohibiting the sale of alcohol by grocery stores before 5pm. The Act has been credited with a drop in alcohol related deaths in Kenya by 90%. However, much has yet to be legislated across the continent. While most countries have set a minimum drinking age, enforcement is another matter altogether. Appropriate steps are being slowly taken, but much more needs to be done in terms of education and awareness.


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