May 20, 2009

Juba, the breakfast of champions

I’ve only ever mentioned it in passing before but it is impossible to get a full understanding of life in Itipini without mentioning the prevalence of alcohol. It is everywhere and affects everything.

It comes in many forms - all cheap - but one of the most common is Juba, a beer(-ish) type substance that comes in a one-liter milk-carton-like container and sells for less than 50-cents U.S. Itipini is littered with empty containers like this one.
Note the warning on the container - “don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed” - an appropriate public-safety campaign in a place where most consumers of Juba don’t know how to drive or own cars but still have to get places.

The empties are put to creative use by people of all ages. This shack has walls made of Juba containers.
There’s also Xhosa homebrew, called mqombote (I’m a bit unsure of the spelling), that is basically fermented corn meal cooked over an open fire and then stored in someone’s house.
I’ve learned over time that the different drinks are favoured by different groups of people. Juba, for instance, is for older women and men. If you see a young man drinking Juba, you know he’s desperate. Younger men traditionally drink brand-name beers that come in bottles and is more expensive.

All this alcohol is served out of local shebeens, or unlicensed liquor establishments. The people who are the best off financially in Itipini are, I believe, the ones who own a shebeen. And there are plenty of shebeens around, including one just up the hill behind the clinic. Some people go into town and hang out in front of a bottle store all day.

Naturally, alcohol has the same affect on people in Itipini that it does on people all over the world - it makes them do stupid things, like get in fights and hurt each other, neglect their families, or spend money on alcohol they should be spending on necessities. Lots of those people end up seeking help from the clinic, occasionally when they are still drunk.

Where does the money for all this come from? Addicted people have an income-inelastic demand for alcohol so they’ll find it wherever of course but a major source, I believe, is the government grants that go to older people. In my experience, a lot of those old-age pensions are going right into the shebeens around Itipini.

Alcohol is brought into Itipini in massive quantities. I often see women walking down the dirt road to Itipini carrying a crate of Juba on their head. Or you see men like this one wheeling in a few crates. (I don’t know why he’s crouching over for the picture.)
I saw these two young boys (not in school) pushing this wheelbarrow down Mthatha’s main street a few months back. They both live in Itipini and were taking their load to re-stock a shebeen someplace.
Occasionally, a shebeen orders enough to warrant a truck delivery, like this one I saw a few days ago.Mthatha consumes Juba by the truckload. I frequently see 18-wheeler trucks stacked high and long with crates and crates and crates of Juba. I wonder how many of those trucks Mthatha consumes in a day, a week, a year?

In his book about Rwanda, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Philip Gourevitch mentions off-handedly that some huge percentage of Rwandans were likely alcoholic. (I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t check the exact number.) It would be impossible to calculate that figure precisely but I imagine it’s huge in Itipini as well.

People know that they shouldn’t be drinking, or at least they’re embarrassed to be seen drinking. As I drive down the road to Itipini or walk around the community, I frequently see people trying to hide a container of Juba so I won’t see it. But as soon as I leave it’s brought back out again. I think my main objection to alcohol consumption is that resources are so limited here that any money spent on alcohol could have been and should have been spent someplace more productive.

One of the beer brands, Castle, has a large ad campaign showing a strapping steelworker almost single-handedly lifting an I-beam into place. The caption says something like, “You deserve a Castle.” The trouble is that so few people here have jobs that allow them to have alcohol, which should be a luxury, or have jobs at all. So they miss out on the hard work part of it and skip right to the drinking stage. And when they spend most of the day drunk, they further reduce their chances of finding the kind of work that might make them “deserve” beer.