Drinking alcohol responsibly

Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
THE first time I got drunk, I was five or maybe six- years-old. I cannot remember exactly how old I was because I was drunk from real nice warm village beer that was mixed with morsels of sadza and peanut butter. This was not the first time I had eaten and drunk beer and licked the bowl clean. I must have started getting mildly drunk enough to send me to sleep when I was weaned off the breast. This means I was about two-years-old when the taste of alcohol was introduced to me by my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa.

Back in the days, when we were growing up in the village, sadza mixed with beer and peanut butter was a nice tasty dish. This was one of Mbuya’s favourite dishes for children, especially those who had been cruelly taken off the breast and weaned off quickly because the mother had discovered she was pregnant again. That was often the case with my mother. One year she was breastfeeding and the following year, she was pregnant. Once you were taken off the breast like that, you were likely to get malnourished. But Mbuya would not have that in the village compound.

She kept an eye on the first sight of a pregnancy and ordered the weaning of the child immediately, to avoid kuyamwira, allowing a baby to breast feed when a mother is pregnant.

I have memories of Mbuya one day breaking away from a group of village drinkers who had gathered in the compound. She placed cold sadza in a big clay bowl and added peanut butter. Then she poured a gourd of beer on the sadza and peanut butter. With clean hands, she mixed everything and then dished out the food into small metal plates, leaving some in the big bowl. She identified those who had just been weaned off from the breast, sat one or two on her lap and pushed the beer and peanut butter sadza into their mouths until they were full.

After eating beer sadza, we danced in the village courtyard, probably all drunk. Then we collapsed on a mat and slept peacefully together on a mat in one village hut, full, content and drunk. Mbuya said it was healthy. Each one of us was fed this dish, mukanyirwa, as we grew. We would ask for more of it as long as there was beer and peanut butter around.

Years later, I am here, visiting my mother’s village, about 40 kilometres from our homestead going further down towards Daramombe Anglican Christ the King Mission School.

I arrive in the afternoon, a day after kurova guva, the ceremony to bring the ancestor’s spirit back home for one of my uncles’ wives. She died more than a year ago and following tradition, beer was brewed, a beast was killed and last night mbira, drums and hosho were played. I missed the ceremony but am here to greet most of the uncles before they all go back to the city. We will not see them again until there is a funeral or another ceremony. As our parents get old and die, few of us visit the village as regularly as we should.

This means there is less beer being brewed around here. But when it’s there, like today, people drink.

When my cousin Piri and I arrive, three guys walk towards the car to welcome us. They walk like zombies. Their eyes are red; hair is unkempt and full of dust and grass. They have a glazed look and smile and are almost drooling over us during handshakes. One of them falls down and he tries to get up and fails. Another goes straight to the car and wants to open the door but I quickly lock it. Then he holds Piri’s hand and tells her that he loves her and could she come behind the mulberry tree for sweet loving talks? Piri gently pushes him away and says, “Not now. But if you sober up, go to the river and wash, clean your teeth and comb your hair, we can start talking.” The smell of alcohol and possibly marijuana is very strong. He ignores Piri’s answer and grabs her by the waistline, then attempts to do a waltzing. She pushes him away and the guy falls to the ground. Others laugh and we move on to the rest of the people at the ceremony.

There is a drum being beaten behind the hozi where many other men, young and old, are singing with discord with no coordination at all. They are happy and totally drunk.

Apart from the women who are busy cooking or washing plates, the only sober people around here are some of my urban uncles, who are sitting on one veranda, watching the circus of dancing drunkards.

These guys have been drinking since yesterday afternoon and, one-by-one, they will either leave or they will simply lie down under the tree or anywhere in the nearby grass and sleep. Although they are drinking too much, they are not driving anywhere and there will be no fear of getting lost or getting into trouble with anyone.

Nearby, just past the mulberry tree, a husband and wife are arguing. He wants to go home, but she does not want to go with him. They try to walk, supporting each other along the narrow path, and then the wife falls down. The husband pulls her arm and addresses her with their granddaughter’s name, begging her to come home saying “Mbuya va Sibo, handei kumba.” She pushes him away and tries to walk back to the party along the narrow path. He is a lot stronger than her and less drunk. He grabs her by the wraparound cloth and it falls off her. She does not care that she is without her wrapper. Her dress is long enough. She tries to run back to the drum beat and falls down again. Sitting there, she points at him and accuses him of setting a trap that made her fall. We are watching all this and we all laugh.

Someone tells Mbuya vaSibo that beer was forcing her to disrespect her husband. Sekuru va Sibo feels supported. He pulls his wife by the shoulder, telling her that she was a grandmother now and should behave like one. “Get up Mbuya Va Sibo. You make me lose my dignity.”

“What dignity? Without me you are nothing. I give you dignity. Kumusha kure!” Mbuya vaSibo shouts, spits, then laughs and sings. There is too much alcohol in her brain. After a little while of arguing, walking going back and forth, Mbuya and Sekuru vaSibo reconcile and arm-in-arm, we see them stagger home to their village across the river.

Piri and I sit on the veranda of the kitchen hut waiting to be served. We are offered very tasty smoked turkey, maguru or tripe stew and roast meat. After the meal, beer and mahewu, the non alcoholic drink is placed in front of us. Piri does not hesitate to take the whole gourd of beer. She gulps it down quickly and asks for more. I take mahewu, because I am driving. I have never been a serious drinker of village beer or any beer.

When I was in Australia two weeks ago I felt the temptation to drink one beer at a family function organised by my cousin Reuben. He presented five varieties of beer and said they were all boutique beers, each one from a different country with its own distinctive taste. But I resisted the temptation to be seen drinking beer by my cousins, nephews, nieces and friends. A woman holding a bottle of beer is not a good image.

“Tete, drink,” one of Reuben’s pretty friends said. She held a bottle of something colourful and she was guzzling it down like it was water. Looking around at the people from Zimbabwe gathered around a big lamb being roasted on a spit or open fire, I saw many drunken people, most of them very young. Except for a handful of church goers, everyone at Reuben’s house was drinking beer, whisky, wine or something intoxicating. When I first went to Australia many years ago, students did not drink like this.

In Australia, like in other Western countries, people do not often drink and drive. When I was a student, they had a campaign to stop drink driving. You could see a big poster with the sign, “If you drink and drive, you are a bloody idiot.” We thought it was very rude to put up such a poster. But it made you think. Should you really drink and drive then endanger your life and that of others?

When we drove back from my mother’s village on Sunday, Piri held a five litre plastic container of village brew between her legs, a present from my uncles. She was drinking straight from it, as the car rolled over potholes spilling some of the beer on her dress. She did not care. “Ah, this village beer tastes exactly the same as it was when we were children,” she laughed. I laughed too; wishing beer was still food and not the enemy that it seems to be when we fail to drink it responsibly.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.