All writing has been in conjunction with local sources on the ground in Uganda. They are satisfied with the result and it has been anonymised at their request.
The police armoured personal carrier forces the boda motorcycles, taxis and cars to the fringes of the road. They hang precariously over the sewage drains. Officers, in ludicrous blue camouflage, sit on the edge of the vehicle with bored expressions; their legs swinging over the side as they fiddle absent-mindedly with their AK-47s. The civilian drivers, clearly pissed off, bite their tongues. They have no qualms chastising poor driving from others but give the Kevlar-clad men the benefit of the doubt. A cloud of red dust whipped up by the passing APC makes me splutter. I am still acclimatising.
The uneven road, the seemingly suicidal pedestrians and traffic, even the garbage strewn everywhere, present a challenge to the msungu in search of a beer on the Jinja road. Msungu being the local term for white person, though commonly used to describe an outsider, African American visitors included. I try to walk with purpose hoping it will project that I belong here – that I know what I am doing. At best, hoping they think I am an aid worker, at worst that I am a security contractor. In fact, the peddlers and shop-keepers lining the road see me as potentially their best customer in months.
“See, the msungu don’t know what anything is worth here. If you’re lucky the idiot might feel sorry for you and willingly pay extra.”
They already double the price when they clock you, knock off a third because they’re your new best friend who would never rip you off, then thank you when you tell them to keep the change. My colleagues willingly participate in the ritual, patronisingly colouring their actions as charitable.
“It may mean he can buy his children new shoes.”
They do not do the same for the neighbouring stalls.
“Many cannot afford the doctor but can stretch to the waragi ”
The smell hits me as I skip over the sewage drains. Shit, petrol, frying food, garbage. It can catch you like tear gas. The children playing in front of the Berlin Bar do not seem to care. Inside it has a subterranean feel conferred by inadequate lighting. A plucky ceiling fan does its best to combat the stifling heat. The addition of sweat makes the smell worse. The place is about two thirds full; not a bad turnout for an afternoon. This in itself is not a surprise: Uganda has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the region. In the 2014 WHO report, consumption was comparable with Canada and more than Sweden.
The patrons are glued to the football match unfolding on a screen in the corner. Sucking waragi gin from plastic pouches they open side bets on the result amongst themselves. A couple hundred shilling a pop; easy to blow new shoe money. I order an East African Guinness out of curiosity. The woman behind the bar pops the bottle and slides it over. She does not give me a glass. The taste is close enough but drinking stout from the bottle feels wrong. I struggle through. Demographically, my fellow drinkers are a mixed bunch: several security contractors, unarmed but still in uniform; boda drivers cradling their crash helmets; many peddlers and traders, the day’s success measured in how many bottles they can buy. All, without exception, are male. Attitudes towards women drinking vary depending on location. In Kampala, by and large, it is accepted, but there will be the frequent gripes from men that it is unladylike.
“How do they expect to keep a husband if they’re boozing? You can’t trust women who drink.”
Even my friends at the university, liberal by Ugandan standards, adhere to the stereotyped outlook.
“Yeah you can have fun with girls who drink but you wouldn’t take them home. Everyone knows what girls who drink are like.”
Like many gendered interactions in Uganda there is a double standard at work from the men. For example, government posters providing prophylactic advice against HIV advise women to always remain faithful and never to stray. Whereas men, well, just wear a condom. It is a society still dominated by attitudes of masculinity and this is evident within the drinking culture. Men still recount the history of waragi or “war gin” and its pivotal role in tribal conflict instilling bravery in warriors. They gloss over the fact that it is probably not overly masculine to rely on alcohol for courage. Similar to the British drinking culture, it is manly to drink and manliness is a crucial cultural currency. Just like with wives, the more you can handle the greater the prestige. There is, however, another factor at play. Countless studies link alcohol abuse and poverty and it is evident in the Kampalan townships. Certainly this is a place where the majority earn less than $2 a day, but impoverishment extends beyond mere income. Infrastructure is non-existent, preventable diseases, whilst falling, are still rampant and healthcare is expensive. A malaria test can be as much as $30. Alcohol acts as a form of self-medication, particularly in cases of injury. Many cannot afford the doctor but can stretch to the waragi. It will not cure but it will get you through the working day. So it goes.
Drink is a coping strategy for poverty. Drink is a measure of masculinity. Drink is damaging to the community. It is also fun, sociable, and a great way to unwind at the end of the day. Some of my fellow patrons may be drinking for the wrong reasons. Most may just be enjoying a cheeky afternoon drink. I know I am. Probably will not have a flutter though.
Image: ‘Berlin Bar’ by Clare Clarke