Beer, in an archaeological sense, is a part of our collective material culture. Societies craft objects as defined by their cultural norms, applying these motifs to pottery, jewelry, or glassware. Beer certainly fits within this, but it is unique in the sense that it is created specifically to be consumed. There are objects surrounding beer as well, like mugs, artwork, blogs and the like, all signifying the object's role in that society that defines its material culture. In analyzing these objects over time, researchers can make inferences on cultural evolution. So examining beer’s role in society, we can see how that culture grows. In Africa, one such change is happening - women are shifting the brewing of traditional beers (usually reserved for rituals) into fledgling businesses as a means of self-reliance and financial security. Historically, beers were reserved for special rituals: annual ceremonies, births, baptisms, funerary rites, etc. Now, due to external pressures (famines, cattle loss, raiding parties, disease), women need new means of income to support their families and are turning to brewing, given its low level of investment.
There are some parallels between medieval Europe and Africa with the division of labor between the sexes. In England, for example, men were often busy with heavy work (such as farming, construction, or fishing), and the women were occupied with maintaining the household. This often meant brewing, baking, cleaning, sewing, maintaining gardens, washing, etc. But when there was surplus beer, these so-called ‘Alewives’ could sell extra to the village, and some employed this tactic full time. We see this now in Africa as well.
But it isn’t so simple. Brewing beer for ceremonies, weddings and funerals fall wayside to make a profit, denying thousands of years of tradition. But when you have household responsibilities, children to feed, and a farm to look after, it becomes harder and harder to justify free beer to the elders rather than selling the beer in town.
Surely this happened in western culture as well, once humans realized you could make a profit off beer’s industrialization. I would like to say that this is a great time to be in Africa; to see the changing of culture and the promotion of brewing culture. However, these women are not turning to brewing because it’s fun, but because it is necessary.
In Africa, there is meaning attached to beer. Drinking can mark relations of equality, hierarchy, cooperation, and the embodiment of kinship. Beers are used for ceremonies such as seasonal rituals, births, weddings, offerings to the ancestors, and part of the feed given to working parties. As with the rest of the world, drinking in Africa is seen as an essential social activity, related to sharing and hospitality. Although it might seem trivial to some, such drinking and tradition work to maintain social cohesion amongst those participating.
Given the high inflation, falling wages, and low producer prices in most African countries, income is so low that people need to diversify their livelihood. In the Karamoja region of Uganda, it was common for men and women to live separately. This is a particularly difficult region to live in, as the area is characterized by intense heat, sporadic rainfall, droughts, and general unpredictability. So, the adopted strategy for humans was a dual subsistence of farming and herding. Women and children would tend to sorghum farms when weather allowed, and men would travel with cattle herds to ideal grazing areas. In periods of extended drought, women would go to the cattle camps to have access to milk and meat.
But this has changed in recent history. Droughts have increased in frequency, sociopolitical unrest as a result of colonialism, and an increase in raiding parties have drastically altered the way of life in this region of Uganda. Men still maintain large herds, but migration is limited to remote locations so as to avoid raiding parties, leaving women and children no access to milk. Plus, with the droughts, sorghum harvests haven‘t been optimal, and in some regions failed altogether.
So what is a family to do? Some common industries where women participate are the gathering and selling of firewood, water, materials for buildings, or selling tobacco. Yet none of these provides enough income as well as the brewing of beer. And it seems like women have been choosing this as a means of support for awhile. I would even venture to guess that this has been a fallback plan throughout all of African history, yet so far there is no evidence before the 1900s. In Karamoja, Uganda, as described above, the selling of beer didn’t begin until 2004. In other regions, like Gwembe, Zambia, women began selling beer as a response to their relocation after the village river was dammed in 1999.
There are real benefits for women entering the brewing industry. It works as income redistribution between men and women, as men make up the majority of consumers. With these earnings, women can buy foods like beans, dried fish, vegetables, nuts, tomatoes, and milk, providing their family with better nutrition. In fact, an analysis of nutrition comparison between those who sold beer and those who didn’t found that those who sold beer had greater energy, protein, fat, calcium and vitamin A intake.
Logistics of selling beer
In a sample in Nakwamoru, Kenya, 80% of the participating women brewed or sold beer. Eight were involved with brewing and selling or at least aided their friends and family, and another four regularly assisted these women. In Tanzania, a quarter of surveyed women brewed up to four times a month. Even more so, in a 1980s survey of 100,000 households in Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and South Africa found women to be heavily concentrated in food processing, retailing, and small textile businesses.
Records of beer commercialization extend to the 1900s and is still a leading strategy for women in modern times, showing that the brewing industry is a reliable and standard method as a means of support amongst humans. Even still, women are becoming brewers in higher numbers. Why? The technological requirements to brew beer are minimal. Thus, the initial investment is small, and most women share equipment, making it easier for women to enter into the business. Plus, beer must be sold within two to three days to avoid souring, which gives rapid returns.
Beer production usually involves multiple women working together, allowing the brew happen close to home, and subsequently watch over the children in attendance. With such cooperation, brewing usually takes roughly 120 min, so it is not a major burden on other responsibilities.
Those involved in the industry but did not brew beer engaged in what is known as ‘booking.' That is, a woman would reserve (book) a certain amount of beer for resale in urban trading centers. In Uganda for example, on average, a woman would purchase 3000 USH (Ugandan Shillings) worth (roughly 20 L / 5 gal) and sold it retail for up to 4000 USH. Beer is generally sold in one-litre plastic measurements, which regularly goes for around 100s. This is standardized through local governments, in hopes of preventing more expensive beers being introduced into the market, protecting the purchasing power of drinkers, and preventing women from going out of business.
Material wise, most sacks of grain hold around 100kg. The mash tuns/brewing kettles are usually just an oil drum, which can either be rented or loaned, which typically gives 60 l of beer. One oil drum sells for 10,000 USH each and is usually too expensive to purchase on one’s own. For fuel, one survey showed that 25% of total wood consumed was solely for brewing beer. If a woman collects her own firewood, she can expect to double her initial investment (or more if she has her own crops).
Then there’s also the nutritional aspects of beer. Women who help during brew day are often paid with either beer for themselves, or the dregs (leftover grain) which can be made into a porridge or to make more beer. Typically, a full serving of beer is around 500 ml, and can be shared amongst children, or between a mother and infant. The majority of consumed beer turns out to be strained commercial beer, averaging at levels around roughly 230 ml per day. The dregs left over from brewing is also utilized, where approximately 60 - 70 % of it was consumed by children.
Although in modern Europe beer is not seen as a healthy drink, unfiltered beer is a good source of nutrition, particularly protein, and is only rivaled by milk. Households who had access to cattle showed the highest level of nutrition, followed by those who participated in beer retail, with the lowest level of nutrition from those who did not have cattle nor beer. This is attributed to how brewing provides a source of income to allow women to purchase ingredients for the household and the overall nutrients within beer (calories, iron, niacin, and protein) itself. There have been studies which attempted to evaluate nutrient levels in African beer, but they were only estimates based off of assumptions. So, in agreement with those previous studies, more research is required to understand the nutrition of the African diet fully. But suffice to say, beer provides much of the daily calories and has some nutrients equivalent to bread.
It is said ‘wives of men with or without cattle sell beer,' highlighting beer’s overall importance within African society. But I am unsure as to why brewing is a task solely for women, and I’d have to fall on the old adage that since brewing is seen as a job for the home, it thus falls into women’s responsibility.
There are times when men brew, for offerings for spirits, funerals, or - more rarely - for the market. It seems men engage in brewing activity when it does not interfere with the household, nor harbors any risk to themselves. One typical male drink is derived from bamboo sap, in which men have their own personal crop. Sap has no other uses for the household, nor does a man need to deplete financial resources to brew it, given its simplicity. Thus, men harbor no risk when engaging in brewing. So it seems the main reason men rarely brew is due to their access to female labor (wives, sisters, daughters) and can obtain beer without having to work for it. Plus, since men traditionally do not care for children (nor bear any), nor collect water or prepare food, they have greater access to income generating opportunities, so brewing might not be as appealing.
It might be counter-productive to promote beer consumption, considering the repercussions of alcoholism. But that is not my place to decide who should and shouldn’t drink or produce alcohol. Doing so assumes others are incapable of responsibility or overlook the hidden dangers. Naturally, this is not the case. There are plenty of cultural stigmas against drunkenness amongst African communities, as is the case in all societies who drink. At least in a time of political unrest, the dangers of raiding parties, and the stress of raising children, at least beer provides relief from the hardships of life.
Be that as it may, there is still a risk in selling beer. Most women do not brew themselves, but ‘book’ to resell it in towns. If a person leaves early in the morning to obtain the daily supply, only to find out that someone already reserved it, they won’t have any business that day. If however she is lucky and books beer for sale, she then has to deal with money. Most purchase beer through credit, forcing women to collect debts and thus preventing them from achieving the full monetary potential. In Uganda for example, a woman could earn up to 1000 USH (Ugandan Shillings), but most only get 500 to 600 USH. Even with 600 USH, however, she would be able to purchase 200 USH maize, 100 USH tomatoes, 100 USH cooking oil, and another 200 USH on beer. But if the same woman only receives 200 USH in a day, she’ll need 100 for beer to continue working, leaving her no money for food. To complicate this further, these beers sour quickly, imposing the pressure to sell it as fast as possible.
Of course, this only works when there is a good harvest. More financially stable households are capable of forgoing beer sales when crops are poor, relying on other sources such as livestock or tobacco. Yet lower income families are forced to sell beer in hopes to earn enough to purchase food later on.
And then there are the social risks. As stated before, there are cultural traditions one has to adhere too, whether for funeral ceremonies, coming-of-age, or other seasonal rituals. The Karamoja elders, for example, are traditionally given preferential treatment for ritual brews, but this now comes at the risk of losing profits. Rejecting the elders for profit could have real implications for a woman’s social stature, one she can use to gain help from the community. So much so, giving females their financial independence is viewed as an assault on traditional patriarchal families and drives some men to violence against these rural brewers.
Despite all of this, these women still choose to brew. They face plenty of challenges, like unequal access to information, education, agricultural support, markets, and lack of capital for investments. Plus, land rights are granted to men, either through marriage or inheritance. So supporting women in agriculture and brewing is a strategy which would drastically improve their livelihood. Given their essential role in agricultural growth, empowering women leads to economic development. They would be given more autonomy in their lives, increased household food supply, better health outcomes for their children and decreased overall vulnerability to outside influences (drought, illness, etc.) and sexually transmitted diseases.
Little has been done however to support women in the brewing industry nor do foreign aid recognize its importance. This lack of attention means there are no development intervention programs, business training, or small credit programs. There at least have been efforts to improve wood consumption with the Dutch TNO and Woodburning Stove group in the 80s, but that has since ceased.
This dismissal, it seems, is due to a lack of research and holding onto prohibitionist era ideologies. The pervasiveness of Islam and Christianity and adherence to nineteenth-century teetotalism permeates the belief that alcohol is a societal disorder, and should only be given attention when it is to prevent alcohol’s influence. But this situation is not black and white. True that beer is not entirely beneficial for children, the profits women obtain from beer sales, however, is enough for mothers to purchase better food supplies.
As stated by McCoy et. al., “Better integration of supportive systems for women - from agricultural education to family planning - as well as joint, multi-sectoral approaches from health and agriculture, would better address the complexities of achieving safe and sustainable livelihoods...income earning potential as brewing may protect women’s (limited) autonomy over earned income and help to reduce the ubiquitous availability of alcohol.”
Such initiatives sound great to me, but as far as I know, they don’t exist.
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