How about a drinkette?- Part 1

How about a drinkette?- Part 1

Some weeks ago, as a follow-up to my piece on food in Lesotho, I was planning to write on good places in Lesotho to have a drink. Then I thought I’d do a watering-hole-centred piece as a follow-up to “Lesotho or Nigeria?”, covering both countries. Now the focus has expanded to worldwide. What I’m offering is basically a string of anecdotes (deafening sound of readers turning impatiently to sports pages). I hasten to add this piece is not intended as an encouragement to drink alcohol (although I very happily do) but as an account of remarkable people, places and incidents.

The most extraordinary bar I’ve ever been into in my life was a joint called Moscow, in Chemnitz, former East Germany. I was attending a conference, some years after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and after German reunification, but the bar—to which I was taken by colleagues who’d happened upon it earlier in the week—clearly hadn’t changed much since East German days.

Under the former regime—and East Germany was, basically, a police State—it was designed as a workers’ bar, with subsidised prices, a place where dozens of workers (for it was cavernous) could hang out, drink and play bar-games, under the surveillance of the secret police, the Stasi. Very much “Big Brother is watching you.” There were brackets on the walls for microphones and CCTV; a room as big as an aircraft hanger housed (I counted them) forty-two snooker tables.

The wine—wonderful Sachsen white wine—was served not from a bottle but from a big metal tank on the wall with a tap on it. That’s what I call basic. (Mind you, although I love many food and drink traditions, when I am buying wine at my local supermarket my choice is guided not so much by the quality of the wine as by finding a bottle that has a screw-cap, not a cork, as I am completely and utterly hopeless at uncorking a bottle).

Now, readers may remember what I said a few weeks ago about the association of ideas, the way when one is talking or writing just a single word will call up another thought or memory. So it is now, and the word is “snooker.”

On most of my many visits to Ramabanta I would leave the lodge after lunch with my driver and one of my adopted children, Paul Bokaako (my best friend in the whole wide world) and whoever else was with me, and we’d make our way down to the shebeen in the village centre, where the kombis wait for passengers. The very friendly and helpful ‘M’e behind the bar was always happy to see us (and I remember one time one of the NUL students, who lived in Ramabanta and was clearly playing truant, was somewhat flustered to see me).

Paul and the others would play snooker; a bit frustrating for the others, as Paul is a terrific player and nearly always won.  I would sit outside and watch life going past and the activities at the stalls dotted around. One thing that puzzled me was the sight of a blacksmith fitting horse-shoes to the hooves of Lesotho ponies; I was puzzled, because I thought the hooves of this super-sturdy breed of pony were damaged by shoes. Have I got this wrong?

Next I turn to Nigeria (“Why am I not surprised?” I hear my long-suffering editor groan). The “association of ideas” word here—picked up from the last paragraph—is “shebeen.” Now, this is an Irish Gaelic word, which originally referred to a small, unlicensed drinking place—the sort of spot where you  would enjoy the illegally distilled drink, poteen (pronounced “pocheen”), incredibly strong and made out of potatoes (it’s so strong, if you pour a little into a saucer, you can set fire to it).

In South Africa the word is used (and I may be Superbrain, but I don’t know how this came to be) to refer to any small drinking spot, licensed or not. The equivalent Nigerian word for a wee drinking place is “bush bar.”
In Sokoto, northern Nigeria, where I first started working, I had a favourite bush bar. This was half-way down a dirt road and was tiny, indeed little more than a hole in the wall. Inside it was very cramped and uncomfortable, but you could sit outside on rickety metal chairs and there was plenty of tree shade from the scorching Sahelian sun. There was no toilet, so you had to use the available shrubbery, which gave a whole new dimension to the term “bush bar.”

This place became a favourite for British academic staff from the University, the College of Education and other colleges in town. You might well ask why on earth, since there were comfortable hotel bars to drink at. Well, it was cheap, and the lager was ice-cold—just the ticket, given the aforementioned scorching Sahelian climate—and best of all, the Igbo family who owned and ran it were very friendly and always happy to see us—I think we made a pleasant change from the morose policemen who were their usual customers.

I still remember helping the youngest of the family, Jude, with his homework, in between serious gulps of lager. And also the place was adopted by us because, with our characteristic ironic Brit sense of humour, we were tickled at having chosen such an unlikely place to be our local.
We started calling the place The Rose and Crown, a typical British pub name (and you thought colonization was dead?).

One of us had a friend back at home who was a professional sign maker and, lo and behold, coming back from vacation one year he brought back a beautifully painted wooden Rose and Crown pub sign he’d had made as a present for the owners. They were a bit baffled, but very pleased, and had it fixed securely to the outside wall. I can’t recall it doing much to cheer up the morose policemen.
To be continued

Chris Dunton

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