Drowning sorrows

Drowning sorrows

….Traditional beer finds a market in Maseru’s slums….

MASERU – IT IS midday on a Monday. Several men and women are gathered for a drink, singing and dancing in the Thibella slums.
Mabele lumela,” they say often. It is a form of greeting, but one that could sound unusual for those unfamiliar with Basotho daily life.
Lumela is a Sesotho greeting but to a non-Mosotho it becomes strange when one greets sorghum, mabele.
Locally, it is viewed as a sign of appreciation when one receives a jug of traditionally brewed sorghum beer, often followed by the few poetic lines: thabisa lihoho, thabisa ba hlonameng (merrymaker of frogs, cheering up the crestfallen).

Traditional sorghum beer is bringing merriment, and also helping put food on the table for many families in some of Lesotho’s slums.
The traditional sorghum beer is called Sesotho. The recipe: sorghum and wheat meals mixed in equal amounts plus cold water to make a stiff consistency. Then add some boiling water to make a thin gruel, which is then cooled to about 30-35 degrees Celsius.
A traditional liquid starter, tomoso, is added and the container is covered with a blanket to retain warmth.
The mixture is left to ferment overnight or for two days, depending on the surrounding temperature.
It is then boiled for two to three hours and then cooled to 30-35 degrees Celsius.

A solid starter culture called moroko (spent dregs from a previous fermentation) is added and the mixture is fermented for a further day or two.
It is then filtered to remove coarse particles (litšifa) to give a refreshing alcoholic drink.
Well, that is how a Mosotho food researcher, Molupe Lehohla, described how sorghum beer is brewed.
There are other traditional beer blends that include hopose, which derives its name from the use of hops in its preparation.
To make hopose, one has to mix hops with warm water, to which brown wheat meal or flour is added to make a thin gruel.
Brown sugar (about 1kg for 20 litre preparation) is then added and the mixture is left for about 20 to 30 minutes before adding a traditional starter culture or commercial yeast and malt to the lukewarm mixture.
The mixture is left overnight after which it is sieved to remove large pieces, and another portion of brown sugar is then added.
The mixture is then ready for consumption.
These are the two popular traditional beer blends in Lesotho.

Last week, thepost visited several traditional beer houses in some of Maseru’s slums.
On a Monday, customers sit on wooden benches in the Thibella slums in Maseru.
Others are sitting on 20 litre tins downing their beer in white two-litre containers, whose fading inscriptions suggest they were once used as storage for medical supplies.
Excited conversations are punctuated by song and dance, depicting a sense of a people at peace with themselves.
“Mabele lumela, mabele lumela,” they sing, imitating lyrics from a famous song on Bhudaza Mapefane’s album, u n’u noele bo joang joala ha u tla siea tšeea tšimong? (What kind of beer was it that you drank that you left your loin cloth at the fields)?
Several men and women here are clearly having a good time dancing and occasionally taking a sip of their hopose in a white plastic container.
Some reminisce over weekend events. Others are just enjoying the warmth of the sun coming through the shade of a green net.

In a nearby village less than 10 kilometers from the town of Maseru, a medium size shack built from old and rusty corrugated iron sheets makes for the bar.
Nkeli Ramantsoe is the proud owner of the traditional beer bar in Thibella, a slum popular for unregulated pubs — both traditional and modern.
Customers say he is the one who brewed the beer and also prepared cow heads and hooves that he sells at the bar and in town.
“I have always been a hustler, from pushing people’s luggage with a wheelbarrow to selling wood and meat,” Ramantsoe says.
In July last year, he decided to try his hand in the traditional beer business.
“I needed to supplement the money I made from selling meat in order to provide for my children,” he says.
His wife died some years ago leaving him to take care of their five children.
“Things were not easy but currently only two are fully dependent on me. Their brother just completed a driving course.”

The money from the sale of the beer – M6 per litre – and the money from selling meat is the main source of revenue for Ramantsoe’s family.
“I have never been employed or even been to South Africa to seek employment. I have always hustled locally in Maseru,” says Ramantsoe.
In a good week, Ramantsoe can sell up to 240 litres in four days and when things are slow it can take close to two weeks to sell the same quantity.
“Sometimes things are really bad, you will find that in a day I have only had two customers.”

Apart from paying the man who helps him fetch water, Ramantsoe also has to buy firewood and beer ingredients.
“I buy a wheelbarrow load (of wood) for M30 and most times I have to buy two loads to ensure that there is enough to boil the water.”
“I also buy ’mela (malt) brown flour, yeast, hops and brown sugar.”
He says sugar is the most expensive ingredient “and if you don’t budget accordingly you will lose a lot”.
“I buy a bundle of 20kgs for M300.”
Like many other businesses, Ramantsoe’s enterprise is faced with some challenges.
“Customers buy on credit and take time to pay,” he laments.
Although bars are known to be rowdy and fertile grounds for violent encounters Ramantsoe’s bar is safe and so far does not have a problem of customers fighting.
“Maybe it is because we have policemen and soldiers who drink here so people feel the need to stay in check.”

The need to provide for his family meant he had to do away with society’s stereotypes that brewing alcohol or preparing cow head and hooves is a woman’s job.
“No one taught me how to prepare hopose. Since I also like hopose, I taught myself and strived to brew something that would please me.”
Not far from Ramantsoe’s bar is ’Malikonelo Koto’s bar.
A former factory worker, Koto got into the business after falling sick in 2014. Forced to leave her job, she resorted to brewing traditional beer although it was not her first encounter with the business.
“When I was growing up it is traditional beer that put food on the table for my family. It took us to school,” Koto says.
She says although she did not know how to brew the beer then, she learned when circumstances forced her to.
Today, the enterprise supports three families.

“My family, my maiden family and my in-laws are dependent on this business,” Koto says.
She said although times are hard and things get tough every now and then “this is the only way I know how to make money now”.
Close by, ’Mampho Mopeli is in the same business.
Mopeli has been selling traditional beer for more than 25 years.
She lost her job as a hospital assistant when her expired contract was not renewed.
The hospital gave her another contract to do laundry but that too did not last and she found herself facing financial problems.
She did not get another job as she had anticipated and the pressure of having to send money back home to Qacha’s Nek drove her to start brewing traditional beer.
As a young Mosotho woman, Mopeli knew how to brew traditional beer and was often praised for her skills back home. So when she did not get a job she decided to put her skills to the test.
“This is the business that takes care of my family,” she says with an air of pride.
She usually sells up to 120 litres in two or three days.
She says her ingredients for a full tram include 17 kg of sugar, 2.5 kg of wheat flour, malt and yeast costing her M350 for 120 litres. From this, she makes M720.

At her bar, drunk customers often insult each other but there are no fights.
Motlomelo Motlomelo, one of the patrons at her pub is grateful for the affordable and “healthy” drink.
“The beer which we don’t even know where it was fermented is dangerous to our health,’’ he says, struggling to maintain his balance.
He says he has been drinking “this kind of beer for a very long time and I am still healthy and happy”.
A few kilometers from the shack-turned-pub, is a big well-furnished house. Here, men and women mostly in their 40s and 50s sit on wooden benches in front of the house.
On a Monday afternoon, they are listening to Sesotho music but the music is hardly audible over patrons’ conversations in high pitched voices.
Some are just sitting on big stones and stools while others are on their feet dancing to the music. Despite being visibly drunk, they somehow manage to steadily hold white containers filled with beer in their hands.

Inside the house, a woman in her early 50s sits on a nice couch counting coins.
Refusing to divulge her name to thepost crew, she says business is good and the market growing.
“I sometimes get more customers while sometimes they become few,” she says.
There is no statistical data on the uptake of traditional beer in Lesotho or its profitability unlike modern beer brands produced by big factories.
But one thing is clear: People here have less and less time for modern beer and slowly it is becoming the backbone of the local economy.

Lemohang Rakotsoane & Refiloe Mpobole


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