It’s a lovely word. The ‘qo‘ just rolls of the tongue onto the roof of your mouth with a soft click and the next ‘o’ comes out as ‘aw’: oohm tk awm baww tea

It is the chicken noodle soup of South Africa especially in the Eastern Cape.

It is brewed for special occasions. For young Xhosa men (abakwetha) the introduction to umqombothi is usually painful. It is brewed to celebrate their initiation to manhood, which involves isolation and circumcision. I have never drunk it.

Beer is of course a staple of most civilisations, essentially because back in the day local water supplies soon became contaminated by poor sanitation and livestocks’ lack of regard for water purity. The alcohol in beer killed most of the germs in the water and the grain was extremely nourishing. That is why most wise people like beer – they are survivors.

In Africa where my soul was born, there are a number of natural brews of which probably the most popular is mahewu because of its simplicity. It is essentially ingrained into the rural dweller’s life and is shared communally. Both these drinks are grain based and only mildly alcoholic.

However, as has no doubt been experienced recently in South Africa, where alcohol sales were banned in the Covid lockdown, people go to great lengths to make alcoholic drinks.

I can remember my father warning me never to drink home brewed shebeen beer, makanjane, as brewers often added dubious ingredients to improve the ‘kick’. Such ingredients included methylated spirits and battery acid, as well as dead rats…. Mind you there is a pervasive myth that the secret Guinness ingredient is a beef hindquarter!

The brewing of pineapple beer was part of the unofficial curriculum for most young schoolboys: pineapple peel, brown sugar and water buried in a jar for a few days!

Once when I had mumps and was in bed upstairs in our house in Mbabane, my brother Mpunzane remembered a jar he had buried and forgot about when he went off to boarding school, three months before.

When he loosened the soil above it, the jar exploded, shooting the lid into the eaves outside my room. Impressive brew!

I think that was when we got the warning from Dad.

Mpunzane, who became a beer rep for a while, tells me it is marula season in Swaziland and he has plans for for some muganu – marula beer to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Those of you who have seen elephants and baboons staggering about after eating rotting marula fruit, will know that a potent beer is possible.

If you are totally teetotal in rural Africa, your other and probably only alternative is amasi, which is yogurt before it was invented.  

Sorry for you!

Story proposed by Mike Ellis

Author: manqindi

Post imperial wind drift. Swazi, British, Zimbabwe-Rhodesian, Irish, New Zealand citizen and resident, now in Queensland, Australia. 10th generation African of mainly European descent. Catholic upbringing, more free thinker now. BA and Law background. Altar boy, wages clerk, uncle, prefect, student, court clerk, prosecutor, magistrate, convoy escort, pensioner, HR Practitioner, husband, stepfather, father, bull terrier lover, telephone interviewer, Call Centre manager, HR manager, grandfather, author (amateur)

3 thoughts on “Umqombothi”

  1. isishimiyana – Treacle and water left in the sun to ferment – eish!

    On Tue, 23 Feb 2021 at 10:20, sillysocksonfriday wrote:

    > manqindi posted: ” It’s a lovely word. The ‘qo’ just rolls of the tongue > onto the roof of your mouth with a soft click and the next ‘o’ comes out as > ‘aw’: oohm tk awm baww tea It is the chicken noodle soup of South Africa > especially in the Eastern Cape. ” >


  2. Thank you !Very innocuous stuff that umqomboti – you think you are drinking water until you try and stand up and it klaps you a shot or two. Its 3% alcohol hiding somewhere in the sorghum and maize. Very nutritious stuff with plenty vitamin B. And yes memories of brewing our own granadilla “wine” using brown sugar and yeast and exploding bottles. Reminds me of an old farmer we used to visit in the Arlington district of the Free State in the maize, potato and beef triangle. He home brewed beer in one of his sheds and the ritual was for us all to go with him to collect a bottle of the home brew to savour on his stoep. He always had the same instruction : “Moenie skud nie,trap saggies, hou langsaan, party keer bars die goed” –“Don’t jolt, walk gently, hold it out to your side, sometimes it explodes”.
    Jamie Uys got those marvellous antics of drunk animals in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” through injecting the maroelas with brandy.. (His daughter, Kobi Kruger wrote the must read “Mahlangeni” and the “Wilderness family”.)


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