Cameroon Tribune (Yaoundé)

23 August 2010

Cameroon: Palm Wine - An Increasingly Popular Drink

The advent of the economic crisis in the late eighties affected the choices and purchasing power of many Cameroonians.

Palm wine drinking spots in the city of Yaounde are increasing. In the evenings, many a consumer gather not only to enjoy the "Tori for mbu house," or the story-telling that accompanies its consumption, but to savour the "sacred" liquid of the gods in the company of friends. Palm wine is that drink that can be shared by many people no matter its quantity. It has a social binding effect and is generally consumed in the company of others. The palm wine consumed in Yaounde is tapped in the neighbouring villages. Some tappers go as far as 80 km away to get the precious liquid that is present at almost every occasion. Palm wine is generally considered a drink for men.

However, since it is seen as an enjoyable drink that keeps life going, a growing number of women now take it. Drunken or tipsy women, however, are held in low esteem, while a severely inebriated man merely awakens amused interest. From Tongolo to Obili, Mvog-Ada to Etoug-Ebe, Biyem-Assi to Damas, etc, palm wine shops are common sites to come by today in the city of Yaounde. Palm wine shops do not need the sophisticated set up of beer parlors. A few plastic cups, a bench or two displayed in a rectangular manner around a make-shift structure is enough to ensure the comfort of the customers. Those who can afford the luxury may have a musical set or a television. But the real animation is from the customers themselves, usually made up of circles of friends or people who came to know each other in the "club" as they are fondly referred to. One of such clubs situated at Obili, Yaounde is referred to as "The Intellectuals Club". Every evening begins with low tone conversations that rise as the wine takes control over its consumers. Palm wine plays a very important role in most African societies. It is used at funerals, celebration of marriages, for performing traditional rites, in the preparation of traditional herbs, etc. Palm wine is today's companion at most social gatherings and has surely stood its ground in the face of competition from beer and other brewed drinks. "A litre sells at FCFA 200 as compared to beer which sells at FCFA 500. With FCFA 500, I can take two litres of palm wine and still have a balance of FCFA 100", says Clement Toh, a follower of Bacchus ( the god of wine) in Obili, Yaounde.

Widespread Believes

It is generally thought that palm wine satisfies the thirst of its consumers more than beer. It may not be common to see people sharing a bottle of beer, but with palm wine, it is quite common. Using timeless harvesting technologies, most societies in the Coastal; West and North West Regions of Cameroon have a deep rooted wine tradition. The ceremonial use of wine at occasions and rites of passage has ancient origins that even predate the coming of the colonial masters. To begin, the reasons for drinking palm wine go beyond its unique nose and taste. In addition to its ceremonial significance, palm wine drinkers see in it some myths such as the cure for gout, high blood pressure, impotence, jaundice, malaria and measles as well as facilitating communication with gods and the ancestors. Besides the die-heart consumers who want to get drunk at all costs, several other beliefs go with palm wine consumption. Most societies of the grassland regions think that palm wine enhances the production of sperms in men - especially the dregs. Others also believe that palm wine increases the flow of breast milk in breastfeeding mothers, gives consumers a good sight and that the ancestors only accept palm wine for libation. In villages, palm wine drinking spots are the liveliest.

Concerning the processing mode, palm wine sap is gathered in two ways. The first is to make a triangular incision into the male inflorescence of a standing palm or raffia tree, insert a pipe into the incision, and attach a small receptacle at the end of the pipe. The second involves cutting down the tree and allowing it to lie for two weeks. After, a rectangular well is cut in it. At this stage, a bamboo tube is inserted into the well to drain the sap as it collects. The quantity of sap that is extracted from one palm tree depends on the mode of extraction, the palm species, season and the fertility of the soil.

But an average quantity ranges from 100 to 150 litres harvested over a month. The raffia palm, on the other hand, generally produces more than 10 litres a day for a period lasting from three to six weeks. Wine is tapped into beautifully decorated calabashes and is left to ferment; its sweetness disappears as its alcohol content increases. For some people, the 'real' palm wine is only obtained when the sweetness disappears. Man is like palm wine, youth is sweet but without the wisdom of old age, he lacks the sweetness of youth.

Usually palms are tapped in the morning and in the evening. The longer the product lasts, the more alcoholic it becomes and may pose great danger to the liver some critics say.

Palm wine tappers keep some sap for themselves and for residents of their villages, but palm wine is mostly sold to merchants in nearby cities. Tappers sell fresh (untreated) palm wine to street vendors and bars in drums or gallons. The wine is then retailed in hollowed out gourds, plastic bottles, or jars. To help consumers identify the product as unadulterated, street vendors place a piece of palm frond in the container. Palm wine is also distilled into a local brew known as arki or afofo.

Progressively, the business is a success story because many of the tappers, bottlers and retailers make a living from it. Although many of the dealers do not live like kings, they do not starve either.

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