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Uganda’s favorite alcoholic drink under threat as authorities move to clamp down on home brewing – Magazine Creations

  • Tonto is a popular alcoholic drink in Uganda known for its fruity aroma and is weaker than bottled beer.
  • Production of the drink is threatened by the growing popularity of cheap bottled beer and government efforts to crack down on illegal home breweries.
  • A national assembly bill seeks to regulate alcohol production, potentially criminalizing home brewing of traditional drinks.

At least once a week, Girino Ndyanabo’s family gathers around a pit where the bananas have been left to ripen. Bananas are peeled and thrown into a wooden tank carved like a boat, and the patriarch enters with bare feet.

The sweet juice it produces is filtered and sprinkled with sorghum grains, which turns the juice into ethanol, and left to ferment for up to a day. The result is a drink that Ugandans call tonto, or tontomera, a word in the Luganda language that refers to the poor coordination of drinks. Weaker than bottled beer, the drink has a fruity aroma and chunks of sorghum float on its dark surface.

Tonto is legendary in Uganda. Folk singers have sneered at it, politicians looking for a common touch take a sip when chasing votes, and traditional ceremonies end at dusk with parties. His devotees are many, from officials in suits to laborers in sandals.

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But its production is under threat as cheap bottled beer becomes more attractive to drinkers and as authorities move to clamp down on the production of what are considered illegal home brews, which carry the risk of sometimes fatal contamination. And because tonto production takes place outside official jurisdiction, the authorities are unable to collect revenue from its sale.

Benson Muhereza drinks tonto at a local bar in Majengo village, Mbarara, Uganda, on December 10, 2023. Tonto is a popular traditional drink in Uganda, but the fermented banana juice is under threat as authorities move to regulate production considered illegal home brewing. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

A bill in the National Assembly that seeks to regulate the production and sale of alcohol would criminalize the activities of tonto home brewers, along with other traditional brews brewed in the East African country.

But farmers have a more pressing concern: Not enough new varieties of banana juice are being planted to produce the concoction. Communities prioritize the most commercially viable varieties which are boiled and eaten as a popular puree called matooke.

Ndyanabo, a farmer in the western district of Mbarara whose first experience with tonto was as a small boy in the 1970s, said he has only a few plants left of the varieties from which banana juice is extracted.

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He sources his bananas one bunch at a time from farmers near him until he can fill the small pit in his plantation. The natural underground heat ripens the bananas within days as Ndyanabo prepares for the weekly pressing.

The event is so important to the family’s routine that they can’t imagine a time when there wouldn’t be tondo to sell.

While Ndyanabo said his weekly brew has an assured market, he has seen both demand and supply slow in recent years. This is partly because the retail price of tonto has been largely static over the decades, while the process of making it has become more cumbersome.

The distances traveled in search of bananas have grown. The price of sorghum has gone up.

“You need a lot of time to do this work. It’s not as easy as someone cutting the matooke, putting it on a bicycle and selling it immediately for cash,” Ndyanabo said of green bananas, which are eaten raw as a Ugandan staple. . “Alcohol comes from far away.”

He was trying to plant more of the banana juice varieties that are known to grow faster. And his son, Mathias Kamukama, is always there to help.

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The family makes five or six 20 liter jerrycans in each batch. A jerrican’s worth sells for about $8. A pint of tonto sells for about 27 cents, compared to 67 cents for the cheapest bottled beer.

One customer is Benson Muhereza, an electrician who regularly visits a small bar in a poor suburb of Mbarara.

“It’s like a favorite drink when you eat your lunch. It’s like juice. When you don’t want to drink beer, you come and drink your tonto,” Muherza said.

He described the tonto as a “porridge” that doesn’t give him a hangover. “Every day you have to have it,” he said.

Christine Kyomuhangi, the tonto seller, said she receives two zerikanas of the brew every day. She acknowledged the threats to her business but smiled, insisting her business is sustainable. He said customers come from all over town.

“Tondo will never end,” he said.

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