Waragi, Ugandas “War Gin”

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February 25, 2013 by Woodystock

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In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its semi annual report on Alcohol and Health, citing the west African nation of Uganda as the “drunkest place on earth”.  This designation comes at an almost

unbelievable 17.6 liters of alcohol per capita.  That is over 23 two sixes for every man, woman, senior, invalid, doctor, bum and child a year.  The 2002 census estimated a population of just shy of 25 million people in the country, in 2012 it was just shy of 36 million (for the purpose of this article I will estimate the 2004 population to 25.5 million)

25,000,000 people consuming, on average, 17.6 litres a year.  That is 440,000,000 litres of alcohol, or almost 587 million bottles of booze.  And although Uganda does sport a handful of breweries and commercial distilleries, the remarkable booze intake of Uganda is largely attributed to the a vile and clandestine substance known as WARAGI.

Waragi is, simply, a gin style moonshine made of bananas.  Moonshine, you have to remember, is not a specific type of alcohol but instead a name for how that alcohol is produced.  Illegally.

Waragi, which is loosely translated into English as “War Gin”, and the science of distillation was introduced to the natives of Uganda by who else but British in the early 1960’s.  In order to even vaguely understand how this process panned out you will need a little bit of back ground.

First off, Uganda is a land locked nation, meaning that it does not border on any major bodies of water but instead bordered by other countries, limiting waterbound international trade.  During the colonization of Africa, the English, Dutch, French and Germans favoured coastal areas for obvious logistical reasons, leaving the interior areas undeveloped, untouched and under utilized.  It should be noted that Uganda sits on Lake Victoria, which shares its shorelines with several African nations but does not connect to open ocean water.

Christian missionaries first arrived in Uganda in the late 19th Century, first the protestants in 1877 and then the Catholics two years later which as any other history lecture built the foundation of conflict.  In 1899, England ruled Uganda as a protectorate, which by British standards means they own the country but claim no responsibility for its actions, like a shitty parent.  As with just about every other European colony, the relationship was one sided where the parent bundles up all natural resources and  ships them home in exchange for a haphazard group of Gomer Piles sitting on the beach.

Uganda is rich in natural resources including oil, natural gas and coffee.  Needless to say, when Uganda began fighting for independence in the British has a vested interest in either theyre own victory or at least the victory of a favoured party, namely the Bugnanda or “kings only”.

Needless to say, the British enlisted native men to fight for their cause, essentially these men we fighting to keep themselves indentured to the English.  Obviously, internal conflicts occurred.  Hence the need for what the English called “Dutch Courage” , a charming moniker given to gin referring to its dutch origin.

The war was won and in 1962 Uganda gained its independence.  In the years that followed, the battle ground changed from the rural jungels to the tiers of parliament.  Ethnic factions, religious based para military groups, ex pats and maniacs fought over control and all the while the poor, rural population was left to their own devices as lunatics juggled their fate in the offices of Kampala.

Britain left few things in Uganda that would survive, Waragi wasn’t one of them.  As poverty, war and disease continued in the poor nation, Waragi became a part of life.  No money, no work, no health and you have no idea what is coming tomorrow.   You are simply sitting in the sun waiting for something to happen, but you know that when it comes it won’t be something good.  These are the ideal conditions for a nation to begin binging.  This happened in Ireland during the troubles and the United States during prohibition.

Although a commercial brand of Waragi is produced by East African Breweries limited under the name Uganda Waragi, this bottled product is made chiefly for the more wealthy urban residents and for export.  Nearly 80 percent of the spirit that is produced and consumed in Uganda is made from illicit stills in rural villages.

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Even from a moonshining perspective, Waragi is produced under deplorable conditions mostly using used oil drums as fermentation vessels and kettles.  Because of the climate in Uganda and uneducated population, the stills are more than often without condensers or any filtering , meaning that any impurities that survived the vapor will remain in the drink and its gas can bottling process.

For a spirit to be legally called gin it must, among other things, be made primarily of Juniper berries.  Waragi is not actually gin, but rather a fruit based moonshine.  It was called gin by the English as that may have been the only distillation process they were aware of that involved using fruit as the primary sugar, rather than grains used in whiskey or wine used in brandy.  Since the period of history known as the Gin Craze in England, gin was considered a poor man or drunkards drink and given the period of history this took place, it’s probably not too far off to consider a less than ethical thought process was prevalent while introducing this Dutch Courage to native population.

Depending on the region, Waragi can be made from Bananas, Cassava ( a tuber), Millet or Sugar cane.  In Urban distilleries, sugar cane that has been rejected from use in refined sugar is used in Waragi.

In April of 2010, 80 people from the south western region of Kabale died from Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome.  This occurred over a three week period in which people had drank Waragi corrupted with an unusally high level of Methanol.  Although some could argue this sounds of poisoning or poor distilling conditions, it is much more likely that the methonal poisoning is the result of incompetence rather than malice.

Regulations have been attempted for years in order to quell the consumption and illicit production of Waragi, but  to no avail.  As long as Ugandans have nothing to look forward too, they will simply stop looking for anything other than Waragi. Everyone drinks it, and i mean everyone.  Men, Women, students, the elderly, invalids and even children as young as 3.

Party on Uganda, I will be by shortly for my dry banana moonshine martini.

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