I work hard every day to make my beer (umqombothi),
Wake up early every morning to please my people with African beer umqombothi),
I make sure the fire burns to make my beer (umqombothi),
My special beer umqombothi (umqombothi),
Is African beer.
We MaDlamini (everybody),
Uph’umqombothi (come and drink my),
We MaDlamini (magic beer),
(Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s hit song Umqombothi)
The name umqombothi refers to traditional African beer made from sorghum and other ingredients. It is popular in southern and other parts of Africa where it has many variations and names (e.g. joala, bojalwa, utshwala, chibuku, doro, dolo, ikigage, tchoukoutou, merissa, pito, mtama, and more). The people in these regions have been making and drinking this type of beer long before the arrival of Europeans. In many cultures, it was mostly considered as a staple food and not just an intoxicating beverage. The main ingredient, sorghum, is indigenous to Africa and maize (mealie), millet, as well as cassava root were (and are still) used as adjuncts to produce different flavours. Traditionally, the beer is made by women and falls within their realm of food production and preparation. It is a significant part of most social, cultural, and religious ceremonies. Together with meat and snuff/tobacco, it is regarded as an essential offering for the ancestors and is believed to facilitate contact with them. Thus, it is generally poured on the ground as a libation for the ancestors. In Zulu culture, after the beer was made it was usually left in a cool dark place known as umsamo for the ancestors to taste and it was believed that the ancestors will not recognise any ceremony without traditional beer. Basotho, on the other hand, used to set aside unstrained beer (mohlaba) for certain rituals that were performed to keep the ancestors away from their living relatives, if they had interfered negatively in their lives.
Traditional beer was customarily brewed and stored in large clay pots (imbiza in Zulu, nkho in Venda and Sotho, thatholelo in Tswana, and umphando in Mpondo) that were sometimes built into the floor of the house. The Zulu had a second pot known as uphiso, which was used for transporting beer. It has a long neck that helps to prevent the beer from spilling, especially when travelling over long distances. The serving pots are known as umancishana and ukhamba. Umancishana are smaller undecorated pots that were generally reserved for offering beer to the ancestors. The most popular or well recognised Zulu pot is ukhamba, a black pot that comes in different sizes. Ukhamba is often decorated with pellets of clay (amasumpa or amaphule) pressed into the surface, or with incised triangles. The decorations are normally placed around the middle (waist) of the pot, which makes it easier to grip the pot when it is slippery with beer. However, the positioning of the decoration around the waist is believed to represent the female body and may signify the protection of female fertility (the womb). Amasumpa also represents the raised bumps or cicatrisation (similar to scarification) that adorn the bodies of some Zulu women. Berglund (1976) mentions that the blackening of the pots constitutes an invitation to the ancestral spirits to be present at the ceremonies and sip beer in the comfort of darkness. The colour was achieved by exposing the pot to a grass fire, coating it with soot or dyeing it with black shoe polish.
Similar to the Zulu, other cultural groups also had different sized pots for various functions. For example, the Sotho had pitsa, leritshwana, morifi, and setlotlelo, which were used for brewing and/or storing beer, whereas lefiso and lefisoana were used for serving and drinking. Beer ewers/beakers (similar to goblets) and calabashes were used for drinking beer while baskets were mostly used by some groups for storing and brewing beer. Baskets and calabashes were regularly used along with clay pots, but sometimes they were used as substitutes for pots or vice versa. Beer strainers made from grass or reeds were also used in the beer-making process and were one of the most important utensils. The majority of these utensils have been replaced by western store-bought utensils, but some people still believe that ancestors are pleased when beer is made using traditional utensils.
In most African cultures, both what goes into the utensils (beer) and the utensils themselves were made by women. These activities were symbolic with the creative and productive abilities of women. For this reason, a connection was usually made between beer making, pottery, and female fertility. The association was with the use of heat, which women are believed to possess naturally, and is required in the fermentation process of beer as well as when a pot is made (i.e. firing process). Heat is regarded as important energy that enables growth and qualitative change to take place. However, too much heat (especially in the natural form) was not always perceived to be good and therefore certain taboos were observed. For example, women were not allowed to brew beer or fire a pot when they were menstruating, pregnant or a day after having sex, because it was believed that they may possess too much heat that will affect the quality of the output.
Beer was seldom enjoyed in solitude but often shared with others and the ancestors. It played a significant role in bonding people and could be used in times of conflict as a means of mediation and reconciliation. It was also offered as payment for specialized craftworks such as tanning skins or carving utensils. Work parties (matsema plural and letsema singular) that assisted with weeding fields, harvesting crops, or building granaries, were always rewarded with beer. It is still used as a reward in most rural and peri-urban areas for various services (e.g. slaughtering animals or digging graves at funerals).
Over the years, the production of traditional beer has decreased due to the popularization of commercially and mass-produced beers that are made from ingredients such as malted barley. However, traditional breweries are still a key aspect of most rural economies where traditional beer is brewed for the local market and sold to supplement household income. Commercial productions of traditional beer under various brands (chibuku, leopard, ijuba, tlokwe, and more) can also be found throughout southern Africa.
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