Fiction

The History of a Drink: Fiction by Kabu Okai-Davies

 

history of a drink

Image: Shreyank Gupta via Flickr

 

Once upon a time in Ayallolo, an imaginary country on the West Coast of Africa, there lived a woman called Auntie Adoley. She manufactured and sold illicit liquor for a living. Her liquor was a delicious tasting gin brewed from fermented sugar cane, mixed with seductive ingredients, herbs and other mysterious recipes that had the power to mesmerize the minds of those who consumed her potion. Some called it rum; others called it gin, while the elite of society referred to it as, “the poor man’s whisky.” The elite preferred to call it the “wine of wisdom” and “brandy for the brave.”

In any case, the men of Ayallolo country craved her concoction and patronised her franchises that she had set up around the country. She preferred to locate her liquor kiosks near dark and dingy alleys that straddled one section of a vicinity to another, in cities within Ayallolo. The men who got drunk every night sang her praises, claiming her liquor was made in heaven, divinely inspired because it washed away their sins and expunged them of their worrisome nightmares every night. Some said her drink made their “dreams to come true” in the form of spiritual ecstasy that felt like swimming in “Holy water.”

“Auntie Adoley’s drink has magical powers,” Mr. Hammond said. He was a teacher at an Adabraka local school near the church who drank before and after school. Other men who indulged in the drinking of the holy water just before going to bed claimed that it was the best form of aphrodisiac and also acts as a pain killer and sedative that calmed their nerves. While others testified that it helped in curtailing the embracing condition of premature ejaculation amongst older men. Those who had spiritual aspirations claimed Adoley’s brew was an elixir of the soul that inspired them to commune with their ancestors when pouring libation or reciting incantations.

The taxi and bus drivers including civil servants would sip the drink before they went to their local chop bar to have their lunch or men with younger wives will drink it, in measured intakes, “too much of everything is not good for your health,” the men said, before gulping down a shot or two before dinner. This they believed assured men of a successful night of coupling with their mistresses or multiple wives. Her name spread far and wide which brought her customers from everywhere. She prospered. In the alchemy of her liquor potion, Auntie Adoley had ginger, mango, lemon or orange flavoured varieties mixed with sweeteners like honey, brown sugar, chocolate, coca-cola, pineapple, tangerine and cinnamon syrups.

She blinded herself and was deaf to the complaints of the wives of her customers when the week’s earnings were gone, because she knew they had spent it drinking her sweet liquor. She stood her ground and earned her keep. Selling what the women called “the poison,” or “kill me quick,” and nicknamed “the Devil’s Whiskey.”

So a group of angry women decided to cast evil spells against Auntie Adoley. They met by midnight when the moon glittered in full bloom like a beautiful silver plate stuck against a black canopy of darkness. They cursed her name in an unholy hour of the night, calling on evil idols to condemn her to the most tragic curse that the devil could ever imagine and execute as they sang satanic songs, chanted occult oracles steeped in African metaphysical sorcery designed to curse Auntie Adoley to death. These women spewed out words of contempt, witchery of hate and the rage of black ravens, screaming out loud harsh calls into the air that cast a mist of ominous fear into the spirit of the nation. Without realizing it, the women were conjuring up evil occurrences that would haunt Ayallolo country. Their venomous incantations sparked an insurrection that would wound, deform and scar our historic memory as a nation for years, until the absolution of democracy came to exorcise us from the demons of our nightmares and fears.

We curse her to hell’s fire. She is a witch who has bewitched our men.” The women chanted at the secret shrine near the stinking and putrid lagoon by the city’s edge.

“Her descendants shall become albinos with tainted blood.”

“Her grandchildren shall become impotent and barren.” Another woman said, depressed by her husband’s alcoholism.

“Her wickedness will be punished with death.” Their voices echoed.

“Her family will be torn apart into a thousand tribes and suffer agonies, bondage and deformities in mysterious ways and become slaves and indentured servants in foreign lands. She will know the suffering you’re experiencing and die an evil bloody death.” The high priestess at the shrine added.

They did not realize that by cursing Auntie Adoley they were casting a cloud of afflictions over our country and an omen of horrible consequences would descend upon the nation, which could only be absolved through the sacramental act of political penance. Their curses became self-fulfilled prophesies which ended up like a plague. Young women began to experience mass miscarriages, adultery became rampant, men womanized; perverts, addicts, prostitutes, pimps and deviants lurked in street corners, gambling was rife and the men exercised their intellect by arguing about soccer and left the task of philosophizing to their sad wives who spent their time reflecting on the tragic culture of drunkenness that had seized the mind of the nation.

Rumours even spread around Ayallolo country that there were charismatic preachers of apostolic churches who secretly indulged in drinking the potion. They claimed it was their source of inspiration and lifted their spirits to great heights of sermonic oratory and they would blend it with the sacramental wine and serve it to their congregation, making their worshipers so drunk with the holy wine, they would give the church all their earnings as donations when it was time to take tithes. Priests preyed on barren, vulnerable women and the unemployed who were seeking redemption through prayer and divine intervention. Delinquent youths joined gangs to rob the rich. The addictive power of the potion was so strong, Auntie Adoley was summoned to the State House by the President to discuss plans of setting up factories for the mass production of the drink with the intended plan of exporting it to other African countries and possibly making it into a global franchise with targeted markets in Russia, China and North Korea.

“We will open trade missions there and brand it as Africa’s premier gin or whiskey. Let us give the Scots a run for their money.” The President said, while he tasted, then gulped down large quantities of the different varieties of the liquor. Auntie Adoley and members of her family who accompanied her to visit the President nodded in delight, turning around in their heads, visions of great fortune and the opportunity to travel around the world selling their drinks.

“This will be a great source of foreign exchange. We will be able to employ more people and it will be of mutual benefit for all.” Auntie Adoley said to the President.

“Yes, the country needs foreign exchange to pay for all the things we import to feed ourselves and the luxuries we need to support our lifestyle,” Said the President. He President was not only drunk on the addiction of his false sense of absolute power, but was inebriated on the illusions of grandeur that the corruption of the devil’s whisky had gained on his befuddled mind.

Secretly, like a misty omen of the dawn, the curse of the disaffected wives would change all of that. Ayallolo began to experience an economic downturn. There were food shortages caused by droughts which led to conditions of inflation. The price of mineral exports and cash crops dropped on the international markets and the Chinese and Indian merchants started to repatriate large accounts in foreign exchange to Asia and Europe. In an attempt to curtail the sinking value of the local currency, people went to consult witch doctors, reverting to acts of ritual murders which the British colonial government had once banned. There was a pestilence and an epidemic of flies caused by famine, while the exposed remains of the victims of ritual sacrifices attracted vultures into the country. Alcoholism spread across the country like cholera.

Every night drunken men will carouse through town, singing vulgar songs staggering their way home, claiming that Auntie Adoley’s drink was better than organism and it made them deaf to the nagging voices of their wives. Eventually the intoxicating effects of the potion altered the public mind, causing mayhem and a national crisis. Corruption corroded public confidence and Ayallolo country lost its moral compass. Accountability and probity vanished in the arena of social life and public administration. There was indiscipline in schools and in the work places, teachers and doctors went on strike, students went on demonstrations and when it rained it turned into a flood, killing the homeless who slept in the shanty towns called Sodom and Gomorrah.

“The youth have lost the ways of our ancestors,” The elders complained.

“These days no one gets up at dawn even when the cockerel calls us to awake,” The wise said.

“And as for the women, no one can tell the difference between a wife and a mistress.”

“Even virginity is now for sale.”

“Cripples, beggars and lepers have now taken over our streets.”

“If the British were still ruling us, this would not happen,” The elders said.

“No one respects a chief like the way they did in the olden days anymore.”

Something had to be done, the elders thought.

Secretly, people accused the President of doing nothing, because he was an alcoholic himself. There were rumours of a coup, or a mass rebellion by the rank and file soldiers of the country. The word spread through a network of whispers and our thoughts took on a life of their own. Then one afternoon, a disgruntled albino soldier who preferred marijuana to alcohol and had a grudge against authority, described by senior officers as a “maverick soldier,” and later called a ragamuffin by the elders decided to overthrow the government and use military discipline to abolish bribery and corruption, alcoholism and immorality in Ayallolo. With the help of a group of disaffected soldiers, they broke into the armoury at the Military Head quarters while the senior officers were sleeping. Inspired by the hallucinating effects of marijuana, they seized the national broadcasting station and announced to the nation that an albino Lieutenant had staged an uprising and seized power.

He closed down the airport, threatened to set West Africa on fire if neighbouring nations interfered with his revolutionary plans to change the corrupted “fabric of the nation.” His reckless actions inspired other junior officers around the region and there were other copy cats around Africa who wanted to follow in his path to power. Some called it a coup, other’s called it an insurrection, but he – the leader – called his actions “nothing short of a revolution” and his first decree was to impose a curfew on the country, screaming on national television, “We will go the Ethiopian way.” Many did not understand what that meant, but later we became aware that he was willing to kill anyone who would try to stop him from fulfilling his calling as an adventurer for power. So the first night he seized power, he decreed a curfew.

Somehow, because of the erratic behaviour and pronouncements of the new leader, people came to the conclusion that the effect of marijuana on the mind was worse than Auntie Adoley’s drink. Her potion made you jovial. Women who had started to drink the potion felt ticklish, flirty, filled with a thrilling sensation to have sex and a heightened desire to be tolerant and accepting of others and everyday felt like a holiday. It made you to feel friendly and stimulated a sudden desire to sing.

That was why the curfew came like an ominous occurrence, an uninvited guest which the gods, witch-doctors, sorcerers, palm readers, military intelligence and the oracles couldn’t have foretold in the exuberance of the day before its arrival. It was announced by mid-morning on the last day of the year when most men of Ayallolo country were drunk in the lead up to the New Year. That day the sun was unusually hot and the humidity seemed to have had an inebriating effect on the traffic. It was as if the whole of Ayallolo country had come to a standstill, waiting for something menacing to happen. The grumbling wives of Ayallolo and the dispossessed children were happy that the dysfunctional government had been overthrown for its failure to prevent the men of the country from getting drunk every night. However, the unsuspecting citizens of the nation felt it was a trick of the imagination as a form of spiritual hallucination when the albino ruler informed everyone that they had to be in bed by six pm.

At first it appeared the new ruler was joking; then rumours spread around the country that the soldiers were serious and had arrested a couple of married men roaming the streets with their mistresses and a couple who were so much in lust with each other, they had decided to defy the edict of the State. A married man and his infatuated schoolgirl lover met at a junction near Adabraka to kiss in the dark, holding hands while gazing at the stars and listening to each other’s lies. They were arrested by the militia and thrown into jail for weeks, no question asked. “This is the law,” the soldiers said. The news spread around the country that the new government was indeed a true revolutionary regime and even lovers, beggars, polygamists, magicians, adulterers, witches, midwives, drunkards, prostitutes, mad cripples and night hawkers who defied the rules would not be tolerated in these radical times. It was a “Holy War,” the new ruler said, “to purge Ayallolo of adultery, drunkenness, superstition, decadence and witchcraft.”

The same month the soldiers overthrew the government, Auntie Adoley’s son, Adotey, who did not drink but specialized in armed robbery, was arrested for violating the decree. The curfew was in force, but Adotey saw it as an opportunity to roam the affluent suburbs at night on a secret quest in search of wealthy homes to rob. He had practiced his secret trade of armed robbery for three years with his gang, enjoying the thrill of seeing their victims who were usually politicians, government officials, businessmen and bankers flinch and panic when they invaded houses and forced frightened families at gun point to hand over jewellery and money.

By day, he would sell the stolen jewels to his secret clientele of Syrian and Lebanese merchants who had settled in Ayallolo. That night Adotey was arrested and was charged for violating the curfew. He was detained “for looting and arms possession” and sent to the barracks for interrogation. The soldiers wanted to know if he was sympathetic to or against the revolution. He was tortured and punished for refusing to talk. The soldiers felt insulted by his silence and interpreted his fear to talk as an act of treason against the new government. After he became too bloodied and numb from the pain of torture, the soldiers shot him in the rib and left him for dead.

Before he died, his bleeding body was dropped off in the heart of the city like an omen in the night, to warn those who dared to defy the regime that the government would not tolerate those who defied its decrees. Adotey’s body was identified by dawn and later brought home by his gang of thieves whom he called his friends. They dropped off his remains in front of his mother’s house and the city awoke to find him dead, with his eyes wide open. Word eventually got around that the soldiers claimed Adotey was shot because he said something like, “it is bad luck for a country to have an albino for a Head of State,” and the soldiers said, Adotey’s death was part of the overall collateral damage associated with any revolution. After all, people who supported the revolution were clamouring around the city, screaming, “Let the blood flow.”

Auntie Adoley cried and wailed in agony, cursing the gods for her son’s ill fate. The town heard her cry and the women chuckled with glee, enjoying her plight in secret, as they whispered amongst themselves.

“This is what happens to a woman who destroys our husbands and sons.”

“What did my son do to deserve this fate?” Auntie Adoley grieved. But her tears were not enough to win the sympathy of the town. So she drowned herself in her own potion and became ruined by her sorrow. Her illicit trade turned her into a shadow of her former self. Besides the new government shut down all the liquor shops, so she began to drink her own liquor to console herself from the tragic loss of her son. She drank into the realm of oblivion, courted the dark spectre of death within the poisonous pool of her brew; winced and wailed in grief at night. But the men who lived by the addiction of illicit drinking went elsewhere to quench their thirst, proving to their wives it wasn’t Auntie Adoley’s fault why they drank. The cause rests within the men who drowned their sorrows in liquor, an act of atonement for ancestral transgressions, to fill the void of impotence as unemployed men in denial of their shame. It was emptiness within the soul and the lingering paradox of self-worthlessness in the heart that caused men to drink. They drank to mask their sense of disgrace, a country of men who were slaves to invisible masters, victims of habits that made them poorer and reduced them to accepting themselves as beggars. The only things that gave them a sense of pride was their need to maintain ancestral traditions and attend the elaborate funerals of their loved ones that were later turned into mass celebrations of life to justify in the end, the need for binge drinking, to drown out their shame.

In the end it was acknowledged by everyone that Auntie Adoley was not a witch. It was her great grandmother who was credited with formulating the original recipe for mass consumption, who was first accused of witchcraft, because of the powerful intoxicant and hallucinating effect of the potion. The stigma never left the family because they had always known the ingredients to this secret drink, something which was used as spiritual medicine in an ancestral shrine years before the Dutch, Portuguese or the British arrived on the shores of West Africa. People who were suffering from spiritual maladies were given the potion in small doses which helped them to sleep better and temporarily alleviated them of their nightmares and perceived demonic possession by evil spirits. So the secret ingredients for concocting the drink stayed in the family and the formula of the brew was handed through whispers from generation to generation. Family members who also knew how to brew the potion only did it in small quantities for recreational use and private consumption. It was Auntie Adoley who took a keen interest in learning everything about the alchemical formulas, secret recipes and learnt how to go into the deep forest to select the special herbs specifically used for spicing the brew to give it its minty taste that was said to be responsible for providing the aphrodisiac effect. Some of the ingredients were based on secret coded references and a lexicon specially invented through the long lineage of the family. It was Auntie Adoley’s grandmother who decided to produce it in large quantities and its inebriating and tantalizing effect on people led to the accusation that she was also a witch, because it caused men to lead vagrant lives, neglect their responsibilities and caused them to become wanderers in the woods, searching for invisible ancestral pathways into the afterlife.

This accusation curtailed all attempts at mass production of the drink during the colonial times. Besides the British government saw the liquor as being in competition with their plan to flood the market with Scottish whiskey, schnapps and gin; so the drink was banned. Laws were passed by the colonial government to ban all the traditional blood and animal rituals, citing the effect of the drink as a form of “demonic intoxicant.” British soldiers and civil servants had started becoming addicted to the African whisky as they called it, after they were introduced to the drink. Many abandoned their English wives and started coupling with the natives, creating a new generation of albino children who were intolerant of the effect of sunlight on their eyes. It was believed that it was a special genetic defect caused by the secret ingredients in the drink. Albino children are a spiritual taboo, born out of the violation of a code of ancestral laws of ethnic purity, hence they must be cleansed. It was a bad omen for a European man to mate with an African woman when he was intoxicated on the brew. This became the justification by the British government to make the drink illicit. Anyone caught selling it, trading or distributing the drink, was arrested for subversive activities against the Crown. The drink was scandalized and made shameful to drink. Men who had become addicted to it, had to sneak through alleyways in the dark, huddling together in dingy corners of the townships, gathering in cubbyhole bars in shanty areas, to satisfy and quench their thirst for the drink brewed underground.

Miraculously, in the lead up to Independence, the demand for the drink increased because the nationalist and anti-colonial activists when drank the potion, claimed that the drink made them feel a sense of courage and defiance to protest against the British government. They became fearless in the face of gun shots, teargas and the possibility of death. It inspired them to make their claim for freedom, African sovereignty and independence; so the call for self-government was made under the influence of an intoxicant that was secretly brewed in the shine of the gods to challenge the authority of the British.

After independence, the drink was given a new lease on life. Independence provided us with the freedom to legislate our own destiny, the leader said. The first act of Parliament was to legalize the drink without realizing it would seal the fate of the nation. Auntie Adoley, then a young woman, seized the opportunity and learnt all the secret ingredients from her dying grandmother and took the initiative to go national with the drink. She rebranded it, calling it “freedom water, the people’s gin,” as a recreational beverage, an appetizer, a potion with medicinal powers for male virility and she begun to experiment with new samples, refining the ingredients and eventually expanded her franchise until it became a national addiction. Her mother did not want to have anything to do with the potion because she remarried and her new husband – Auntie Adoley’s step-father – was a Moslem and wanted to have nothing to do with alcohol, even though she took money from her daughter whenever she was in need.

Years later, after the death of Auntie Adoley, it became clear that she was just an enterprising women who had mastered the magic of making drinks that performed miracles on the minds of those who choose at their own free will, to drink her potion. She had figured out the way into men’s hearts and she discovered that it wasn’t through their stomaches but through the head and alcohol was the best way to control a man’s mind by what he drank. The drink, as it was secretly code named, was based on the potion’s power originally concocted through an act of conjuration by a pre-colonial ancestor who was the conjurer at the shrine. That was why Auntie Adoley brewed it, corrupting the nation and making money just like all those who were making and extorting money off the government.

Sooner than we had thought, Auntie Adoley’s daughter, Adobia, decided to learn the secrets to her mother’s potion after she concluded that the best way to get her revenge for the torture and murder of her brother and recover the family fortune was to start all over again. Adobia had written down into her private journal the ritual preparation, brewing process and combination of the secret herbs as her mother dictated them to her before she died. Within a matter of months after Auntie Adoley died, Adobia started brewing the potion again, selling it secretly to the soldiers. The revolutionaries descended into the culture of debauchery and decadence, by becoming addicted to the magic potion of the sweet liquor and the nation returned to its old ways. The military regime morphed into a civilian government, held elections and won by serving the whole country with Auntie Adoley’s sweet gin of subjugation, fed them the food of servitude and gave them garments designed with the face of the albino on the fabric. Years later, the people of Ayallolo came to reckon with the mythology of the reign of the albino. They couldn’t help but reflect on the many deaths, the fulfilled prophecies of the disgruntled witch wives and the many paths into exile that the youth, the talented and learned took to flee from the ruthlessness of the regime, the haunted history of Ayallolo country, and the wasted opportunities of history.

Eventually the elders, chiefs and the traditional counsellors of the land came to the conclusion that the soldiers who eventually became corrupted, the drunkards who drank to their death and all the government officials who mismanaged the affairs of the state were participants in creating their own magic potion, which we all drank in the process of our futile attempt to redefine the futile destiny of our country’s fate after it won its independence from colonial rule.

A dispossessed people famish and perish by their own hands, wrought within the invisible fires of life. They live and die, like flickers of life burning out before they even get the opportunity to shine. Their lives pass, like whispers of a distant echo in the galaxy of time. We are drinking our lives down the drain of history, the storyteller concluded. He had lived in the same neighbourhood, knew Auntie Adoley’s grandmother and entire family history and witnessed the death of Adotey and saw the rise and fall, and rise again of the illicit trade of selling the drink on a national scale. This is the means by which all the subsequent governments would control the destiny of the nation, the storyteller said.

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Image: Shreyank Gupta

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