In the land of zebras, elephants and corn-beer

It’s warm. Warm, dry and incredibly dusty. There’s a strange smell in the air – unlike anything I’ve ever smelt before. It’s a mixture of burnt rubbish, food, engine oil and indubitably lots of other things that my European nose is unable to identify. Somehow I feel I can even smell the heat. First of all I have to stretch, and work the stiffness out of my joints, because I’ve just completed one of the most gruelling bus journeys of my life – from the foot of Kilimanjaro to Tabora, in the midst of Tanzania’s wide open spaces. It took a good eleven hours, on seats that have seemingly been designed for people even smaller than me. Dripping with sweat, aching and exhausted, I clamber out of the bus and finally locate my completely dust-encrusted rucksack under the pile of luggage.

So I’m in urgent need of refreshment. We make a beeline for the nearest kiosk, which has set up its plastic chairs and colourful sunshades next to the bus terminal. Our paramount goal for the day is to find out what sort of refreshing beers Tanzania has to offer. And there we were at first a bit disappointed. The word “refreshing” was a definite misnomer for the lukewarm beverage we were served. Lesson 1 that Tanzania taught us, then, was this: if you don’t order your beer “baridi” (meaning cold), then you get to drink it warm, like the Tanzanians themselves.

But there’s also a pleasant surprise: East Africa has a wide choice of good beers – something we were not expecting – which means we have quite a lot of tasting ahead of us. Starting with Tusker, the biggest beer brand from the neighbouring country of Kenya, dressed in the attractive black, white and yellow label with the elephant on it. Not at all bad. The next ones on the agenda are Tanzania’s own Safari Lager, a Kilimanjaro Lager and a Serengeti Lager (chilled this time). Not bad either, we’ll be staying on here!

In the next few days, we find at the roadsides an abundance of small, colourfully painted little buildings, where you can enjoy a drink while sitting on a chair in the shade. As the only white “mzungus” around, we occasionally get some wondering glances – but there’s never any lack of friendliness and amicable conversations. In one of these kiosks, we learn Lesson 2: all in good time, because when you willingly embrace the serenity of the other guests and passers-by, life becomes wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable. You can sit there for hours at a time, chatting or silently watching the traffic go by: the herds of goats passing at a leisurely trot, the overloaded bicycles on which absolutely everything is transported, and the women who (so it seems) are able to carry their entire household goods on their heads. Perhaps you will have noticed that we enjoyed our stay, and in particular the hours we spent in front of our favourite kiosk.

That’s why East Africa, with its cultures and its smells, didn’t let go of me even after we were back in Germany – I wanted to know more. So I asked a Kenyan friend living in Germany what sort of differences he notices when he compares the East African or Kenyan beer culture with its German counterpart.

The first thing that comes to mind, he says, is German families sitting down together to enjoy a beer – that wouldn’t happen in Kenya, says Leonard. Quite generally, he thinks, the extremes are more pronounced over there: many people don’t drink at all, and the vast majority of those who do are pretty whole-hearted about it. This is mostly the case, in families at least.

But with beer, for many people, the crux of the matter is: you have to be able to afford it. This is easier with the regional, East African breweries than with the very expensive imported beers, but a lot of people nevertheless find the prices out of their reach.

And that’s why they brew their beers themselves. With everything that’s available and fit for human consumption, including corn, ginger, bananas, millet, berries and honey. This has nothing to do with the German Purity Law, though in most cases there is in fact a more than passing resemblance to beer. Leonard warns me, however, to be careful if I would like to try the home-brewed beers on my next holiday: he doesn’t trust the illegal concoctions that some people make: “You never know what’s in it,” he says, “sometimes it could be expired corn or poisonous berries. Or it could be brewed in rusting containers or other unhygienic conditions.” Sounds as if it’s more than I’m prepared to risk for a relaxing beer to wind down with in the evening. So next time, too, it’ll be a Safari Lager again – or a Tusker. Or a Serengeti. Or perhaps a Kilimanjaro?

So there’s plenty of choice: my modest excursion into the world of East Africa’s beers has definitely paid off! And while I’m looking forward to my next holiday in Africa, I revel in the memories – and funnily enough one of the things I miss most is the indefinable unique smell.


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