Umqombothi in South Africa
On Saturday morning, I woke up early to buy brandy. My friend and I were attending a Xhosa umbuyiso ritual, in which a recently deceased family member becomes a protective ancestor. The all-day ceremony, which started at 5 a.m., was taking place at my friend’s village outside of King William’s Town, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
When I got to the village, I took my place among the young unmarried men, and she joined the older women, who were busy preparing a meal. Meaty smells emanated from potjies, children chased dogs, and dogs chased children in and out of rondavel huts.
Even in this tangle of movement, certain lines were not crossed. Xhosa tradition demanded that divisions of age and gender separated the gathering’s many guests. Only one thing transcended these separate circles: umqombothi.
The other bachelors and I sat in a circle, perched on squat benches and half-buried tires. A dented, silver paint can, label removed, sat ceremoniously at the center of the circle. It’s safe to say that if you’re drinking something out of an old paint can, it’s probably alcoholic and probably strong.
Umqombothi, Xhosa traditional beer made from maize, didn’t resemble any beer I had ever seen. Thick and grey like oatmeal, but bubbling and churning, it looked alive.
Just as the seating arrangements followed form and ritual, so did the drinking procedure. After I deposited my bottle of Viceroy brandy in the middle of the circle by the umqombothi and a couple of mugs, the circle grew quiet. One man reached for the Viceroy and stood up. He removed his hat. Everyone followed suit. Hat in one hand, brandy in the other, he delivered a heartfelt speech, all the while pointing to the bottle.
His speech ended and another man rose with the mugs. The first of many regimented drinking rounds began. After each round only a few moments would pass before another speech. Then another round. Another speech.
But with the umqombothi, the young men did not stand on ceremony. During the constant, disciplined waves of speeches and brandy, men reached for the paint can at will. In between the swigs of Viceroy I also reached for the umqombothi; its muted sour taste helped cut the brandy’s tang.
More brandy. More umqombothi. I looked over at the circle of older married men, then younger women, then older women. Everyone seemed to pass around the umqombothi around as freely as we were. And as my vision started to blur, so did the social divisions. Paint cans passed from circle to circle as people exchanged places, everyone laughing and eating as one.
I looked back down at the effervescent brew in the paint can. The umqombothi looked different to me now, less foreign and almost regal, resembling champagne bubbles more than beer bubbles.
“If the umqombothi bubbles, the party is a success,” my friend told me.