Academic journal article Africa

Trading on Inequality: Gender and the Drinks Trade in Southern Tanzania

Academic journal article Africa

Trading on Inequality: Gender and the Drinks Trade in Southern Tanzania

Article excerpt

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a valued accompaniment to leisure time. The range of drinks consumed is varied, as are their origins. In urban settings prestigious imported and manufactured brews are favoured by those who can afford them, while members of the elite consume expensive foreign brands of spirits. Among the urban poor, and in rural areas, domestically produced drinks continue to dominate the market and local drinking habits (cf. Nelson, 1978, 1979; Saul, 1981; Suggs, 1996). Alcohol plays a role in contexts other than recreation where it is commonly a requirement for ritual activities and celebrations. The meanings attached to drinking are context-specific (Long, 1992). Associated with commensality, incorporation and the embodiment of kinship, drinking can mark relations of equality, hierarchy and, in the case of the work party, co-operation (cf. Pottier, 1985b). Alcohol also has a significant place in the constitution of relations between people and spirits. Offerings of beer and other drinks are made at various stages of the funeral process, at territorial and other shrines, and to remember the dead (Sangree, 1962; Colson and Scudder, 1988; Carlson, 1990).

In East Africa(1) the ritual consumption of alcohol usually requires the use of domestically produced drinks, derived either from the natural fermentation of tree saps or brewed from fruits or grain. The exception to this is the distilled beverages, produced for leisure drinking only, which are often mixed with potentially lethal doses of industrial alcohol. Although these spirits are illegal in most countries they remain popular with the poor, especially in urban areas, despite efforts to control them. Sap-derived drinks are extracted by, and remain the property of, men (cf. Ngokwey, 1987:114). Beers brewed for sale from a variety of grains are produced by women, who retain rights over their allocation and disposal.(2) This division of labour and ownership of resources has implications for gender inequality and household food security in areas where grains are staple foods. Women who brew must choose between diverting household grain supplies into beer production or using up scarce cash to purchase brewing inputs, whereas male producers can sell fermented tree saps without impinging on household food supplies or savings. Gender differentiation encompasses the social context of alcohol consumption. Although many women enjoy a drink in private, the public consumption of alcohol is predominantly a male activity (Ngokwey, 1987: 120; Huby, 1994: 235; Suggs, 1996: 600). Consequently, throughout the continent, women's production of beer for sale facilitates the redistribution of cash between men and unrelated women in contexts where alternative income generation options for women are limited (Colson and Scudder, 1988: 71; Bryceson, 1989: 432; Ferguson, 1990: 127; Howard, 1994: 248).

Although the ritual use of alcohol remains important in much of Africa, it is arguably the economic situation since the 1970s which, despite aggressive marketing campaigns by industrial brewers, has virtually guaranteed the perpetuation of domestically produced alcohol for consumption and sale.(3) High inflation, falling wages and low producer prices in most African countries have pushed incomes down and forced people to diversify livelihood strategies. In rural and peri-urban communities in East and Central Africa the purchase of locally manufactured drinks by men with money continues to be central to the viability of poorer households, particularly if they are female-headed (Nelson, 1978, 1979; Clark, 1984: 351; Little, 1987: 304, 1992: 108; Colson and Scudder, 1988:114; Smith and Stevens, 1988: 553; Bryceson, 1990: 42; Hirschmann and Vaughan, 1993: 96). Beer drinking in the Africa of the 1990s can no longer be understood in Karp's terms as the practical enactment of local `social theory' (1987: 83, my emphasis). Nor can brewing be explained as a mere extension of the kinds of `domestic' activities in which women have conventionally engaged (Nelson, 1979: 299; Colson and Scudder, 1988: i). …

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