A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850-1999/alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure, and Politics

Article excerpt


Justin Willis. Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850-1999. Nairobi: British Institute in Eastern Africa/Athens: Ohio University Press /Oxford: James Currey, 2002. xii + 302 pp. Maps. Tables. Figures. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $22.95. Cloth.

Deborah Fay Bryceson, ed. Alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure, and Politics. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heineman, 2002. viii + 305 pp. Index. $69.95. Cloth.

Alcohol has served as a social solvent in many countries and in many ways. The two books under review remind us of the varied approaches scholars take to serve up their own brews. Justin Willis examines alcohol use over 150 years in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika, while Deborah Bryceson and her contributors, participants in a 1997 seminar at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, survey all of sub-Saharan Africa over a slightly shorter period. As a single author, Willis can develop a complex approach to the social role of alcohol in a particular region, while the contributors to Bryceson's book (including Willis) are limited to a much shorter explication of a single aspect of alcohol's use.

Potent Brews breaks new ground in analyzing the very different functions of alcohol in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial contexts. Willis focuses particularly on alcohol's role in the making of authority, contending that "for people across East Africa, talking about 'proper' drinking and contrasting past drinking with present drinking, have been ways of arguing about proper behaviour within their own societies" (5). During the late nineteenth century in societies ranging from the acephalous to interlacustrine kingdoms, senior men bolstered their authority through a monopoly of access to locally brewed beer. In like manner, British colonialists reserved commercially distilled liquors for themselves; indeed, until the 1940s, they restricted access even to bottled beers. The transfer of authority to African elites can almost be measured by the acquisition of access to industrial brews and the limitation of that access to the mass of Africans. Ordinary Africans resorted increasingly to home brews. Rural Africans finally were able to buy industrially produced alcohols beginning in the 1970s when the governments needed the revenue. …


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