When I traveled to Uganda about five years ago it was to visit coffee farmers in the mountains who were growing organically and selling through the fair trade certification chain.
Of course, I looked for beer while I was there too, but only found industrial lagers. This is one of the difficulties for foreign tourists in Africa looking for “traditional” African culture. When you ask for something, people usually think you want the westernized version. So when looking for beer, people usually assume you want European or American-style lagers. They would never think you wanted to see their “local” beers. To many Africans, especially urbanites with “modern” jobs, some “local” traditions are almost a source of shame. That is to say, some people assume that foreigners have a low opinion of most things African, so even though many people may in fact cherish ajono within their own social circles, as soon as it is viewed from the assumed perspective of the western foreigner, it can cause embarrassed laughter, as in, “oh you don’t want to try that, it’s just our local homebrew.”
So alas, when I was in Uganda I never came across ajono. If I had known what to ask for I probably could have found it easily and I’m sure would have found people willing to espouse its virtues once I was able to express that I was truly interested and appreciative. But I was busy researching coffee and was contented to have at least found that one of the major industrial beers was actually brewed from sorghum, a locally-sourced ingredient adapted for use in a western style beer by SABMiller.
The article claims that ajono drinking is enjoying a revival in Uganda. One of the distinctive characteristics of this millet-based brew is that drinkers use straws to imbibe it from a common pot. Apparently, health officials have been warning against the sharing of straws, and religious officials have been inveighing against ajono as contributing to laziness and immorality.
Despite this, Ugandans all the way up to government ministers are taking pride in this tradition. To address the health concern, people have started using their own personal straws. And, “They should know that ajono is a very hygienically brewed home beer that generates good income for the millet growers and the poor families brewing it,” said one member of parliament. As any homebrewer knows, the only way to get sick from beer, regardless of how it is brewed or how good or bad it may taste, is either to drink too much of it and get alcohol poisoning or to adulterate it with poison. Sharing straws raises a different issue, but the beer itself, as long as it doesn’t contain some kind of non-beer ingredient, is perfectly safe and in fact very nutritious.
“Above all, [it’s drunk at] our weddings and the funeral ceremonies,” he said, explaining its importance in socio-religious rituals. And as for morality, he continued, “As a legislator I will never succumb to the wishes of those born-again pastors.”