Ivy Nyayieka sets out to uncover what’s in the pot her grandmother has always jealously guarded in the corner of her kitchen
Inside my grandmother’s kitchen, in a clay pot the height of a four-year old me, was a brown porridge-looking liquid, with a green steel plate for cover. On the plate sat a steel cup which on one side endlessly salivated a thick brown film.
My grandmother, or Dana as we call her, likes to laugh except at the moment you near her pot eating an orange at which point she sternly chases you away. This confounded a young me to silence but as an adult, I decided to set out and solve the mystery of the contents of the mysterious pot.
“Busaa is a traditional beer which is very popular in Nyanza, Western and some parts of Rift Valley,” explains my Uncle Passy, a retired accountant who owns a busaa business in Aboke, Siaya. He explains to me that traditionally, busaa was used for ceremonies such as marriages, funeral gatherings and for celebrating a plentiful harvest.
How does my grandmother make busaa? “Listen carefully,” she says: “Grind maize grains to get flour; put it in a metal pot; add water; let it sleep for 3 days; fry it; pour it into a small Superdrum; grind millet flour; stir it into the superdrum mixture; pour into a new Superdrum and add water. Leave it for a day. Then stir and stir. Until your arm bruises, she says.
Then leave it for 3 days. Then sieve it through a clean sack.
Oranges interfere with fermentation. Dana learnt the art of busaa brewing from her mother when she was younger. She says if I want to learn, I have to go to my father’s sister because, she laughs, my own mother is saved and does not know about alcohol.
Dana started making busaa when my grandfather retired. He loved it and it got her very good money too. She would sell a tin of the second largest Blueband filled to the brim for 3 shillings.
“We don’t actually employ people but we just give them a day to brew,” says Uncle Passy, explaining that: “Everybody has his or her day. I lease the premises and I have the necessary licenses so they pay me a daily rate of 300 shillings”. Apart from getting security approval, he also must get a license from the Ministry of Health to confirm that the premises conform to the Kenya Bureau of Standards health norms, to ensure the alcohol content is less than 4.7%.
Like my grandmother, Uncle Passy started his business as a source of income. Currently, what my grandmother sold for 3 shillings costs 30 to 40 shillings. “Although the price is low, the turnover is high so in most cases we sell more than those who sell factory beers,” he tells me. His other motivation comes from a sense of loyalty: “My father had it and I did not want the business to die.”
According to Uncle Passy, demand for busaa is increasing because of higher living standards, However, he does worry about rising levies. Every year he says he pays the Liquor Licensing Board, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the county government,
the Ministry of Health and the Music Society of Kenya fees totalling 38,250 shillings but that still does not stop him occasionally falling prey to unscrupulous government officials.
“In Nairobi, it is more straightforward because once you have paid taxes nobody comes to bother you. Here the authorities take advantage of people’s ignorance. An officer from the county can just come and start harassing you so that you can give them money but in Nairobi, it appears people are enlightened so nobody can come and threaten you.” Uncle Passy hopes people will eventually change their perspective on busaa: “People think that busaa is made for poor people but its made just to entertain people like the other kinds of drinks.”
Would he like for his children to take over the business from him? Uncle Passy laughs the way my grandmother does and says, “It depends on interest. My children can take over. Nobody has been forced to take over. Even us, we just found ourselves doing it.”