The First Distillation

A popular Ugandan liqueur is called Owadi. It starts in small towns where moonshiners set up mobile stills beside a stream. They fill oil drums with sugar cane and build a fire underneath. The sugar cane starts to boil, giving off steam. The moonshiners condense the steam with the cold water of the stream. They collect the condensation in jerry cans. A truck comes along every now and then and buys up all there is. This is the first distillation. The final product, the second distillation, is manufactured in Kampala.

I have tried both distillations. Together they are the story of the Ugly Duckling where the protagonist is alcohol. The Kampala refinement produces a very nice end product, a sweetish (pun intended) aqua vit. The first distillation is awful.

I know this because one day, en route to Kibale National Forest, our guide, Cliff, suddenly pulled over to the side of the road. A man who looked more like an Indonesian shadow puppet than a human being was doing a slow motion stagger out of the forest, his eyelids covering his eyes like half-closed window shades. He balanced an oil drum on his shoulder, inserting his bony fingers into a hole at the butt end to steady it. He wore trousers too short for his spindly legs and a jacket to match. Both were so dirty, it was hard to make out the color. It must have been somewhere toward the blue end of the spectrum. Peeking out from his jacket pocket was a bottle filled with the Owadi first distillation.

Cliff asked him to show us how the still worked. He responded as if he were a fish swimming in molasses. Two young boys, both of them sober as judges, accompanied him. One carried a long rod with a coil at one end and a spout at the other. There was a capful of the first distillation left in the coil. I sampled it. This was what battery acid must taste like, an acrid metallic taste that covered my tongue like a tarpaulin.

After tipping the moonshiner, we were on the road again. We hadn’t traveled more than fifteen minutes when Cliff spotted a truck from Kampala coming to pick up the day’s production of first distillation. He hailed the driver, told him he wanted to buy a bottle of Owadi. The driver rummaged around in his cab and from his height five feet above Cliff reached down a bottle. The truck was not only a transporter of first distillation, but a dispenser of second distillation as well: a liquor store on wheels, just like in Louisiana.

As we continued the long drive to Kibale National Park, Cliff pointed out the clusters of mostly men and a few women gathered in the center of the towns we passed through. It was Sunday. They were all drinking a combination of first distillation and beer, the former, I guessed, for the buzz, the latter to cover the taste of the former. It was three in the afternoon and most of them were, like the moonshiner, tipsy.

I have seen Ugandans hoeing, hauling, and hawking, the three h's of a subsistence economy. I have added a fourth “h” : hangover.

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