THOMAS MORTON: We’re in Uganda. Uganda’s had a pretty good spell the last 25 years– no major civil wars, a little bit of an Ebola outbreak every so often, including right now. And they’re the alcoholism capital of Africa. One favorite type of booze the locals make is called waragi. We’re going to go make some, drink some, and hopefully not go blind. In 2004, the World Health Organization released its global status report on alcohol and health, finding Uganda as the top contender for per capita alcohol consumption in the world. Since 2011, the numbers have only increased. Basically, making Uganda the drunkest place on earth. So when Vice heard about Uganda’s countrywide production of a type of moonshine called for waragi, we were interested. But after we discovered that people were going blind and dying for drinking waragi cut with industrial chemicals, we knew this was something we needed to taste for ourselves. Making its way through my system. I can feel it kind of spreading out. Following the release of the World Health Organization’s report, the administration of President Yoweri Museveni, acting through Uganda’s Parliament, ordered a commission to be formed to fact check the report’s findings.
If you’re wondering what prompted a reaction that seems like the geopolitical equivalent of an angry work email, here’s some context. Musevini has been president of Uganda for 27 years. He came to power after fighting a six year bush war against this guy, who had been president from 1966 to 1971, before being ousted in a coup by this guy, who was a sociopath. This guy gave himself lots of medals, royal titles, and ruled with an iron fist until he was deposed by this guy, who was then president again until he lost a civil war against the National Resistance Movement, led by our old pal, Museveni.
Running up to Uganda’s 2006 election, Museveni and the now political National Resistance Movement abolished presidential term limits. On top of that, Museveni’s been lying about his age for five or six-odd years in order to avoid the maximum age for the presidency stipulated in the country’s constitution. So when the commission put in place by Uganda’s parliament to investigate just how drunk they were at the international office party made the decision to appoint Doctor Kabann Kabananukye, Professor of Makerere University, and director of the Victor Rehabilitation Center to head up the commission, it struck us is uncharacteristically sober. What is Ugandans’ relationship with alcohol like? Do a lot of people drink here? The more we talk to people about the subject, the more we begin to understand not only the extent of Uganda’s issue with libations, but also just how different the problem manifested itself in different parts of the country. So we headed out of the city, 40 kilometers up into the hills above Kampala, to a village in the rural Kaliro district. Thank you. Where do you guys make the waragi here? Cool.
So is this somebody’s house? This is the waragi hut, huh? And you’re the one who makes it? Can she explain what’s happening here? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: So it’s your basic still. You’ve got the mash in there. It’s boiling and fermenting. The vapor from it comes up through these copper tubes, then condenses. You cool it off there, and it drips into this gas tank. MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: And there’s your finished waragi. Seem like it might be strong. Eh? Yeah, that tastes like liquor. It’s actually pretty smooth. This tastes really clean and fresh. How long does it take to make? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: Oh, do you mind if I kill this really quick? Thank you. A native language corruption of the English phrase War Gin, waragi was originally contrived to embolden Ugandan soldiers in the King’s East Africa Rifles during World Wars I and II with what the British cheekily referred to as Dutch courage.
Much to the colonial governor’s chagrin, the beverage later became the drink of choice for those resisting the crown during the drive for independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s up from the store house. That’s great. Thank you. It’s even better. You can kind of taste of the banana more with that one when it’s cooled down. Is there some reason why women make waragi more than men? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: Does the government care that you make waragi? Do you ever get interfered with? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: You said some people come up from Kampal two buy your waragi. Why would people travel this far? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: That sounds way worse.
Bananas are a lot better than factory reject sugar cane. Who’s winning here? You’re winning. No, not anymore. The ladies are all over there. They’re kind of segregated, middle school dance style. So do people only drink waragi here, or do you drink beer and other things, too? JOJO: No, no, no, no. THOMAS MORTON: What’s the hangover like? We’re drinking all this. How bad is it going to be in the morning? JOJO: THOMAS MORTON: Did you say they give the child alcohol? KABANN KABANANUKYE: Yes, in some communities, yes.
It is part of our culture. For you? For you? THOMAS MORTON: Yeah, is that OK? Yeah, I’d love some. There we go. Perfect. Good, right? To . To . There we go. Now you’re me. Look at me. With the day wearing on, and the festivities beginning to take a physical toll on our hosts, we realized it was time to get these folks some dinner. So, we’re going to go get some food for the party. I get the feeling this means we’re going to get something that isn’t yet food, probably something we’re going to have to watch die before it becomes food. There’s like a whole dragoon of kids behind us now. This is dinner? I see. Oh, lord. Kind of isn’t a Vice party until something dies.
We’re going to eat that? Yeah, OK, that’s what I thought. I feel bad saying this about the goat that’s about to die, but that thing’s balls are enormous. This went from some sort of weird Breugel’s village life scene into some perverse take on the old Judaic scapegoat ritual. THOMAS MORTON: This was in the goat about 20 minutes ago. Give it another 20 minutes it’ll be inside me. Lord. THOMAS MORTON: I’m just here getting my head rubbed and trying to eat some goat that’s way too hot. It’s about 7 o’clock in the evening. I’ve got to wait a second. This thing is way too hot for me.
As our new friends begin to hit the deck one by one, we noticed that besides her initial sip during our interview, Mistress Kaliro was the only one who hadn’t touched a drop of the waragi during the party. Is waragi something that people drink here like every day? Or is it just kind of more for special occasions, for parties? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: What would happens if they stopped drinking it? MISTRESS KALIRO: THOMAS MORTON: It’s like their medicine. THOMAS MORTON: Everybody gets out of work. Everybody lets their worries wash away in a stream of waragi. Somebody kills a goat. They day is over. You start anew the next day. What happens in the city, though, is another story. We’re going to go check that out. Our visit to the very traditional waragi operation in Kaliro had ended with a lot of older men on the ground before sunset.
It seemed like we were watching people drink for the first time. But based on what we observed, that was probably just the everyday norm. Curious about how moonshine worked in the rest of the country, we visited the Kataza suburb of Kampala to explore a much larger and much, much prettier setup. Oh wow. Now this is a far cry. Hello, how are you? All the kids came with us. That’s cute and distressing, because this looks like some sort of creepy industrial slog yard filled with bubbling vats of half-buried booze. THOMAS MORTON: Can I see? Oh wow.
Oh, I can smell it. Bubbling. There’s so many drums. And how much does each of these– a whole barrel, how much waragi comes out of that? So 40 liters a day, then basically. That’s a big operation. How many people work here? Why do women make waragi? It feels like everybody we’ve met who makes waragi is a woman. It’s the only job a woman can give herself. THOMAS MORTON: How much do you sell a liter for? OK. OK, that’s 600, and that’s, what, one too? In 1965, Ugandan Parliament enacted the Enguli Act, requiring a license for bringing and distillation of all locally produced alcohol. But for really obvious reasons, the Enguli Act has never been successfully enforced, as unlicensed production of waragi rampantly persists across the country.
Can we buy some bottles? I’d like to buy a couple bottles if possible. Whatever shit that’s in there is going to kill a lot more germs than water would have. Yes, that’s ours. This is Robert, our driver. As you could tell by his ability to gulp down bootleg liquor. Can we go over and see the drinkers? Well thank you. I’m glad that me showing up and drinking is an honor to you. Yeah, it’s nice, when the day is done, when the work’s over, quitting time. Just like a neighborhood bar. Good to meet you, James. JAMES: You are called Thomaso? THOMAS MORTON: Oh, just Thomas. Thomas. JAMES: Thomas. THOMAS MORTON: Thomas Morton. My last name? Morton. Oh it is. JAMES: . THOMAS MORTON: Yeah, it’s great. It’s nice and strong. Who? Which one? Oh, him? JOE STRAMOWSKI: I can see why you give it the name. Here, here, we’re good. Then– THOMAS MORTON: In April 2010, more than 80 people died after drinking waragi contaminated with high amounts of methanol over a three week period in the Kambala district. THOMAS MORTON: It’s like when drug dealers stamp out their supply, and they put filler in it.
Yeah. Wow. That’s– oh man– that’s a lot stronger than yesterday. . How do I benefit? I get to come to Africa. I get to come to Africa and hang out with you guys. That’s how I benefit. This is fun, man! No, this is fun. This is my reward, hanging out. Dude. So after you’ve got your waragi, and you’ve got a little buzz going, everybody comes down here. This is Kalagala, kind of the red light district on Kampala. And basically this is Sunday night. It kind of looks like Cardiff, or like Glasgow or something on a Friday. Tons of people out. Everybody’s staggering, picking fights, and hugging. A lot of women out who look like they’re charging. This is sort of like Britain’s lasting legacy here, you now? Instead of rum, sodomy, and the lash Ugandans opted for gin, no sodomy, and hookers. .