Eating meat and drinking arekie—one of the hardest local alcohols in Ethiopia—as a means of speeding up digestion, has been tradition for ages. In some parts of the country—like the highlands of Shoa—areqie is also used as a means of survival against the cold weather. Even though this local alcohol has been around for long, its growing consumption among young boys in urban settings that were supposed to be part of the workforce is a rather grim image. Apart from stealing their courage to fight the hardships of life, the new trend of increasing alcoholic beverage consumption in the capital is also causing early health challenges, writes Henok Engida.
When Yitbarek Araya, alias, graduated from Addis Ababa University’s School of Commerce in 2008, his father was ill and bed-ridden from a disease that hurt his eye-sight and speech abilities, among other impacts. Yet, that did not prevent him from showing up at the university’s premises for his son’s graduation just to feel the happiness. Unfortunately, the father died a few months after.
After graduation, Yitbarek tried working in a few places but would not last long at the companies that hired him, even quitting before getting his first pay cheque. The only thing he enjoyed was to stay at home, chew chat, and sip on areqie which is also called katikala.
“I don’t know if the death of my father is an excuse or that it really hurts that bad,” says Yitbarek trying to explain why he drinks the concoction.
As the months and years went by, Yitbarek totally abandoned the idea of getting employed and tried making money by brokering the employment of housemaids and sale of some goods traded around in his neighborhood. But his efforts couldn’t sustain his addiction expenses. At one point he decided to abandon chewing chat to just sleep his days away and drink the local liquor all night.
“It is cheap and easily accessible,” adds Yitbarek as to why he prefers the hard alcohol. “Drinking beer would mean a lot of money every day.” As employment is unthinkable, his brother in the diaspora seems to be the only way out, with anticipations of securing a one-way ticket to the US. He hopes that that might potentially turn his life around but understands time is of the essence.
“My brother is doing all that he can, but I am getting older and older every day,” Yitbarek says.
The addiction to drinking the local hard alcohol is not only a thing in poor neighborhoods in the capital anymore. Even young men who have attended higher education and those from well-to-do families with a lot of opportunities are not immune. Bereket Admasu, a middle-aged Owner of a pool-house in Akaki Kality District shares his insight into the matter. “A lot of the boys who spend their days playing pool here drink areqie.” According to him, almost all of the new consumers of the hard local alcohol are young and male. “Many of the ones I know either dropped out of university or are graduates. From what they wear and the money they spend, I don’t think their families are too poor for them to be hopeless.”
Areqie is a traditional home-distilled, colorless, clear, traditional alcoholic beverage primarily made with water, grains, bucktorn leaves, and malt. Various localities and processes are present and could involve further additions and flavorings through a mixture of cereals like wheat, sorghum, and maize as well as other products of nature. The distillation and fermentation process takes days. The terms of areqie and katikala are mostly interchangeable, but some use the latter to refer to a more flavored and developed version.
Upon distillation methods, the drink is primarily classified into terra and dagim, respectively translated to ordinary and double. The latter designates distillation is done twice and alcohol content averages around 45Pct while the former is around 34Pct. As the case with traditional methods, alcohol content varies with some claiming it can reach as high as 70Pct.
The drink has now become ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia, growing from primarily being a feature of the countryside to taking over towns and cities.
It has been 12 years since Yitbarek took his first sip of areqie and he has been hospitalized twice in the period for alcohol-induced issues with his liver and other health complications. His dark complexion somewhat helps him cover up the telling signs of skin blackening. A closer look though shows he is quite a consumer.
There are many types of liver disease caused by alcohol consumption. The most common is fatty liver, which is the accumulation of fat in the liver, occurs after acute alcohol ingestion and is generally reversible and not a chronic disease as long as abstinence or even moderation is observed. If otherwise, fatty liver can lead to scarring of the organ and eventually death. Other inflictions include alcoholic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, and brain damage.
According to a WHO Africa Region Factsheet of 2016, the prevalence of heavy episodic drinking in Ethiopia stood at little more than 10Pct. The prevalence of alcohol use disorders among Ethiopian men was 4.5Pct, compared to the regional average of 3.7Pct. The prevalence of liver cirrhosis stood at a little more than 54Pct.
No matter the sourness of areqie, health problems especially with the liver, and other problems it creates regarding the environment and familial issues, it is not easy to abolish its production nor consumption. There are both societal and economic factors which have led to the alcoholic concoction having a foothold in the Ethiopian fabric. Household income generated from it supports families in poor neighborhoods.
A portion in a small glass is sold for ETB7 in Yitbarek’s neighborhood. He estimates that one of the five women who vend areqie in his environs sell around 100 glasses every day and is supporting her children’s education through it. It is an enigma as concurrently it can contribute to economic empowerment or stagnation as well as social cohesion or disruption.
The benefits of the drink are not only seen on individual women, who are predominantly the sellers. The Ethiopian government also seems to be preparing to reap benefits. In late 2021, the Ethiopian Standards Agency prepared criterion for local alcoholic drinks and other locally prepared food items. The plan is to avail these products for wider markets including for export.
According to World Population Review’s 2022 data, Ethiopia’s pure alcohol consumption stands at a little over two liters per year. Kenya’s annual consumption is similar and the highest is Russia with more than 10 liters a year.
Worldwide production and consumption of fermented beverages has a long history, and is believed to have started in ancient times. Production techniques and consumption of these traditional beverages are very localized. Ethiopia, like other parts of the world, produces and consumes a significant volume of traditional alcoholic beverages. According to the study ‘Cereal- and Fruit-Based Ethiopian Traditional Fermented Alcoholic Beverages’, published on MDPI, popular alcoholic beverages in Ethiopia have equal market share with their commercially-produced counterparts. This includes areqie among others like tej, tella, borde, shamita, korefe, and keribo. In all, Ethiopians consume about eight million hectoliters of home-distilled alcohol every year.
EBR 10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106