How we drink palm wine

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By McPhilips Nwachukwu
PALM wine is one of the many brands of native wines drunk in Nigeria. While some other wine types like burukutu, pito and ogogoro are brewed and distilled from either wheat, guinea corn grains or even as a derivative from fermented palm wine, the particular brand called palm wine is got straight as sap from either raffia palm or oil palm trees.

In the Northern part of Nigeria where savannah type of climate does not allow the growth of luxuriant trees like the raffia or oil palm trees, the grain produced wines like burukutu and pito are very popular. Ogogoro brand of wine gotten as derivative from palm wine is very popular in the West African sub region, known and addressed with various rib cracking names like shekwe, ishi enwe, akpateshe, I for don marry. The ogogoro brand is gotten from fermented palm wine or ripe plantain through some local distillery methods.

However, in the Eastern part of Nigeria; and especially in the Igbo speaking area, palm wine known with many names like tombo, palmy, nwoko onye obi ocha (large hearted man), uzunma (epitome of beauty), mmiri Ara umu mbe, (breast milk for the orphan) is the number one brand. Among the Igbo people of the South East, the word wine no matter which brand of wine is being referred to, immediately translates to manya, which in its literal sense means palm wine.

As stated earlier, this drink brand is got from two tree sources: the raffia and the oil palm trees. While the raffia palm produces manya ngwo (raffia palm wine), the oil palm tree produces the type called, manya nkwu, “up wine.” To produce palm wine takes a process. It is not every raffia palm tree that produces palm wine. It takes the professional eye of a seasoned tapper to know when a particular raffia tree is ready for tapping.

Arrival of maturity

According to Nwafo Nnabuihe, a 65 year old tapper, “raffia palm is like a young girl. It grows through puberty stages. Like a young girl, it shows signs of maturity with years. In the same way that a little girl attains age of maturity and begins to sprout little bumps on her chase, the raffia tree shows signs of maturity by shooting out certain number of palm fronds (omu) to signal the arrival of maturity. When palm tree shoots up the first bud of palm frond, the tapper will immediately know it is coming of age. When it shoots two palm fronds at a time, it shows that it is at the point of going to labour. Sprouting of three palm fronds shows that the palm has come of age and can be tapped.”

Having been certified ripe for tapping, the tapper climbs up to the top most part of the tree, where he identifies the neck and cuts off ducts with his tapper’s blade. Under the hole made by the removed ducts, a local calabash or mug is fastened with rope and tied to the tree to collect the liquid sap. Newly collected palm wine is usually very sweet and this sweet type is the favourite of women and children. Old men with the exception of the light brained ones prefer the “hard” brand. The hard wine is the fermented type. Palm wine becomes fermented with the passage of days.

“Naturally, palm wine is a low alcoholic drink. Its alcoholic content is as little three per cent,” says, Dr. Jeff Brown, nutritional dietetics. But fermented palm wine has the potential to breed as high 12 per cent alcoholic content. Besides the natural alcoholic content, which palm wine yields with passage of time there are, however, other traditional chemical mechanisms, which tapers bring into the process to “harden” the brand.

Nnabuihe noted: “It is only natives from coastal towns that drink palm wine straight as it is got from the tree. No, that is not palm wine. We call it mmanya miri (water drink.) A seasoned tapper must apply the necessary herbs on the face of his ducts (ahihia ngwo) and add nche (local yeast) to increase the potency of the wine. When you place the herbs on the opening made by the ducts and pour grounded (nche) in the collecting calabash, what you get at the end of the day is a ready medicinal and rich nutritional wine.”

However, the other type of wine, the “up wine” takes almost, though not the whole process. The major differences between the two processes are while the raffia palm wine is obtained from a standing tree, the up wine can be got from both a standing or felled oil palm tree. Another significant difference is that while tapping of raffia tree results in the death of the tree, except when an oil palm tree is already felled before tapping, it still retains life and vitality and produces more oil palm fruits many years after tapping.

Palm wine tapping is both an art and a social activity. So much so is the drinking. The tapper delights so much in his activity of tapping that among little children his activity elicits song of admiration:

Mgbe Oku ngwo no elu            each time the taper is atop tree

Obi ya anuri                              He is filled with joy

Mgbe ono na aku ngwo ya        When he is busy tapping the tree

Obi ya anuri                               He is filled with joy

Ikpom chiki, ikpom                chiki ikpom chiki, ikpom chiki

Obi ya anuri                             He is filled with happiness

This song sang by little children, who wait patiently at the foot of the tree with the intention of benefiting from the generosity of a large hearted tapper, who may feel challenged by the beautiful rendition from the children and feast them with cup full of sweet frothing palm wine. Palm wine is so admired by the local population and especially those who can not afford to go to expensive beer parlours to buy brewed beers, costly spirits and English wines. Even rich men and women, who can afford to buy these other types ensure that palm wine is always in the exclusive list of drinks to be provided at every of their ceremonies.

“Palm wine makes us happy. It is not like beer or spirit that makes you uncomfortable. This is our own holy water,” says, Nnanna Anyanwu, a 90 year old man. In social gatherings like party or funeral, palm wine commands a lot of respect.

There is a popular joke in Mbaise part of Igbo land, where it is said that “When Christ went to Galilee for a wedding, he saw that every guest looked moody and without smile on their faces. He asked them: “my kinsmen, why are your faces moody?” They replied: “can you imagine that since morning we came here nobody has bothered to ask us whether we care for a drink.

Not even one person has raised am empty cup of wine to our faces.”  Christ is said to have laughed and begged them not to be angry and commanded that six jars be filled with water which he converted to palm wine and the people drank to their fill and sprang into song :

Galilee eee                             Oh Land of Galilee

Ebe ndi din so

Jere ku paaa                          Where the Saints have gone to hide

Galilee eee                             Oh Land of Galileee

Obodo mara nma                    Beautiful land

Ebe emere mmiri

Ghooo manya                        Where water converts to wine.

Another version of the song says:

Manya ngwo                            Oh palm wine

Obi oma in

Akpa m                               The happiness you bring to me

Ya so gi

Gbalaa Britain                    If you like, takes exile to Britain

Aga m achoro

Gi bia                                    I will come after you.

Apart from providing a platform for social interaction, palm wine plays important social religious functions. It is the drink of the gods. In traditional Igbo society, palm wine is the preferred drink used in pouring libations to the gods. In every traditional ceremony be it wedding, child naming ceremony, funeral or memorial, palm wine is the preferred drink.

Gender or age barrier

It is drunk by the old as much as the young. The clergy drinks palm wine as much as the lay man. It has no gender or age barrier.

However, there are traditional ways in which this precious wine is served. It has its own wine cup and special mug for distribution. The traditional wine cup and mug are made from special calabash seed. The calabash mug is cyndrical in shape with a long handle and a hole made on one side of it to serve as its mouth. In between the joint between the cyndrical side of the calabash and its handle, a sponge like filter is inserted to help filter the wine as it is being served into the cups.

It used to be a common sight seeing old men in the villages visit their friends or go to the market where palm wine is sold with their washed calabash cups hung in their raffia hand bags. According to Kalu, a popular palm wine seller, “The reason is to ensure healthy drinking, and also to avoid being poisoned by evil minded people.”

Absence of titled men

At occasions, the elderly men and women in the absence of titled men and women are served first. While the men sit comfortably on their seats to drink their palm wine, women as mark of respect, either stoop down or kneel on one leg to have theirs. Each time palm wine is served, the last part of it, called the dreg “ike manya” (bottom of wine or “uroto manya” (dreg of palm wine), is usually given to the oldest man in the midst or the newest married young men. It is believed that the remains of palm wine add potency to the sexual prowess of a newly married young man.

Palm wine is equally used effectively as post natal beverage. Mama Nkechi, a traditional nurse explains that “it helps newly born mothers to replenish their milk. And for a very suckling infant, little drops of palm wine goes long way in augmenting the infant’s mother to satisfying her babe’s insatiable urge for breast milk.” Medical experts have also revealed that the rich vitamin A content of palm wine can help in addressing nerve related ailment in the same way that food and beverage industries have  benefited from the use of palm wine’s rich wild yeast in  bakery and production of groceries.

In recent times, however, palm wine has been under going a kind of transformation. The new generation drinkers of palm wine have found their new way of drinking and heightening the effect of the traditional drink. Nowadays, they mix palm wine with Stout beer or some spirits. This new concocted mixture, they call “ bloody Mary.”

Even in the townships, palm has become very popular in drinking circles often called “joints.” In these places, it is served with local delicacies like Ugba (oil bean salad}, Isi Ewu (goat head) and pepper soup made either of chicken or goat.

However, there is a danger in the patronage of township palm wine. The fear is that there is the tendency for the sellers to sell adulterated versions of this drink. This may result from the doctoring of the original palm wine with a certain kind of sweetener called saccharine. This additive, according to experts, is capable of causing health challenges, which may result in diarrohea, dysentery or runny stomach. It is even more dangerous with people suffering from diabetics.

Activity in palm wine makes a lot of economic sense. The popularity of the drink and its potential medical and pharmaceutical properties endear it to both domestic and industrial users. It is a brand that has become very popular with beverage and alcholic consumers. This is  because the product has the potential to be converted to either form. In the rural areas in particular, the sale of palm wine is a very profitable business and can be relied upon as an activity that can put food on the table.

Given the considerable uses and wide acceptability that palm wine commands in Nigeria today, all that is left to turn it into a national brand that can equally attract huge foreign exchange for the government is to earmark fund for research into the agricultural, pharmaceutical, food and beverage potentials of this essential product with the view to harnessing the result for the over all  improvement of palm wine production, storage, packaging and marketing.

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