Now is the long, dry season, and time to enjoy the fruits of the land before land preparation and seeding begins. Sorghum, millet and beans – as well as a more recent crop, rice, and several others – are harvested and processed for sale or storage for family consumption throughout the year.
Omer’s wife Nona and their daughter Elian came down from the family farm last weekend with some of these fresh products, including sorghum beer, yellow beans, a large rooster, indigenous potatoes, and other good things.
Last night I was invited to their family feast, especially centered around enjoying the fresh sorghum beer that Nona had made before coming down.
Le sorgho dans l’agriculture, la culture et l’histoire du Burundi (Abstract), par Chretien J.-P.
Journal de la Société des Africanistes Paris – 1982, vol. 52, no1-2, pp. 145-162 (notes) – Translation mine
Sorghum had a prominent place in the symbolic sphere that helped to legitimize the royal power in Burundi, and more precisely during the annual festival of sowing. This festival (the muganuro) was associated with the cult of the dynastic drum, an agrarian ritual, a national holiday and associated with the periodic renewal of the king’s power.
This festival helped put into rhythm social time along with the beginnings of a ritual practiced with members of the finger millet families.
These two grains, combined with livestock, were associated with a stage in the history of ancient rural Burundi that preceded the diffusion of the American bananas and beans.
Although sorghum beer has lost the ancient content of its cultural significance, jointly sipping the brew nevertheless remains an important ingredient in enjoying and solidifying social bonds. To be invited to such a family event is an important indicator of respect and ‘belonging’.
I asked one of the family members to demonstrate the proper way to sip pombe, for – as is the case with most food or beverage events that have high symbolic value – there are generally specific ways in which it should be done.
In sipping sorghum beer it is important how the reed straw is held in the fingers, as shown in the following photos. Between sips, due to the heavy amount of chaff in the beer, one tips the straw up and blows out in order to remove the chaff; that process is shown in the 4th picture, taken in about 1910, suggesting the timelessness of key ceremonies:
Until recent times, pombe was generally offered to guests or dignitaries on their arrival to a village or home in most of sub-Saharan Africa (photo below). I first experienced this in a settlement in Chaggaland, on the slopes on Mt. Kilimanjaro, where I was part of a small team assessing indigenous agriculture and agroforestry practices. The head man offered each of us some pombe in a gourd, very similar to the following picture, which was taken around the turn of the century or later:
Above: woman offering pombe. Her subservient attitude is simply good manners, in serving pombe to visiting dignitaries.
Pombe is always part of major events, such as engagements, as seen in the following photo. Omer sips pombe with the father of his daughter’s soon-to-be betrothed. Here, it is not hand position, but that the key members of both families ritually sip. Following the two men, key women will then take a few sips.
More on last night’s event in a future blog – about food and so forth.