Forget coffee! Forget tea! Forget Vodka! Sodabi is Benin’s number one drink- the demi-god that everyone adores in Benin, the country whose most famous asset is being the origin of Voodoo. Sodabi is so widespread, people have no idea of the extent of its force. It is, what I would call, the national fetish. The word SODABI does not change from region to region within the country, nor from dialect to dialect, but in my village, Kemon, the people have a special name for it: “Mousoukou!” the word for “cat,” because when you take it down, it is sure to scratch you. You see it at all funeral, birth, and traditional religion ceremonies. Men and some women touch it in the morning and at night. It’s an aperitif, an aphrodisiac, and a great leveler, though it can start arguments or even fights. It’s the drink of choice, especially in my region (central Benin), and costs about ten cents per shot- a conveniently cheap sip.
I first found out about Sodabi on a pirogue trip when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. I was invited on a tour of voodoo sites that were located on an island in large river outside the coastal capital of Porto-Novo. At midday, parched from forgetting to bring drinking water, the sun beating down through humid southern air and reflecting off the river at my skin, I was handed a clear plastic shot glass of the potent liquor. I was instructed directly by the guide to “consume!” Behind our pirogue was another, larger pirogue filled with voodoo partiers, women’s shoulders scarred with tribal markings and old men with Papa Smurf –like hats tilted to the side. I couldn’t understand how everyone on this pirogue, more than fifty middle-aged people, had the energy to sing and dance during the hours that they would normally use to spend their “repos” time, to rest and sleep in the middle of the day. And then the effects came on, and I understood where they were coming from.
In Kemon I used to wait until 10am to walk into the center, or “downtown,” to find my work partners, buy vegetables, or visit friends. I avoided leaving my house until late morning because I didn’t want to be in town in the earlier hours. There was just something unusual to me about how there were so many perky men crowded around the main intersection, each and every morning. Why were they all shouting and laughing, eating enormous pounded yam meals, revving their motos, planning trips with friends, arranging community meetings, or gathering to go to the fields? I wasn’t ready for this heightened level of energy in the mornings, when I could be quite peaceful in my house at the edge of the village. There, only a distant crow or children’s voices would slowly wake me up. Then I would sweep my house and grounds in a sleepy rhythm, matching all the other sweeping, as I became fully awake. A year later, I finally got over my cloudy awe of village life and noticed that Sodabi was being sold in three different places at the intersection.
Consequently, as I started to work more with Michel, the coordinator of my assigned NGO, we would meet his wife’s “restaurant” before riding on his moto to the surrounding villages. Her restaurant resembled all the others in Kemon, a branch-assembled shade structure filled with a small group of skinny men sitting on benches, outside the woman’s house where she kept a supply of cooked rice, meat, okra and sauce to sell, as well as, what do you know, SODABI! I would always be obligated into drinking a shot, because to refuse would be offensive. And there were always people at the restaurant that were quick to greet me and watch me accept the offer. (Though, there are some ways to trick everyone into thinking that you drank it, like spilling it when no one was looking or pouring it onto the dirt and claiming that you were honoring the ancestors, whoever they were.) As a university-educated woman who worked outside my home, I was already assuming a man’s role, and this continued right down to the Sodabi drinking. The more time I spent at this restaurant, the more I was able to understand how the men were using this morning buzz to socialize, to get a little space away from their families in such a tiny village where everyone know everyone. I began thinking that this was the only appropriate way these men could meet up to do business like selling their crops, hiring laborers, or discussing local politics.
Like Michel’s wife, other women ran businesses in Kemon. Many venues were only a couple of benches, a handful of shot glasses, and a selection of Sodabis, all of which had their own medicinal purposes. Branches and leaves of aloe, neem, or eucalyptus were put into bottles and sold as remedies or concoctions that give men their “force,” if you know what I mean. Most women, who traditionally don’t drink alcohol (which I thought was beneficial for the babies in their wombs), would patiently serve the talkative and sometimes incessantly flirtatious men. I was sure that despite their calm facades, these hostesses would be laughing inside as their customers’ eyes turned red and they left the bars to stumble home, because they were actually making cash off of every shot poured. Though Sodabi was consumed at these bars all day, I noticed more the drinking in the mornings, probably because it was so rare in my own culture. Most drinkers I knew well reported a need to “see clear,” in the mornings. People swore that the Sodabi buzz subsided quickly, but some would occasionally forget to go to work or be distracted from errands that they were supposed to do.
Sodabi, from what I could detect, had its equal positive and negative consequences. For some men, it was simply a habit. They could drink one shot and they were finished, with a healthy appetite and a readiness to work. One time, I gave the three masons who were working on our community latrine project a quarter of a liter, and that was enough to inspire them to get the work done for the day. Other men, very clearly, had lost all ambition to work, ended up neglecting their children and wives, failing to earn any income. It was true that the farmers in my rural village led lifestyles that did not require being as timely or as regular by our Western standards, or a need to be intellectually focused for long periods of time, and that most of their food was free, from the fields straight to the marmite. But not growing enough crops to sell for hard cash could be devastating, especially when a child gets sick and the family has to pay for an expensive consultation and imported drugs at the local, government-run clinic.
On the flipside, Sodabi was great for “ceremonies,” or weeklong funerals a couple months after an elder’s death, convoking all the distant family members and friends. Drinking a little when a person is catching up on years of being absent from relatives always seemed to be a well-used convenience. And believe me, family ties are very present with such complex extended families. Parents stopped yelling at their kids and everyone got up and danced. Sodabi would destroy any family tensions and was incredibly effective at keeping the partying going well into morning- with drumming or crackly-cassette music that seemed to have only one volume level- the loudest possible.
Despite all the papers that Peace Corps handed me during training and service, warning of the dangers of Sodabi, I willingly became a faithful worshipper, though was sure not to enter the lifestyle. Peace Corps doctors explained scientifically that Sodabi contained toxic metals and formaldehyde, but the reality was that it was more than 60% alcohol, and if it hit the bloodstream of a young, recent American college graduate who had never left her hometown in the cornfields, Peace Corps did not want to be responsible for her outbursts, nor for her tainted reputation in the village.
After many months of observing and integrating into village life, I started to look for an even deeper understand of the local psyche. Sitting and sipping in the Sodabi shacks required a huge mental compromise. I had to encourage myself to willingly risk the villagers’ perception of me as a respectable, responsible, and professional woman, for the experience of participating in the most honest conversations that I have ever had in my life. In a Sodabi shack anything goes in a dialog, as long as you have at least 50 francs worth of a buzz on and no one becomes violent or asks the owner for credit. In these shacks I learned the truths about African life and the human condition, the explanations behind some of the outrageous traditions, the secret gossip of the village, opinions on politics, and what the people really thought about Westerners. The Beninese are known in other African countries to be great philosophers and academics. Beninese can be found sitting and talking about anything, since they have a great ability to synthesize and reflect on world issues, such as refugees, global warming, and taxes, though most can rarely locate their own country or even the African continent on a world map. They take time to contemplate and love listening to their radios that broadcast Radio France International two times a day. The Beninese, the great intellectuals, are known to be peace-lovers, always a little hesitant to take action and react to a wrongdoing. The average man or woman would prefer talking out a problem with an enemy, not without it heating up mind you, for an entire day without eating, rather than holding up a fist to fight. This laid-back and wise mentality is what I interpreted to be one reason why development has not happened so quickly, and why there is a great sense of frustration among the youth who desire material things, but don’t know exactly how to go about taking action and organizing themselves. Maybe the elders know that too quick development would be a recipe for disaster. Maybe the Sodabi is slowing it down in a good way.
Today, the average Beninese village may not be capable of building its own roads. A Beninese woman may not be literate enough to write down records of her onion sales, but Sodabi manufacturing is a lucrative business and has sent kids to school and university. Anyone who can afford to buy three tin gasoline barrels and some rubber tubing can make it. Palm juice is extracted from the coconut-producing palm tree, either by cutting a whole in it and draining it out (like maple syrup), or by cutting the whole tree down which is less sustainable and unfortunately the most used method. Sodabi is made all over Benin, but the “bonne chose” or the “good stuff” is made in the south, where, due to the wetter climate, there are a lot more palm trees. Basically, the palm wine is boiled in the first and largest barrel, and travels into the second and third barrels through small plastic tubing as vapor, finally cooling down in the third. It is then poured into old liter bottles that have once contained imported rum and whiskey, and is ready to be drunk, shot by shot, 25 francs by 25 francs. To make that price relevant, with 25 francs you can buy a small bag of shelled peanuts, a condom, a bouillon cube, or a plate of white rice.
However one looks at it, Sodabi is alcohol, and whenever alcohol is present, no matter what the country, there are going to be addiction problems and relationship degradation, among many bi-products. In a country where the price of hard alcohol is virtually free, even for the Beninese, it can be even more dangerous. I am always split as to condemning Sodabi and adoring it. I am not one to say that alcohol consumption is wrong- I've lived in Ireland, the country that is the proud home of Guinness beer and Jameson whiskey, and understand the necessity for indulgences. Humans are hard-wired to look for ways to relax and to take their minds off of the daily stresses. In Benin, where already there is not much paid work, unemployed men who aren’t busy doing the household chores that their wives do, drinking Sodabi is a great way to pass the time. What else would you do? How many times had I found myself next to a cold bottle of beer in the buvette with other Volunteers, complaining that there wasn’t enough development work to do?
Is it the alcohol that is preventing people from working? Or are there a variety of factors like poor soil, corruption, dependence on foreign aid, and a tropical climate, which create unemployment? Is Sodabi drinking a part of the culture that needs not be touched by a politically correct and psychoanalytic Western consciousness? All these questions I am not sure of, but I do know that the phenomenon of the scratching cat will certainly never be forgotten by me.