Booze or medicine
It’s a common dilemma for the poor, hard-drinking man: spend your limited funds on medicine or get drunk to disguise the symptoms? However, in West Africa they have found a unique solution – make booze into medicine.
In the Ivory Coast it all starts with the basic ingredient of palm wine or Banji as its known. Sap from certain varieties of palm is tapped off every day from the living trees to be delivered to the thirsty, although it can also be extracted from the felled trunks. From this point it is a trade-off between taste and alcohol content: when fresh it is a pleasant, mildly alcoholic beverage but over time it ferments, becoming more alcoholic but less and less palatable to all but the hardened street drinker by the next day. Being an entirely local product it offers at least some measure of intoxication at a knock down price, often less than 50 US cents a bottle.
Banji can then be distilled to create a clear spirit known as Volcan Afrique (African Volcano), coutoucou (a term widely understood around the region) or gbele. (Pronunciation note: the g isn’t pronounced as such but if you set your tongue as if you were about to say g but say b instead you’ll be somewhere in the right ball park)
This is where the expertise of the traditional pharmacist comes in. A whole variety of roots, barks and leaves are infused in the gbele to impart their medicinal qualities. Some, such as ginger, which is used to make a mixture known as Gnamankou, are well-known elsewhere but here it is reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities, although that’s just as likely to be a sales ploy as anything. On a similar note are the green leaves used to make 4am, which is a reference to the state of early morning arousal that can occur in men sometimes. A glass or two is meant to liven up things down below but at what point it starts to have the opposite effect was not revealed to me. Unsurprisingly malaria is an obvious concern, for which they have Jaune Amer (Bitter Yellow) – no prizes for guessing the colour and taste of the bark that goes into this drink. You will regularly hear men say, “I’ve got a bit of malaria”, which is an ideal excuse for a shot of the drink to fight off the symptoms. While no doubt millennia of exposure to the disease has created a greater level of resistance in Africans than us wussy, white people, who are more likely to scream, “arghhhhh I’ve got malaria, help, help”! The medical grounds for having, “a bit of malaria” are on a par with an Englishman with a bit of a sniffle, down the pub, on his fifth pint of lager declaring, “I’ve got a bit of flu”.
Without doubt my favourite of the medications on offer in the alcoholic pharmacy is the delightfully named Koko Diarrhea. Koko is the local term for hemorrhoids and the drink is allegedly a cure for the two conditions, though after a taste of it you may be more of the opinion that it is more likely to cause them. Needless to say, the drink is brown in colour.