Under a shade at the Dansoman-Glefe lorry station in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, a group of middle-aged men sit slothfully as they inch closer to settling on an available diversion to validate their week-day nothingness.
It has gone past the morning rush hour and the yells from bus conductors for commuters to join the many destinations being advertised – to other parts of the city – are a small slice of a bigger banquet going on here: brisk trading, station executives pursuing drivers to hand over parking charges, and a nomad trying to navigate his way through what looks like a sweet clutter of human and vehicular convocation.
There is more. A pastor toggles high the volume on his Public Address system; a woman chases a young boy, who is finally caught and blessed with a smack on various parts of his body. The thumping he gets is followed by a basic Ga diatribe he is expected to deliver to his father – Otsɛ Boadi hiɛ okɛɛ La Gata; to wit, “your father Boadi’s face like La Gata” (La Gata is a popular Mexican soap opera that aired on local television).
Appiah, a resident driver, is without a car today and has also pitched camp under the shade which extends to a drinking parlor. All six men are united in their misery: the feeling of not working for their daily survivals. From expired road-worthy certificates to their cars reverting to their ‘masters’ (owners of the cars), they have good reason to sit, idle.
32 year-old Appiah recently moved here after leaving the Neoplan Station, also in the capital, where he was driver of a 207 Benz Bus; his first car, which plied the Accra-Kumasi route.
These days, he makes a living by waiting on other drivers at the station to declare themselves unfit for the day’s job so he can work some hours for a decent amount of money. He’s been at it for the past year.
The parlor serves an ultimate daily idling zone for him and his colleagues – who get by – by feeding off each other’s compassion. “It is tough for me these days,” Appiah says, looking to the direction of Portia Dede, his girlfriend of two years and a half, who is standing by a rickety Marcopolo bus in a stance so askance it gives her away as wanting to come to daddy (Appiah).
She gets approval. Within minutes, the two are hitched to a common Thursday midmorning goal of satisfying their craving for Akpɛtɛshie, a locally-brewed liquor whose potency is legendary.
As both made their way to the parlor, they find that Appiah’s other colleagues he left a while back were already seated in anticipation of a daily dose of drinking Dɔka, as they call Akpɛtɛshie (within their circles), which trades publicly by other names like Shocker and Girl bi Nti. Appiah is mourning a deceased family member; so gatherings such as this are enough to get the tots settling in. Quickly. It is not as if he needed a trigger for the ritual, but it helps his conscience.
As things crept on, there was little doubt about the organizing capabilities of Akpɛtɛshie and how it brings generations together.
The scene. A man salivates at the sight of an array of glasses. In them sit an equal dose of wisdom and folly. He is moved to conclude that they yearn for him because they call him by name. He moves closer. To gulp or not to gulp? To be or not to be…There is an urge so strong if it is ever succumbed to, it would be a response to a calling that has been starved and ignored by weeks of self-mooted abstinence. A man’s street credibility is on the line. It lingers by continuous streams of an attendant’s pouring or outpouring of a brew so defined by its contents and made pure and just by a group of men with different stories of Nipa yɛ forkin, Odɔ bi diɛ saa and Owuo sei fie. There is a point to prove, after all. At this very moment, that is their only currency of self-worth, and ticket to turning on the no-guilt buttons hovering around for attention.
He gulps. He takes it all in. The liquid travels down his bored throat, fast at first, then slowly. So many things happen: a race by forces of ingestion with a quest to beat a man at his own game of acceding to daylight nightmares. A little is always enough; who gets drenched also matters, because Akpɛtɛshie does matter around here, and shows its full force, the unsurprising facial squirms et al.
The mini conference of booze heads is a strong show of support for the jobless Appiah, whose only claim to fame at the station is Dede, 24.
Dede’s appearance at the parlor raises no eyebrows; it is an activity she engages in once a while. In Appiah, she has a soul mate who serves up tots of the more-than-40-percent alcohol content liquor.
Both have found in Akpɛtɛshie an escape to drown their bleakness; Dede is yet to land a decent job after a course at a Secretarial School in Accra. Over the past two years, she’s been Appiah’s burden. Makeup kits and funds for saloon visits top the occasional shopping cart.
She is tall, and amply-built at her thighs and hips. She has a bright future (breasts) in front of her and a fantastic past (bum) behind her, too. Those important stats are what drew her to Appiah who has already spent some substantial sum to see her through the many phases of her late twenties’ blues and fantasies, which included Friday night appearances at the Nso Nyame Yɛ Spot in Dansoman, and a standard weekly allowance. In Dede’s world, Appiah is a doer of many things.
Dede is naughty by nature and lives on an ordered lifestyle that is fast running out of stock thanks to Appiah’s joblessness. But that has done little to stop Appiah from being great, from being an envy of his peers as a penniless man who can still afford a strikingly insane beauty as Dede.
Akpɛtɛshie feeds on caustic motivation: hurt, irritation and sometimes, nothing – just fleeting machoism.
For persons like Appiah, this is valid.
On a calm Sunday evening at about 7:00 pm, a drunk Appiah struggles to maintain his composure as he auto-points fingers at passersby without provocation. There is resolve in the way he decides to move back and forth, but has the overwhelming power of Akpɛtɛshie to deal with.
At the lorry station, he wears a booze credibility badge that is hailed but has given in more than enough times to the leveling might of Akpɛtɛshie.
On this particular Sunday, he rebels: he is taking his taste buds on a trip of some few drinking parlors located in and around Glefe. He has gone past running algorithms and linear equations in his head whether to drink or not. His buds are on a different kind of steroids and he waves at what is in sight and what is far away. As many of the parlors as he saw, he entered. Hard.
At one of them, he exits after ten minutes. He pauses to stare down his palms, and the staring moment morphs into one of those lone ticks of his. He becomes an instant meme for the night. The strolls he undertakes are usually to nowhere but the precincts of where he is able to – at least – find some immovability. There are different Appiahs you will find on this day: the superman with robotic instincts who goes off script at will, and the one easily moved to tears.
For most consumers, Akpɛtɛshie is more than food for a thing or two; a needed getaway from their fears. To others, it is panacea for a jilted cohort: a majority whose only way to sobriety is by emptying contents of glasses with questionable trust issues of what they actually do to a man’s gravity.
Akpɛtɛshie is king for various reasons and, has successfully sold itself to a mixed consuming public of men and women, poor and affluent, young and old, rural and urban.
A 2003 US National Library of Health document explained that “Men drink mainly for coping responses, such as increased self-confidence, adult status, and to cope with the various social demands. Women seem to drink for socializing with peers.”
Alcohol consumption in Ghana remains conversation opening scene till fade. There are warnings about abuse while campaigns and research works are put out to bring to the fore the potential damages that are wrought by alcohol abuse.
The World Health Organization, in their 2011 global status report stated thus:
The harmful use of alcohol is one of the world’s leading health risks. It is a causal factor in more than 60 major types of diseases and injuries and results in approximately 2.5 million deaths each year. If we take into consideration the beneficial impact of low risk alcohol use on morbidity and mortality in some diseases and in some population groups, the total number of deaths attributable to alcohol consumption was estimated to be 2.25 million in 2004.
This accounts for more deaths than caused by HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. Thus, 4% of all deaths worldwide are attributable to alcohol. The harmful use of alcohol is especially fatal for younger age groups and alcohol is the world’s leading risk factor for death among males aged 15–59. Approximately 4.5% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol.
Alcohol consumption is estimated to cause from 20% to 50% of cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy, poisonings, road traffic accidents, violence and several types of cancer. It is the third highest risk for disease and disability, after childhood underweight and unsafe sex. Alcohol contributes to traumatic outcomes that kill or disable people at a relatively young age, resulting in the loss of many years of life to death and disability.
…Alcohol is linked both to the incidence of disease and the course of disease. The impact of alcohol consumption on disease and injury is associated with two separate but related dimensions of drinking by individuals: the volume of alcohol consumed and the pattern of drinking. More than 30 International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-10 codes include alcohol in their name or definition, indicating that alcohol consumption is a necessary cause. Of these, alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are the most significant. In addition, alcohol has been identified as a component cause for over 200 ICD-10 disease codes.
…The volume and pattern of alcohol consumption lead to three mechanisms that directly impact disease and injury. These mechanisms are (1) toxic and other effects of alcohol on organs and tissues; (2) intoxication; and (3) dependence (Rehm et al., 2003). In addition, the quality of alcoholic beverages may have an impact on health and mortality, for instance, when homemade or illegally produced alcoholic beverages are contaminated with methanol or lead.
Research work such as the WHO’s does little to the fortunes of Akpɛtɛshie, which has found many ways to stay winning, squashing debates about its wholesomeness, often reminding accusers of its market value and how it has fought many efforts to cannibalize it.
On national media, and in the streets, advertisements call for controlled usage. But the war as to how much of alcohol consumption can be controlled was lost – many years ago – to a people’s strong appetite for that which exists in bottles: aperitifs, aphrodisiacs or any basic pick-me-upper that allows one to freely express an opinion, and or tell people off. While any argument about alcohol intake in Ghana is yet to go beyond the normal moral and health lines, there are far too many who simply don’t budge, and consume for sheege (corrupted local Hausa/street slang for calling one’s bluff) reasons.
Appiah thinks those who puke at the sight of Akpɛtɛshie, for instance, are only doing so because of many reasons, including, but not entirely squared down to, its strong smell.
He maintains that there is more to the smell it gives off than meets the nose.
“I know people don’t like to even come close to it because of the smell. As for that, I can understand. But that is just one part of the many things it does. Yes, people abuse it; even me, sometimes I take in more than usual. But Akpɛtɛshie is not a bad drink.”
The sneering at Akpɛtɛshie dates back centuries. In colonial Ghana (then called Gold Coast), the locally-brewed gin was given a violent tag; the establishment fought against its production and consumption.
So aggressive was the fight against Akpɛtɛshie that it subsequently caught the attention of Ghanaian President Nkrumah who also found it a useful symbol against white domination.
In Nkrumah, Akpɛtɛshie had a national poster boy and global ambassador who was ready to help it gain some market equity locally and internationally.
But this was after arrests were made and people jailed for selling and consuming the drink. Consumers and producers had to covertly deal in it, hence the local Ga language name ‘Apɛtɛshie’ (in hiding), which has since been corrupted to its current name.
Akpɛtɛshie’s history has always been brewed out of hate and love. It has seen so much heckling to be bothered by latter-day boos. The accrued toughness is the reason for the supremacy it continues to have despite the competition local bitters and foreign-made gins offer.
Its preparation process, for instance, equates to the jaggedness it has gone through over the years. If you decide to use Sugar Cane to produce it, the harvested grass is crushed and drained. The drained liquid is then stored in a container for about three weeks, so it ferments. The extracted liquid is subsequently poured into a drum and distilled until it reaches its required potency.
These days, it has reinvented itself in many, new-normal ways, entering the higher heights of Ghana’s well-to-do, and blurring banters about what makes good waist power alibi. On the list of available options of some of Ghana’s popular and exclusive bars, it is a must-have, served either as a mixture or side-by-side with other cocktails.
Enough Akpɛtɛshie gets around these days to cement its legendary status.
At a Dome (a suburb of Accra) spot in Accra, Moses Ablorh, a bar attendant, struggles to attend to more than a dozen patrons. He runs an all-week busy facility, where things properly shape up from 5 pm daily.
As usual, demand is impressive, he says.
“When people come here, they ask if we are able to create mixtures with Akpɛtɛshie. This is not like the normal ones we know – like using it for bitters. As for this, they ask that you try making mixtures with other less powerful gins. People feel okay requesting for it these days. It is normal,” Ablorh says, in Ga.
A regular patron at Ablorh’s Spot, Desmond Abrefi, a.k.a. Odasani provides an insight into the obsession, using the most famous 1 Timothy 5:23: KJV (Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities) biblical quote as a basis to justify his frequent consumption.
“As for Akpɛtɛshie, it is good for the body. I enjoy drinking it. People speak against it but those who use it know the benefits. I have been drinking for sometime now; I stopped two years ago but I have started again. I don’t think this is what will kill me,” he says, using a brown handkerchief to wipe his sweat-less face, partly disfigured by eczema and little spots of rashes.
Odasani has come to the Spot to be a part of the day’s session, which can go up to 2 am. It is almost recklessness – but he cares less, and hopes that he will be able to worm his way into an accepting companionship; an evening contrivance to fill his rather sordid week of heartache. Akpɛtɛshie is definitely providing that attention.
Akpɛtɛshie creates a vacuum of its own – one that is so imprecise yet gains traction. For Odasani, despite repeated knocks, he is willing to booze, and fill in the blanks. One more time.
Ablorh’s Spot is typically filled with men and – sometimes women – with divided, jaundiced and straight-forward thoughts about Akpɛtɛshie consumption. A scene of great theatre all week, it usually accommodates users whose affinity with alcohol is boldly labelled on their faces, too direct not to invite saints. But there is always a fight-back: it starts from long sermons to melting moments of tirade of too many whys of as to how there is no way out.
Ablorh himself drinks Akpɛtɛshie. His booze journey is four years old, starting as a newbie who got knocked down after a tot, in July, 2013. Years on, he has been made tough, almost a King of the Jungle and now argues piquantly about how, at the mentioning of Akpɛtɛshie, every tongue confesses and many bow to greatness.
He also believes that Akpɛtɛshie is booze anthem Track 1. He is right. The gin has made it into more than one old or new conventional composition over the years: Lee Duodu (Akpɛtɛshie), A.B Crentsil’s 1985 classic I Go Pay You Tomorrow, which has the popular ‘Akpɛtɛshie seller give me quarter’ line and which is off the Toronto by Night album. The same A.B Crentsil’s Atia talks about how the gin took a friend from Northern Ghana by name Atia to his grave; Samini’s Gyae Shi, which openly campaigned for its use while calling for moderation at the same time.
Akpɛtɛshie will always be remembered as that idea that came out of hiding (from Pineapples, Sugar Canes and Palm Wines), fought resistance and oppressor’s rule, and became great. Again.
As confusion grows over whether or not Akpɛtɛshie is fit for servants or kings, the filthy or clean, the high or low; can be used as fuel for cars, or as trisilicate for the stomach, somewhere in Glefe, glasses are up, it is raining one tot, one booze for Appiah and co.
Cheers! To a people’s gin.