Acquiring a taste for banana beer

Taste test: Rwanda's nuns make a pretty potent beer

In the past two days, I had the pleasure of experiencing two of Rwanda's great pastimes — watching football and drinking beer.

Now, you might say that nothing is more Canadian than watching football and drinking beer. But in this case, the football is actually soccer, and the beer is actually banana beer — made by nuns.

First the football. Early Monday, we began to notice signs that something was up.

Masks are key in this soccer-mad country as this Rwandan fan demonstrates at the World Cup qualifying match in Cairo in July 2009. (Amr Dalsh/Associated Press)

The first hint was when a very large bus pulled up outside the small motel with that Chinese restaurant that is next door to our house in smalltown Butare and dislodged dozens of athletic-looking young men. Ah, we thought, a sports team.

Then, later in the day, as I was sitting in the internet café on the main street, with the door open to the outside, I could see and hear several mini-buses roaring down the street, horns honking loudly.

They were filled with people in Halloween-like masks leaning out the windows screaming in Kinyarwanda but sounding remarkably like those Toronto louts who yell "Arrr-gohhhhhs" out of cars on Yonge St.

The final clue was when a young blonde white woman came running into the café and yelled at another young muzunga beside me, "Come on, the game begins at 3!"

It was then five minutes before 3 in the afternoon and that was when I realized that something truly big was happening at the stadium that lies midway between our home and the town.

A birds-eye view

So we quickly left the café and headed up the road to the stadium where what immediately caught our attention were all the young men in the trees that lined the road.

Jim Handman is Executive Producer with the CBC show Quirks & Quarks. He is teaching journalism this summer at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. His previous report was: Trying to come to terms with mass slaughter.

These are very high trees, as high as 15 metres, and they were filled with people, all the way to the top.

These folks obviously hoped to get a free view of the stadium from the treetops.

Some trees contained up to a dozen young men. Many had climbed up wearing only flip-flops on their feet. They cheered and waved when I took their pictures.

A little further along, at the stadium entrance, we arrived to a scene of total confusion.

Barbed wire lined a path that led to the entrance and hundreds of very young boys gathered along the outside of the fence. On the inside, people with tickets were being roughly pushed though a narrow doorway that clanged shut every few minutes.

The bouncers at the door would suddenly strike at someone in the line for no apparent reason, and then let several others in.

On the outside of the wire fence, a woman in uniform kept threatening the kids who were trying to sneak in. Inside the wire, the bouncers would occasionally allow a bunch of young ruffians through the door while beating them on the legs with their batons.

The stadium was surrounded by a brick wall, about three metres high, with guards standing on top, armed with wooden sticks. Every few minutes, someone would try to scale the wall and be beaten back by the sentries.

Tickets anyone?

We decided to take our chances at going in. But we couldn't see anywhere to buy a ticket and, frankly, the gates of hell that loomed ahead were a bit intimidating.

The view from inside the stadium at Butare. The tree-watchers can be seen in the boughs opposite the playing field. (Jim Handman/CBC)

Just then, we spotted one of our journalism students, Adolphe, who was covering the match for Radio Salus.

He explained that this was a crucial match for the local Premier League team, Mukura, which was playing APR, the Rwandan Army team. The winner would go to Kigali for the season cup final.

Adolphe helped us buy tickets from a man standing in the crowd and ushered us towards the door to the stadium.

A chaotic crush of humanity was pressed against this door and the bouncers seemed to arbitrarily allow a couple of people in at a time, while harshly shoving away others.

We feared that the claustrophobic crush would continue on the other side as well and briefly considered turning back.

But suddenly the bouncers spotted us and ushered us quickly through the door and into the open grassy field at one end of the stadium.

The game was well underway, with the home team behind 1-0. The limited stands were full, so we stood on the backfield and enjoyed the action.

We were the only visible white people (muzungu) among many hundreds of Rwandans and we left before the game ended.

When we returned to our house, we continued to hear loud cheers from the stadium for more than an hour.

It ended in a 1-1 tie, but Mukura will go to the final, based on a complicated scoring formula. Yay, Butare.

Time for a beer

The next day, a Tuesday, another student, named Oswald, invited us for some of the nuns' banana beer.

We had heard of this mythical brew, but didn't know where to find it. We now discovered that there is a small convent in Butare where actual nuns brew beer made from bananas.

We had read about this kind of beverage while visiting the National Museum of Rwanda. Farmers dig large pits in the ground in which to ferment and brew a powerful beer from bananas.

We were fairly sure that the nuns used a more hygienic and modern method, but we couldn't be certain.

Our students had told us that the government was trying to crack down on farmers making banana beer because many people had become sick from it.

A coffee co-op in Butare, the town where the CBC's Jim Handman is teaching journalism this summer at the National University of Rwanda. (Associated Press)

We decided to take our chances and headed out early in the evening for the convent.

Very strong alcohol flavour

The convent is a low, non-descript brick building, surrounded by the ubiquitous brick wall, not far off the main street. In the middle of the wall is an unmarked, narrow black door.

We entered and were immediately ushered into a tiny, dark, rundown room with benches and old, torn couches on three sides.

We caught a glimpse of an older nun outside in the courtyard, but she quickly scurried away.

The walls of the room were bare and streaked with dirt. The lighting was dim, the couch well-worn.

A young man cames in with a tray containing three glasses and an uncorked bottle the size of a wine bottle. It contained a thick, opaque, yellowish-brown liquid, which Oswald poured into our glasses.

The brew tastes both sweet and sour, with a very strong alcohol flavour. It is a bit like unfiltered apple juice combined with a healthy dose of vodka.

We drank quietly and the room filled up suddenly with many more people, four on either side of us. We were now 11 people in this tiny warm box of a room — with everyone quietly and somberly consuming their beer and saying little.

It was not exactly a party atmosphere.

A friend of Oswald arrived and squeezed onto our already crowded couch. We struck up a conversation with the four young men to our left.

They were all computer science students at the university and wanted to talk about the global recession. We were impressed with their knowledge and curiosity.

We finished the one bottle among the three of us and I could feel the effect already.

It cost 800 Rwandan francs, about $1.50.

We walked out into the darkness that had quickly descended while we were cocooning inside the beer-making convent and headed home, satisfied that we have experienced a unique Rwandan ritual.