Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Uchema (Palm Wine/Whiskey?): Drink of ancient Malawi kings

Like the white colour of Malawi’s uchema (palm wine) borrowed from
A middle-aged woman boarding a minibus to Mulanje is surprised to see an elderly man with grey hair next to her drinking a white fluid in a sachet whose contents are usually brown or clear!
Alcohol sachets have earned the wrath of many in Malawi because the youth are seen throughout town sipping and sucking from them and getting drunk in a stupid manner.
This group includes the many touts and aganyu pieceworkers throughout Blantyre who trek to town in search of non-existent jobs while others are stuck in town as orphans, with single mothers or from beggar families.
Now the woman riding in the minibus notices the elderly man is quickly getting drunk with the white contents he has somehow squeezed into a sachet so she can’t help but ask him what on earth he is drinking that is quickly making him so drunk and talkative!
He looks at her with a smile and speaking in a deep accent he says “Uchema”.
The woman is now puzzled as she’s never heard of that word before so the man explains to her how in the Lower Shire where he’s from they make wine from the sap or something like that from Kanjedza (palm trees).
Now after being told this story this blog has tried to research Uchema in an amateur way and can only conclude its Malawi’s version of Palm Wine but for some reason it does not appear on Google to confirm this spelling.
Maybe there is another name for it but so far some men in the Lower Shire and in the Central Region call it Uchema.
Palm tree Malawi art work for sale on
They also claim it’s the drink of ancient Malawi kings and Mbona. A non-alcoholic version can be made.
Now uchema is a white looking alcoholic substance in bottles made from kanjedza (the dates or whatever) and some ordinary men claim you get drunk after the first glass, so guess it gets weaker or something like that like some other traditional brews.
According to the Wikipedia, “Palm wine may be distilled to create a stronger drink, which goes by different names depending on the region..."

“Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree such as the palmyradate palms

This drink is common in various parts of Asia and Africa, and goes by various names, such as emu and oguro in Nigeriansamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo;  nsafufuo in Ghanakallu in South India; matango in Cameroon; tuak in North Sumatra, Indonesia:mnazi in MijikendaKenyagoribon (Rungus) in SabahBorneo; and tuba in the Philippines, Borneo and Mexico.”

It explains how the sap is extracted and collected by a tapper. Typically the sap is collected from the cut flower of the palm tree. A container is fastened to the flower stump to collect the sap.
Author Louis van Houtte (1810-1876)
“The white liquid that initially collects tends to be very sweet and non alcoholic before it is fermented. An alternate method is the felling of the entire tree. Where this is practiced, a fire is sometimes lit at the cut end to facilitate the collection of sap.

Palm wine tapping is mentioned in the novel Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and is central to the plot of the groundbreaking novel The Palm Wine Drinkard  by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola,” adds the Wikipedia.

It also states that that in Africa, “the sap used to create palm wine is most often taken from wild date palms such as the silver date palm (Phoenix sylvestris), the palmyra, and the jaggery palm (Caryota urens), or from oil palm such as the African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineense) or from Raffia palmskithul palms, or nipa palms.

“In southern Africa, palm wine (ubusulu) is produced in Maputaland, an area in the south of Mozambique between the Lobombo mountains and the Indian Ocean.

It is mainly produced from the lala palm (Hyphaene coriacea) by cutting the stem and collecting the sap. In part of central and western Democratic Republic of the Congo, palm wine is called malafu. There are four types of palm wine in the central and southern DRC.

“From the oil palm comes ngasidibondo comes from the raffia palmcocoti from the coconut palm, and mahusu from a short palm which grows in the savannah areas of  western Bandundu and Kasai provinces.”
Palm wine is also described as playing an important role in many ceremonies in parts of Nigeria such as among the Igbo (or Ibo) peoples, and elsewhere in central and western Africa.

“Guests at weddings, birth celebrations, and funeral wakes are served generous quantities. Palm wine is often infused with medicinal herbs to remedy a wide variety of physical complaints. As a token of respect to deceased ancestors, many drinking sessions begin with a small amount of palm wine spilled on the ground (Kulosa malafu in Kikongo ya Leta). Palm wine is enjoyed by men and women, although women usually drink it in less public venues.
Palm wine is collected, fermented and stored in calabashes in
Bandundu Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo


“In some parts of the Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo Land, Palm wine is called “Nkwu Elu” or “Mmanya Ocha” (white drink). For instance, in “Urualla” and other “ideator” towns, It’s used for traditional wedding. A young man who’s going for the first introduction at his inlaws is required to come with Palm wine. There are specific galons of palm wine required. It all depends on the custom of the various towns in some parts of the Igbo Land,” adds the unofficial Wikipedia.

Other interesting information online in the below link is about the common fruit bat in Sub-Saharan Africa where Professor James Wood (Veterinary Medicine) discusses the important relationship “between bats and disease, and the research currently undertaken by his group.”
“So far we have been focusing on the most common fruit bat in Sub Saharan Africa. They live in roosts of up to 10 million across the continent, and although it has been known that individual bats can fly several thousand kilometres, we expected some degree of genetic variation between bats found in e.g. Senegal and Malawi.”
Date palm sap is a very popular sugary drink in Bangladesh, particularly with children and it’s harvested in a similar fashion to rubber – a cut is made in the palm trunk, and over one to three days, the stream of sap is collected in a pot held below the cut.
The same link also explains how it is also very popular with local fruit bats which will “come and drink from, salivate and urinate in the stream.  Fruit bats are a known reservoir of Nipah virus, and several outbreaks have been directly associated with date palm sap.
The puzzling thing is that there is not much online information about palm wine or uchema in Malawi despite the fact that we have many palm trees in our very beautiful Malawi.
Could the learned please add the name uchema to the Wikipedia or it’s correct spelling to teach the world more about our blessed country!  Thank-you in advance!!!
Photo taken online from

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Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of Sapitwa and the Sirius star.

.....watch this space.