Lockdown effort to curb drinking in Uganda has mixed results

Shuttered bars serve alcohol despite Museveni curfew and ban on ‘merry-making’

Opoka Francis (40) stands outside his Mukungu Caro bar in Gulu. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Opoka Francis (40) stands outside his Mukungu Caro bar in Gulu. Photograph: Sally Hayden

 

From the outside, it looks like an unremarkable shack, with walls fashioned from the reeds local women use to weave baskets. Drawing closer, you hear laughing and notice the shelter is swaying slightly. Open the door, and you see dozens of men and women crammed in together, old and young, cups in hand.

They’re drinking qwete, an alcoholic brew made from maize and millet. It’s poured from jerrycans into a teapot, and from there to a plastic cup. Each top-up costs 500 Ugandan shillings (12 cent).

While South Africa stopped the sale of alcohol during its coronavirus lockdown, saying “sober judgments” were necessary to fight the disease, many Ugandans have been drinking throughout. Some gather inside shuttered bars during the day, or sit in alleyways or on the roadside with beers. Before a nightly curfew kicks in, they head home.

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni banned “merry-making” back in March – while alcohol could still be bought to consume at home, he decreed that bars should be closed and group-drinking stopped. “Drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves,” he said.

The east African country has only recently seen a surge in cases, with 1,135 confirmed as of Tuesday and two deaths.

Litres of qwete

On June 22nd, Mr Museveni reinforced his message, saying the curfew, which has just been extended by two hours to 9pm, was here to stay. “The curfew is not just the curfew. It is to stop you from socialising at night.”

The owner of the alcohol-selling shack in Gulu, northern Uganda, didn’t want to be named for fear of getting into trouble. She said business was still suffering – sales, normally 80 litres of qwete a day, were now as low as 10 litres.

Security forces bothered her in the early days of the lockdown, but not so much anymore. “When the soldiers would come, they’d cane you,” she said. There are gaps in the reed walls where drinkers jumped through to escape, pulling the jerry cans with them, only to return after the military were gone.

Ugandans sit in spaced-out plastic chairs outside Mukungu Caro bar. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Ugandans sit in spaced-out plastic chairs outside Mukungu Caro bar. Photograph: Sally Hayden

At a time when less well-off Ugandans are struggling to get food, alcohol can serve as a coping mechanism. Qwete, in particular, is thick in consistency and makes the drinker feel like their stomach is full.

Once the lockdown ends, alcohol sellers expect things to be hectic. “People are waiting to celebrate, they’re so eager,” said Denis Lalobo, who owns the Auto Shine bar, pork joint and car wash. “In Gulu, people like to party. Last year, when there was a local football competition, the city nearly ran out of beer.”

Bars and clubs

“I’m a party animal,” said a 24-year-old woman, who was drinking nearby. “After this lockdown I want to invite my friends home for three days. We will drink, dance. At the moment it is really so tricky. Afterwards, everything will be free.”

Before the pandemic, a routine evening saw locals spreading across the city’s small bars and clubs. At the end of the night, though, there was one common destination: BJ’z, essentially the Copper Face Jacks of Gulu. BJ’z has kept its doors shut during the lockdown, while donating money to the coronavirus response.

Opoka Francis (40) runs Mukungu Caro, which caters to an upmarket clientele (his drinks start at 3,000 Ugandan shillings, or 75 cent). He said people need to sit together, share information and conduct business transactions, even in these times.

Outside his bar, local politicians, civil servants and other coronavirus response workers congregate in the late afternoon. They sit in spaced-out plastic chairs while evaluating how everything is going. “People come, but they cannot sit peacefully,” Francis said. “They discuss how the lockdown is affecting them.”

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