Palm Wine - The Sweet Nectar That Holds The Igbo Together
By Iheme Kelechi 4 months ago
Palm wine was once a local elixir celebrated by the old and young in rural areas, but it has now caught the attention of city dwellers in many parts of Nigeria and even beyond. Sweet, seemingly harmless but crudely intoxicating, palm wine has become a choice drink in not just traditional and cultural events and gatherings but also at regular social events and meetings.
Palm wine is an alcoholic drink created from the sap of various species of palm tree such as the palmyra, date palms, and coconut palms. It is known by various names in different regions and is common in various parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America.
Palm wine is one of the many brands of native wines drunk in Nigeria but it is no doubt the king of them all. While some other wine types like burukutu, and pito are brewed and distilled from either wheat or guinea corn, palm wine is got straight as sap from either raffia palms or oil palm trees. (below)
In the Eastern part of Nigeria, palm wine is known with many names like tombo, palmy, nwoko onye obi ocha (large hearted man), uzunma (the epitome of beauty), mmiri ara umu mbe (breast milk for the orphans), manya ngwo, manya nkwu and nkwu elu. This brand of wine is the number one traditional drink for the Igbo.
Palm wine is gotten from two tree sources: the raffia and the oil palm trees. While raffia palm produces manya ngwo (raffia palm wine), the oil palm tree produces the type called manya nkwu, (up wine or nkwuelu).
Harvesting and Production:
To produce palm wine takes a process. It is not every raffia palm tree that produces palm wine. It takes the professional eye of a seasoned tapper to know when a particular raffia tree is ready for tapping.
According to Mazi Okeke, a 59-year-old tapper, "raffia palm is like a young girl. It grows through puberty stages. Like a young girl, it shows sign of maturity and begins to sprout little bumps on her chest, the raffia tree shows signs of maturity by shooting out a certain number of palm fronds (omu) to signal the arrival of maturity.
When palm tree shoots up the first bud of palm fronds, the tapper will immediately know it is coming of age. When it shoots two palm fronds at a time, it shows that it is at the point of going to labour. Sprouting of three palm fronds shows that the palm has come of age and can be tapped."
Having been certified ripe for tapping, the tapper climbs up to the topmost part of the tree, where he identifies the neck and cuts off ducts with his tapper's blade. Under the hole made by removed ducts, a local calabash, mug or plastic container is fastened with rope and tied to the tree to collect the liquid sap.
Newly collected palm wine is usually very sweet and this sweet type is the favourite of women and children. Old men except for those referred to as light brained, prefer the "hard" brand, which is the fermented type. Palm wine becomes fermented with the passage of days. Fresh palm wine is of a low alcoholic percentage like 3% but the fermented palm wine has the potential to jump as high as 12%. Besides the natural alcoholic content which palm wine yields with time, there are however other traditional chemical mechanisms which tappers bring into the process to "strengthen" some brands.
According to our Mazi, "It is only natives from the coastal towns that drink palm wine straight as it is got from the tree. No that is not palm wine. We call that brand "manya mmiri (water drink). A seasoned tapper must have to apply the necessary herbs on the face of his ducts (ahihia ngwo) and add nche (local yeast) to increase the potency of the wine. When you place the herbs on the opening made by the ducts and pour grounded nche in the collecting container, what you get at the end of the day is a ready medicinal and rich nutritional wine."
However, the other type of wine, the "Up wine", or "Nkwu elu", takes almost, though not the whole process, as the raffia palm wine. The major difference between the two processes is while the raffia palm wine is obtained from a standing tree, the up wine can be got from both a standing or felled oil palm tree. Another significant difference is that while tapping of raffia tree results in the death of the tree, that is not the situation of the oil palm tree which retains life and vitality and produces more oil palm fruits even after tapping for many years.
Palm wine tapping is both an art and a form of social activity, such as is the drinking. The wine tapper derives joy in his art, and it also delights the little children that it elicits songs of admiration.
A popular folk song attributed to palm wine goes this way:
Mgbe oku ngwo no n'elu ngwo ya, obi ya anuri.
Mgbe ono na aku ngwo ya, obi ya anuri.
Ikpom chiki, ikpom chiki, ikpom chiki chiki, obi ya anuri.
Translating it to English simply means:
Each time the tapper is atop his palm tree, he is filled with joy.
When he is busy tapping his palm tree, he is filled with joy.
This song is sung by children as they wait patiently at the foot of the tree intending to benefit from the generosity of a large-hearted tapper, who may be wooed by the beautiful rendition from the children and then treat them with a cup of freshly tapped palm wine to drink.
Many other songs are also attributed to the tapping and drinking of palm wine.
Importance and Significance of palm wine to the Igbo:
Apart from providing a platform for social interaction and serving as a drink for unity during gatherings, palm wine plays an important social religious function among the Igbo. It cements a kind of vertical relationship between the Igbo man and his God. This relationship, even though is of unequal status can be bridged with the instrumentality of the sacred wine, which has an inherent force of unity between heaven and earth, the departed and the living. It is this understanding that necessitated the thoughts of the Igbo man accepting as unrivalled the substance of "manya ngwo" as well as its inherent sacredness in rituals and traditional ceremonies. Palm wine thus is the drink of the godsRelated: Remembering Achebe's Odenigbo Lecture And Attack On Standardised Igbo
In traditional society, palm wine is the preferred drink used in pouring libations to the gods. In every traditional ceremony, be it a wedding (above), a child's naming ceremony, a funeral or memorial, the new yam festival, the wrestling festival, a masquerade dance, an age grade initiation and so on, palm wine is always the preferred official drink for such events. Such occasions simply can't hold without the presence of palm wine. It would like playing Jazz without a trumpet. The significance of palm wine in Igboland can never be overemphasized.
In addition to what we have said above its use is also deeply rooted in our ancestors and forebears. While, the force inherent in our local palm wine is not visible, the invisible nature still reinforces the belief in its power of spiritual transcendentalism and as a cultural communion. Drinking of palm wine in an event by Umunna is a kind of like an ontological communion that signifies love, unity and the general acceptance that very event is in unison.
In every occasion in Igboland, the last cup of palm wine which contains the dregs (ugwu manya, uroto manya or uge nkwu) is usually given as a mark of honour to the eldest man in the gathering, or the host and in some cases to the newly married man in the gathering. Giving it to the newly married is based on the belief that it adds potency to the sexual prowess of a newly married young man.
The United Nations of Palm Wine:
Over the past years, many researchers have been trying to discover a natural drink that is safe, healthy and environmentally friendly. One of such drink is the palm wine and it is now used not just in Nigeria and Africa in general, but also in various parts of the World, such as Asia, the Caribbean, and South America.
Different countries have different names for palm wine, for example, in the Philippines and Mexico they call it tuba (below), Algerians call it lagmi, Cambodians call it Tuk tnout choo, the Ghanaians call it nsafufuo, the Thai call it kache, in Malaysia it is called kallu, and in the Ivory Coast it is called koutoukou, while in South Africa it goes by ubusulu, Indians call it kallu, Sri Lankans call it Raa, Cameroonians call it matango, in Congo its called malafu, in Gabon its called toutou, and finally in Sierra Leone its called poyo.
Red palm wine from the Philippines
With all these numerous countries having different names for this drink you can now grasp how popular the palm wine drink is all over the world. Furthermore, outside the drinking of palm wine and its usage in the fermentation and brewing of stronger alcoholic drinks, such as burukutu, charayam, local gin known as ogogoro, kaikai, akpeteshi, arrack etc, it is also used in producing many other things, like herbal medicine and food products.
It is used as a yeast substitute for the baking of food items such as bread, buns and cakes. The sugar in palm sap can be used for making of coconut honey and jaggery. Palm wine is also used to attract the edible larvae of weevils and beetles which can be prepared and served as delicious snacks. Lactating mothers also drink palm wine to facilitate breast milk production.
Palm Wine and its health benefits:
Palm wine is more than just a recreational drink. It contains rich nutrients and medicinal components which provides the body with lots of amazing benefits especially health-wise. Below are some surprising nutritious and health benefits of palm wine;
1) Improved Eye Vision: This is one of the primary functions of palm wine. Many people are not aware of this, and even those who are aware do not know that these nutrients do work. The presence of vitamins in palm wine such as Vitamin C and B's have a vital role which they play in improving eye vision. Vitamin C helps in building the connective tissues of the body and blood vessels of the eye preventing related eye problems like cataracts, and macular degeneration. Infused heavily with Vitamin B1 and B12 both help in solving vascular-related issues that concern the retina which could result in chronic inflammation and more.
Other health benefits of palm wine are simply listed below in no particular order of importance.
2) Improves hair, skin and nails as a result of its magnesium and zinc content
3) Used in the treatment of skin rashes.
4) Increases breast milk
5) Improves heart health because of its potassium content.
6) Necessary in the fight against cancer due to the rich antioxidant contents of palm wine, such as B2 (Riboflavin), Irons, Amino acids, etc.
7) Improves our bone health by checkmating bone density as we age which can lead to osteoporosis.
8) Palm wine is effective in the treatment of food-borne diseases, diarrhoea, stomach ache, and constipation because of its high antibacterial properties.
9) Palm wine is used in building up the body and gaining some weight. This is actually for skinny people.
10) Palm wine is used in mixture with other local herbs in the treatment of malaria and many more.
Finally, in conclusion, one of the reasons our grandparents in the villages in olden days lived long, strong and with good eyesight even at a very old age can be linked to the frequent drinking of healthy and unadulterated palm wine moderately. In those good old days, many of today's chemically infused beverages with up to 80% alcohol content simply didn't exist and there was hardly any liver failure.
Studies reveal that over 100 million people, consume palm wine in different forms all over the world and its production has become a source of income in most countries, just as it is a means of livelihood for many Igbo locals in the rural communities.
I am always super excited whenever I attend occasions in the city and see palm wine among the drinks for the day. My oh My!!! I instantly get this nostalgic feeling, taking me back to the past when my grandfather was still alive. He would normally have a supply of freshly tapped palm wine from one of the best tappers in his room and would almost always call me to come and have some drinks with him.
I remember how we used to bond over a glass or calabash of this yummy drink (above) as he would tell me stories of his youthful exploits. I often long for those days and have made it a point of duty to continue this hallowed tradition with my children as I hope they will, with theirs.