I got a letter from my friend Chris in Africa last week. He retired, sold his house in D.C. at the end of December and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with his girlfriend, who started work with a major NGO there in January. Her work takes her all over the continent and Chris gets to tag along, lucky dog!
Chris spends most of his time drinking beer and visiting breweries, but his excuse is it’s all research for a book – the same justification Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has been using for his peregrinations. Chris’s book will explain How Microbrewing Will Save the Earth by fostering local economies, creating “public space,” encouraging attention to high-quality, organic ingredients, and the like. He refers to this as “fermenting revolution.”
So in January he was in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, just in time for the biannual Pan-African Film Festival. In addition to a thriving film industry, Burkina apparently has “a solid brewing tradition,” Chris writes. As luck would have it, one of his girlfriend’s colleagues there was “well connected to one of Ouga’s biggest traditional brewsters. I spent a couple days in her ‘factory’ observing, taking notes and digital photos. The beer itself was, when fresh, quite drinkable of course. The only ingredient was red sorghum, plus yeast cakes to get it all fermenting.” (I’m not sure just what a beer would have to taste like NOT to be drinkable in Chris’ view, however.)
Then in Mali the next week he ran into an old acquaintance from D.C. More serendipity: the guy was working on his anthropology PhD in a nearby village, where he was able to set up a demonstration of local millet beer production for Chris to “research.” In a subsequent e-mail to family and friends Chris included a snapshot: “A little village in Mali called Kaniko. The woman in the background is a brewer, feeding her baby some nutritious beer.” (An excellent source of B vitamins and amino acids, I trust.)
But indigenous flavors weren’t the only option; Bamako (Mali’s capital), for example, boasts a Belgian beer bar. I’ve never managed to develop a taste for it, but I gather that, for serious beer afficionados like Chris, the Belgians make the dopest brew on the planet.
Meanwhile, back in Addis, Chris is – as I post this – drinking for free in honor of my recent birthday. Or so he just e-mailed to say. I had told him he’d have to drink for both of us; I fell out of the habit when I started this blog.
I’ve been encouraging him to start a travelblogue if he can. But on the other hand, I also advised him to enjoy his early retirement (he’s around 33, I think) and save all his energies for drinking.
I think it was the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who described his work as “deep hanging out.” That might be an apt description for the sort of research Tom and Chris are engaged in, as well. And why not? After all, most minor and many serious medical conditions are linked to an excess of tension. Ambition kills! Goofing off is more than a just a lifestyle choice – for many of us, it is a way of life.
If the evidence of modern ethnography is any guide, our hunter-gatherer ancestors “worked” an average of only four hours a day. Be that as it may, subsistence-related activities in most societies are not approached with the kind of grim, Protestant, no-pain-no-gain determination that all too many Anglo- (or German-) Americans seem to feel is a direct index of moral virtue.
So Happy Friday, y’all. Be sure to goof off as creatively as possible this afternoon. And this evening, drink a toast to my friend Chris over there in Africa. For the health of the planet!