by Tom Weller
It was a true taste of local culture.
The soldier sat down, uninvited, next to me. He wore dusty, faded green fatigues and shower sandals. He swung his battered automatic riffle off his shoulder and leaned it against the table nonchalantly, like a man shrugging off a golf bag after playing a quick nine holes. He turned toward me with an Arabic greeting. Ritual scars creased his cheeks. His eyes seemed to glow yellow.
I had come to the bar with Allen, a light-skinned Chadian in his early twenties, who spoke and acted with a type of kindness that always felt rehearsed, as if he was constantly probing, looking for just the right time to make an outrageous request. It was my first time in the place, a collection of four low tables surrounded by wobbly benches under a straw awning in a woman’s backyard. She sold only Gala, the only bottled beer available in Chad at the time, sold it warm because there was no electricity or refrigeration in Beinamar. I had lived in the village for only two weeks.
The soldier joined our conversation. Allen acted as interpreter, turning the soldier’s melange of Arabic and French into basic French phrases that I, mostly, understood and converting my stumbling French into Arabic for the soldier. We all kept our voices low, the way Chadians will during serious discussions. The soldier leaned toward me. His breath carried the sting of argi, Chadian moonshine. His head wobbled as he broke into a monologue. He went on for minutes. He ignored Allen, keeping his gaze fixed on me as best as his wobbly head would allow. I only caught sporadic words of his speech. I caught American, which popped up several times. I heard him say something about my work and my house. When the soldier finished, he leaned back and stroked the barrel of his gun in the unconscious way that people stroke an old, familiar dog. I turned to Allen.
“He says you are rich and should buy beer for us all.” Allen made a sweeping hand gesture that took in all four tables in the bar.
I looked upward, noticed dust dancing in the beams of sunlight that punched through the straw awning, and using my best French accent said, “Non.” Allen looked at me as if I had just said something about the soldier’s mother’s sexual practices.
I tried to turn the situation into a moment of cultural exchange. In hurried French I talked about how I lived in a mud hut and ate with a Chadian family and received the same salary that Chadian teachers and other government workers received. I noted that for all I knew the soldier might make more than me, so maybe he should be the one buying beers. I chuckled at my speech and looked around the table. The soldier had his hands in his lap. He cocked his head to the right; he raised his left eyebrow. He looked as if he wavered between befuddlement and fury. Allen looked at me, his facial muscles tensed, his eyebrows raised.
Allen spoke low, rapid Arabic to the soldier, Arabic that sounded a lot like tap dancing, while I gulped down the remains of my beer. Allen stood up and grabbed me by the shoulder. We walked out of the bar. I hustled to keep up with Allen’s quick, purposeful strides “I know another place we can go,” he assured me.
I followed Allen down some winding, narrow paths that I had never traveled before. We passed pockets of round, mud huts surrounded by millet, sorghum, stalks reaching six, seven feet into the air. As I listened to my hiking boots crunching against the dry ground, I started to worry about getting back to my hut. I had no idea where we were. Allen stopped in front of a grass shack sitting at the intersection of two narrow paths. He stuck his head in the shack and turned back toward me. A smile spread across his face. He waved for me to follow him into the shack. So began my relationship with billi-billi.
Billi-billi, often called simply billi, is homebrewed, traditional beer that I encountered often during the two years I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Beinamar, Chad. Billi is murky and brown with pinkish undertones. The exact shade varies for each batch. The color could be as light as crusty bread or as dark as peanut butter. It usually fell somewhere in the middle, often reminding me of muddy river water. And billi is alive. White bubbles, apparently the creations of active yeast, bloom, then break apart and dissipate, leaving milky trails across the surface of the billi. Billi smells grainy, earthy. Things like yogurt, miso soup, damp leaves, moist clay all remind of the smell of billi. Billi fizzes gently in the mouth and burns a bit as it travels down the throat. Once in the belly, it feels as if it is growing, pushing against the walls of the stomach, sometimes creating a gut as round and firm as a melon.
Several of my neighbors brewed billi-billi. The main ingredients were water and grain, which varied some by the region. Beinamar billi was generally made of sorghum mixed with a bit of corn. I never completely understood the brewing process, but it involved combining the water and grain in a metal barrel, adding some additional ingredients, including yeast and sugar, and then putting the whole thing over a fire. The billi would bubble and simmer for over twenty-four hours. Women stayed up to monitor the fire dancing under the bottom of the barrel, to watch the smoke circling around the barrel, scarring it with a new layer of soot. Men stopped by to check on the progress of the billi, shared stories of past billi binges and voiced their anticipation of the billi-billi to come.
Bars didn’t sell billi-billi. Women who brewed billi sold it out of shacks made of stick frames and straw roofs and walls. During the week, the shacks often stood empty, their interiors filled only with shadows and lizards trying to avoid the heat, but whenever an empty, blackened, metal barrel appeared before one of the shacks, the place would soon spring to life. The barrel was the billi equivalent of a red-neon Budweiser sign, a simple marketing device declaring Billi Sold Here.
At the far end of every functioning billi-billi shack sat a woman, always squatting on a low stool, a silver pot about three-feet tall with a diameter like a car tire in front of her feet. She dipped billi out of the pot, dispensing it by the calabash, gourd bowls roughly the size of a child’s baseball cap. Patrons always got one free taste. “Lin ya wa?” (Does it taste good?) the woman would ask, confident of receiving a positive response. Customers sat against the walls of the shack on tree trunks lying in the dirt or on branches, thick as a person’s thigh, held aloft by Y shaped tree limbs spiked into the ground on either end.
Early in the day, billi shacks were often leisurely, relaxing places. The crowds consisted of mostly older, experienced drinkers. Customers mumbled conversations about their crops and the quality of the billi. They drank unhurriedly, stared toward their feet, studying bowls of billi-billi resting before them. I enjoyed the challenge of balancing the round-bottomed gourd bowl on the dry ground, a kind of bar game that required a sharp eyes, steady hands, and patience. As the day stretched on and the billi continued to flow, younger drinkers filtered in, conversations grew louder. Afternoon shouting matches occurred regularly in billi-billi shacks throughout Beinamar. Occasionally, fists would fly.
In very small Southern Chadian villages, the appearance of billi-billi was a happening, the way a snow day is a happening in America. Rumors would circulate that someone might be planning to make billi, expectation would ripple through the village, and when the billi finally appeared, it provided the perfect opportunity to enjoy a lazy day. Beinamar was large enough that on most days thirsty villagers could track down some billi, but billi drinkers in the village pointed to Sunday as the best day of the week. In most Southern Chadian villages there are two special days of the week, Sunday, a day for relaxation and celebration, and market day, the day of the week when traveling merchants descend on the village, a social occasion in most villages. Beinamar had its market day on Sunday, a double whammy. Two days of relaxation and celebration crammed into one day. In the morning people marched off to church and shopped. The afternoon belonged to billi. One never had to look for billi on Sunday. On Sunday, billi couldn’t be avoided. On Sunday the village seemed awash in billi. Blackened barrels dotted the landscape everywhere one looked. The tangy scent of billi-billi hung over the village like a fog. Billi drunks wandered every path in Beinamar, slurring greetings to passersby.
I arrived in Chad with a taste for beer, but never liked the physical effects of billi. The alcohol content in batches of billi varied a lot, but no matter how weak or how strong the billi was, I always found it impossible to achieve and maintain a pleasant buzz. Generally, before I’d feel the billi slackening the tensions in my body, the pleasant haze of alcohol slipping into and slowing my mind, I’d hear, feel gurgling in my bowels, feel my stomach expanding. My billi headache would always start before I even finished drinking. A bout of billi drinking always led to an explosive visit to the latrine and enduring a half-day long case of cotton mouth in Sahelian heat. But still I drank billi, again and again. Something about the experience remained comforting and compelling.
I felt the atmosphere crackle with curiosity and surprise when I walked into billi shacks in Beinamar during the early stages of my Peace Corps service. The few Westerners that people in Beinamar had encountered before me were missionaries and some French military personnel. These foreigners generally lived in walled compounds in Chad’s larger cities and only passed through Beinamar infrequently. Village leaders told me I was the first Westerner to live in Beinamar. During my first few months in the village, people seemed unsure of what to make of me. Was I going to build a big house? How would I eat? Would I take a Chadian concubine? A wife? Why didn’t I have a truck like all the other white people they had seen? These questions, unvoiced and voiced, hovered around me during the beginning of my stay in Beinamar. Would I really drink billi, seemed to add an engaging wrinkle to the enigma.
Some people did find my billi shack appearances undignified. Children tended to gather in knots of four or five and peak through the doors or holes in the walls of the straw shacks to watch me slurp from a calabash of billi and then laugh and turn toward each other and laugh some more, their excitement at viewing the unusual sight heightened by the chance to share the experience with friends. One village elder warned me that “serious” people didn’t drink billi-billi, which caused me some worry, but also fueled romantic notions I held about truly working at the village level, becoming a man of the people.
But many villagers reacted with approval and appreciation when they found me drinking billi-billi. I think the women selling bilbil in the shacks I visited might have been the most appreciative. I always drew a thirsty crowd. I mostly drank billi on Sundays. On my way home from church, I’d walk past numerous billi shacks, hear the repeated clang of the opening and closing of the large billi pot, the Ngumbaye conversations of drinkers, and eventually I’d hear somebody calling my name, see a familiar face, a hand waving for me to join the group gathered in one of the shacks. Due to the early hour, business would be slow when I first sat down, bit it quickly picked up. I’d sit with my billi, chat with people I knew, and watch people walking by. People passing by always at least waved, and many walked right in to get a closer look at me, apparently forgetting about the errands they had been running. As long as I sat near a friend who could translate Ngumbaye into French, people asked me questions. Sometimes they wanted to know about life in America or what I thought about Chad, but sometimes they wanted to talk about how to garden or how to bring more water pumps into the area. Often, the villagers became my teachers during billi-shack conversations. While drinking I billi I received lessons on Ngumbaye greetings and memorized Ngumbaye numbers by discussing prices and haggling. And I learned Ngumbaye phrases needed to fit in to the billi scene. Friends spent an entire morning teaching me a few phrases they thought I should know for the more-aggressive afternoon billi crowds. By the end of out tutoring session I could say, “Are you crazy?” and “Don’t play with me” in Ngumbaye. I talked to people while drinking billi who I never would have met during my meetings with village officials and local water committees. And all of these people ended up adding to the profits of an enterprising woman perched behind a huge silver pot.
Billi also worked as a wonderful equalizer. Chadians take pride in hospitality. To not treat visitors well is an embarrassment, and even though I spent over two years in Chad, Chadians almost always considered me a visitor. For twenty-three of the twenty-four months I lived in Beinamar, I ate dinner with the same Chadian family every night, but right up until the end of my service, I always received the largest and best pieces of meat, because I was a visitor. But hospitality can be expensive. A bottle of beer cost between four hundred and five hundred francs in Beinamar, more money than a field hand made in a day. Or sometimes hospitality is simply impossible. Southern Chadians commonly give important visitors a chicken. But in some smaller villages I visited to inspect water pumps, none of the villagers could afford to raise chickens.
But almost every person in Beinamar had access to billi-billi, and it only cost ten or fifteen francs a calabash, cheaper even than a glass of tea, which cost twenty-five francs. When I walked into a billi shack, I always bought my first calabash of billi, and after that calabashes just started to appear. As I drained one calabash, another would already be floating toward me, passed hand by hand down the row of people sitting beside me, like buying beer at the ballpark. A proud smile and slight nod always let me know who had paid for my billi-billi.
Often the generosity became overwhelming. I couldn’t refuse somebody’s gift of billi without risking being seen as rude and standoffish. At times I tried to pass onto friends billi that had been bought for me, but that never worked. My friends wouldn’t take it and always reacted as if I was asking them to do something silly and disrespectful when I made the offer. And I couldn’t walk way from billi. Basic billi-shack etiquette demanded that if you had billi in front of you, you had to finish it before leaving, a sensible practice in a place where many had lived through several famines. Most people could pop into a billi shack, get a quick drink, and go about their business. My trips to drink billi took whole afternoons. As calabash after calabash came my way, I’d feel as if I were battling a wave of billi, struggling to keep my balance and composure in the face of it, my head spinning from the alcohol, my belly swelling from the yeast. Eventually, I developed escape strategies. I’d begin to nurse my billi-billi, drinking slow and easy, making a point of letting everyone see that I still had plenty to drink, there was no rush to buy me anything more at the moment. Then I’d chug, tipping my head back and bringing the bowl to my lips, the muscles in my throat moving furiously. I’d be on my feet, calabash empty, and heading toward the door before anybody else in the shack had a chance to make a move. On my way out the door, I’d give the woman behind the pot a few hundred francs, tell her to spread it around as best she could, making sure everybody in the shack got a calabash or two. Buying a few rounds for the house, a chance to make things square, in some small way.
When I traveled away from Beinamar, that wave of bilbil often grew into a tsunami. Gilbert, my Chadian colleague, and I traveled often to small villages around Beinamar. We would inspect their pumps, make what repairs we could, and meet with the committees responsible for maintaining the pumps. Gilbert made sure our visits to these villages coincided with their market days. We’d travel by bike, arriving in the morning. We almost always got our work done before eleven o’clock, but rarely left the village before dusk. Gilbert refused to just pedal away from a market day while there were things to see, people to talk to, money to be made. Gilbert always traveled with medicines and equipment to give injections. He’d set up shop in the market. I’d spend some time with Gilbert, listening to his stories, watching him conduct business, but eventually I’d be called into a grass shack or asked to join a circle of men in the shade of a large mango tree, and the calabashes, heavy with billi-billi, would begin to appear.
In the smaller villages the billi came at me even faster than it did in Beinamar. When I worked with Gilbert he was a reformed drinker. I heard stories of his past drinking, tales of prodigious consumption and a violent temper sparked by the alcohol. But by the time I met Gilbert he had given up alcohol completely. He told me that he felt he wasn’t setting a good example for his sons, so one day he just quit, cold turkey. But people in the small villages around Beinamar were still getting used to the new, sober Gilbert. They’d buy us both billi, and while I never could pass billi bought for me to others, Gilbert would explain he had quit drinking and pass his billi to me, and everyone seemed happy with this arrangement. So I’d spend entire afternoons doing the drinking of two men. I’d struggle to keep up, full calabashes of billi forming a huddle around my feet. And I couldn’t get away. I was stuck drinking until Gilbert decided business in the market had dried up and it was time to go home. For four or five or six hours I’d sit and drink billi and meet new people and listen to their stories, making what sense I could out of a mishmash of Ngumbaye and French, and I’d silently wonder at my surroundings and try to imagine the stories I would tell about such moments later in life. I’d watch Gilbert the whole time, waiting for him to make a move towards our bikes, the only lifeline that could pull me out of the billi storm.
I’d ride my bike home, bumping over ten or fifteen miles of rutted-clay and sand roads, often with a white chicken dangling upside down from my handlebars. And some evenings I thought the chicken had the better of the ride. In the gathering darkness, with the billi flowing through me, I couldn’t trust my own vision. The road moved and rippled like liquid, seemed as alive and wild as the billi I’d spent the afternoon drinking. With each downward thrust on a pedal, I’d fight against the buzzing in my head, the drought in my mouth, the wobbling in my legs, the storm brewing in my stomach and bowels. And I knew worse awaited, the flight over the handlebars when the road buckled up to halt my progress, the urgent trip to my latrine when I finally got home. For most of the ride, I’d think to myself, here’s the bad news: You’re drunk on a mountain bike in the middle of Chad and you have many miles to go. But every so often I’d remember, here’s the good news: You’re drunk on a mountain bike in the middle of Chad and you have many miles to go.
Tom Weller is a writer who lives in Greencastle, Indiana. This story won the Silver Award for Travel and Food in theSecond Annual Solas Awards.
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