Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 12:15 UK

Beer and normality in DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has endured more than a decade of conflict, but as Ben Rawlence finds, a simple bottle of beer can represent a welcome token of normal life.

Walking through the bombed out brewery of Manono it is hard to believe that it once supplied beer to the whole region.

The ruined beer factory in Manono
When the world tin price collapsed Manono's brewing industry went with it
At one point, this was a city of nearly half a million people, the tin-mining capital of the world.

Now the tall cathedral - built by Belgian missionaries - has mortar holes in the roof, trees grow behind the counter in the post office and a river runs through the walls of a hydro-electric power station that used to provide the town and tin factories with electricity.

Being a strategic site, Manono was hit badly during Congo's decade-long war.

In the shell of the old brewery are hundreds of rusting tanks of compressed air, once used to carbonate the beer made here.

The local tipple was called Nyota, or Star in Swahili. The last bottle, though, was drunk some time in the 1980s, after the world tin price collapsed, taking Manono's industries with it.

The priests at the mission where I am staying swear it was the sweetest-tasting beer in the world, but it is unlikely that Nyota will ever be drunk again.

I arrived in Manono this morning after two days on the back of a motorbike.

Enterprising citizens

One of the first questions the priests asked me when I arrived was whether I drunk alcohol.

Abbaye Jean and his motorcycle
The priests in Manono can afford the luxury of a bottle of beer
"Great, then perhaps after dinner we can go and taste a little something," said Abbaye Jean.

After dinner we sit in the courtyard of a man called Robert. There are no bars any more. Instead, enterprising citizens serve beer in their homes.

Children come and go. Robert yells at them to keep quiet. A girl washes clothes in the lee of the house.

Robert makes the journey from the hut balancing a tray with a tall brown bottle and three glasses.

He wipes the glasses and the bottle and places them in front of me, and my two companions, Abbaye Simon and Abbaye Jean.

I have a dim memory of three of us perched on a motorbike, wobbling home through the muddy streets in the moonlight

Simon and Jean cannot take their eyes off the beer. Robert looks up expectantly with his hand on the bottle cap.

Jean nods his head and with a flourish, the top comes off.

Jean pours the golden liquid into the three glasses and we drink a toast to "the river".

The revered bottle with a blue label is called Simba - lion in Swahili. It has travelled nearly 1,000 miles (1,600km) from the southern city of Lubumbashi by barge up the Congo river.

It is a two-week round trip to fetch the precious liquid. Robert's wife is currently travelling with fresh supplies.

He complains that she is away too much, and that business is bad.

"No one has any money to buy beer anyway, except the priests!" he says.

She is expected home tomorrow and we agree to go and meet the barge.

Badge of affluence

The next morning I am groggy and grumpy. I cannot remember how many bottles of Simba we had but my plastic bag of Congolese francs seems much lighter than before.

Each bottle cost about 2 ($4). I have a dim memory of three of us perched on a motorbike, wobbling home through the muddy streets in the moonlight.

Barge delivering beer
The beer travels nearly 1,000 miles by barge up the Congo river
Jean, however, is thrilled with his hangover - a badge of affluence.

At the port, a painted rickety barge is tied with rope to the muddy shore under the shadow of rusting cranes, overgrown train tracks and abandoned hulks of boats, including a speed boat with a machine gun mount on the front.

Muscle-bound men unload the cargo in order of priority: petrol, Coca-Cola, beer, rice, salt, powdered milk, Chinese batteries then umbrellas and a goat.

A heavily armed unit of soldiers watches the cargo being unloaded and then collects a blue tin chest locked with two padlocks. It is their salary for the month.

Back at the mission, a party is in full swing. It is the first birthday party of the mission choir, reconstituted after the war.

In one of the buildings previously occupied by the military, gross and distorted cartoons carved by illiterate soldiers - some of them, no doubt, children - litter the wall.


But now the room is filled with young girls in matching school uniforms and matching smiles.

They race round filling the glasses of the priests and nuns with palm wine from an old whisky bottle - the poison of choice for the clergy when they cannot afford beer.

As I stare at the graffiti of guns, helicopters, aeroplanes and dead bodies, the girls shriek and play musical chairs.

I get an unfamiliar feeling in my stomach. It takes me a while to recognise it, but, for the first time, I am imagining a positive future for Congo.

In the way the nuns gently marshal the girls in their brightly coloured, handmade clothes, in the way that they serve the palm wine grasping the bottle with both hands, performing little curtsies, I get the first stirrings of hope I have felt after several depressing months in Congo.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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