OKWAGBE, NIGERIA/DAKAR, SENEGAL —
A batch of local gin killed about 70 people in southern Nigeria earlier this month, prompting a nationwide ban on drinking the beverage. Producers and imbibers of the popular drink say the ban threatens not just a beverage, but a lifestyle.
It’s called ogogoro, and Nigerians were sipping it decades before the mass-produced lagers commonly found in Nigeria’s bars came on the scene.
Ogogoro is made from palm sap, often in a backwoods distillery far from the eyes of the government bodies that are supposed to regulate the brew. But after about 70 died from drinking ogogoro earlier this month in the southern Rivers State, and another 20 died in April in Ondo State in the southwest, Nigeria’s food and drugs regulator banned the consumption of ogogoro.
That has rankled Rosaline Iseviaka, who said she uses the beverage not to get drunk, but as a way of healing.
“If I have sickness now, should you believe, and I do not have money to go to hospital, and they give me native medicine and I am supposed to use ogogoro, should I wait for federal government to come and give me help so that I cure myself? I cannot wait, no,” said Iseviaka.
At a distillery in the creek-side village of Okwagbe in the southern Delta State, Samuel Egedegbe was carrying on a family tradition of distilling ogogoro, until the recent ban.
He said he only uses materials approved by the food and drug authorities to make his gin. He blamed distillers who added methanol to their mix to increase its potency for the recent deaths.
“I prefer that the federal government should look into this thing because real ogogoro does not kill, does not affect anybody. But this, that and other they use to distill ogogoro, we do not understand it,” said Egedegbe.
Egedegbe learned the business from his parents, and now is the chairman of a major distillers union in Delta State. He said if the government does not lift the ban, he is effectively out of work.
“If we leave it, what will we do? Can the federal government assist us with money to help us to finance another business? If they can do, then we can find a way to stop it. But this is our own. We are brought up on it, and our children are brought up on it. So therefore how can, it is impossible to stop,” he said.
Egedegbe stands behind his product. The 67-year-old said he drinks some every morning, for his health.