Land of skokiaan and no money

Zimbabwe's seven-year economic crisis has revived interest in skokiaan. No, not the song that was made world famous by a saxophonist of unforgettable virtuosity, Augustine Musaruwa.

In the original, Musaruwa's saxophone tone is so piercing it almost personalises the bibulous lament of one soused to the gills on the drink, half-dead.

It was recorded by, among other great musicians, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.

In the 1960s, he visited Southern Rhodesia, for a memorable concert in Harare - then Salisbury. Satchmo met the great composer himself, along with a South African musician of distinction at the time, Peter Rezant.

What's enjoying a revival is the brew. Connoisseurs of John Barleycorn in this region will remember skokiaan for its massive kick.

The ingredients include yeast, and other things, whose chemical composition might be X-rated in a family newspaper.

A regular imbiber of skokiaan has the physical appearance of the survivor of a small nuclear blast, or a degenerative disease.

Its major characteristic? It ferments in one day, not the seven days of the much less potent Seven Days opaque beer, commonly known as umqombhothi.

A Harare man recently told of a visit from the village by his mother, still sprightly at 85, attributed - by her - to a life without alcohol or hanky-panky

She asked him to buy her a lot of yeast. It was to bake bread, he assumed, now in perennial short supply because of the government's harebrained price blitz.

After his puzzled look at her, she came clean. Her neighbour was raking in the moolah hand- over-fist from a skokiaan shebeen. She was 90 years old.

The son saw the logic: How could his mother, five years younger, be outdone by this, much older neighbour?

He spent what he thought was a fortune on yeast and prayed her customers would not sneak back into the hut to rob her of the proceeds. People now steal the shirt off your back - so desperate are they for anything with which to buy food.

Skokiaan is as deadly a brew as kachasu, its ingredients as cheap and dangerous, its effects just as near-fatal.

In these days of deprivation, people will drink anything to get a kick. Bottled beer has been priced out of their reach. The strong-willed have become teetotallers. Most of the weak-willed have given in. They will drink skokiaan, kachasuor anything alcoholic, no matter what its ingredients.

In that state, most are transported to a never-neverland where they are king of the realm. They are apt to mouth off about their misery, their target the one man they see as The Cause: Robert Mugabe.

A number of people have appeared in court, charged under a law which makes this an offence.

Years ago, a man mouthed off in a very public place, the Heroes Acre, "Things were better under [Ian] Smith!" he shouted.

Heroes Acre is hallowed ground. Zanu-PF inters its heroes there. There are no other heroes in Zimbabwe.

The man was carted off to the police cells, then charged. The last we heard of him, they had decided he had a screw loose. Nobody in his right mind, they decided, could speak so outrageously about this land of milk and honey.

Are things worse than they were under Ian Smith, from 1965 to 1980? Good heavens, no!

Yet people are bound to be nostalgic about the past, whatever its patches of light in the darkness. For them, unfortunately, the darkness is obliterated when skokiaan takes complete control, and you can hear them sing the Ballad of the Half-Dead, where even the milk and the honey have the curious taste of skokiaan.