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The home of umqombothi

You will always find people at Mama Ndou’s place. They stay there until 9 o’clock in the evening, when Mama Ndou chases them home.

And so the customers lick their lips and have a last sip of Mama Ndou’s famous umqombothi. They don’t complain. Closing time is closing time.

And anyway, Mama Ndou’s customers need their sleep. They are not as young as they used to be. Most of Mama Ndou’s customers were born about two hundred years ago.

Ask Mama Ndou why her customers are so old and she will say: “In the old days black people could only drink umqombothi. They were not allowed to drink anything else. So many old people just stayed with it.”

But her customers do not agree. They will give you different reasons. One old man says: “One isikala (jam tin) here costs 35 cents. When I buy beer at the bottle store, I pay R 1.35, or more with GST.” Another old man says: “One drink at Mama Ndou’s gives me powers like Sloppy in your magazine – that is why I come here. Then I forget my age.”

When you see Mama Ndou’s house in the day, it looks like any other house in Soweto. She has a small garden around her three-roomed house and she looks after it well. There are some trees and a maize patch. The maize patch is the most important place. Mama Ndou cooks and stores her beer in it – so that the police won’t find it.

In the evenings and at week-ends in the summertime, the customers sit on benches under the trees. Mama Ndou likes her customers to stay outside. But when it is cold, they come inside and sit around the stove to keep warm

But sometimes things get too warm because of Mama Ndou’s beer. One of her customers tells us how Mama Ndou’s beer nearly brought him big trouble.

“One night, after I had been at Mama Ndou’s, I felt very wise. My wife was very angry when I got home late. She said that she would throw hot water in my face. She said people would laugh when they saw me. And I would have to stay at home. But then she left the kitchen for a minute.

“I quickly grabbed the pot on the stove. I threw the hot water out and filled it with cold water. When she came back, I said I was not afraid of her or her hot water. That made her very angry. She grabbed the pot and threw the water in my face. But it was cold. So I laughed at her and said, ‘you see, umqombothi makes me wise’.”

Mama Ndou has not been making beer for a long time. She started in 1982 when her husband died. She was left with no-one to help her. And she wanted to keep her children at school.

School is important to Mama Ndou. She did not go to school at all. Her father was too poor. So, she just married and followed her husband to town. That was the custom in those days, about 40 years ago. There was no law to stop wives from coming to town with their husbands, like today.

Mama Ndou did not know how to make money. Also she did not want to leave her children alone. She decided that she must sell something from home. But she did not know what to sell. Then she remembered what a friend once told her. Her friend said that she made good beer. Mama Ndou knew her friend was right. She knew how to make beer. After all, it’s one of the things her mother taught her.

And so Mama Ndou decided to make money from beer. But she wanted to test it first.

“I invited a few men from around,” she tells us proudly. “I gave them the beer I had cooked. I remember all of them saying it was good – better even than the beer in cartons that comes from machines.”

Since that day, Mama Ndou has not looked back. She makes enough money to look after herself and her children. Her children are now living in Venda, her home. She lives with two of her grandchildren in Soweto. They are too young to drink umqombothi. But they know that it pays the rent.

“Running a shebeen is not easy,” says Mama Ndou. “I get up every morning at 6 o’clock. I make a fire. Then I boil 50 litres of water for the beer. When the water is boiling, I add the mealie meal and mthombo (malt). After that, it must all boil for six hours.

“While the beer is cooking, I clean up. Often there are many empty sikalis to wash. And I must keep the yard clean and tidy. Then I must also cook food for myself and my children.

“When the beer has finished boiling, I take it off the fire and leave it to stand. It must stand for the whole day and night. It will only be ready for drinking the next day.

“I don’t like working so hard but I also like having a shebeen. There are always people here. I never get lonely. People do not come for beer alone. They also come to talk.

“They talk about many things. Some talk about their families, far away in the homelands. Others talk about their girlfriends, here in town. They talk about soccer and the horses. They talk about their problems at work, and problems with money.

“But on Sundays people are quiet. They are thinking about work on Monday.”

Most shebeen owners have the same bad dream night after night. They dream about police raids. But Mama Ndou says that she is not troubled by the police. Last year two policemen came to see her. But for Mama Ndou they were not a problem.

“I was visited by two policemen from the Soweto Council,” says Mama Ndou. They said they wanted to arrest me. I gave each one 50c to leave me. Then I saw one was interested in the beer. I gave him some. He drank it so fast, I couldn’t believe it. He asked for a second isikala. This time he asked the other policeman to join him. They both said that the beer was great. Today they are still my customers.”

Mama Ndou says that the two policemen brought many friends to come and enjoy her beer. She also thinks that they told their friends not to worry her. Ever since that time, the police have left her alone. But Mama Ndou is also careful. She doesn’t have stokvels or play fahfee. She says these things bring the police.

When shebeen owners are not dreaming about police raids, they dream about customers stealing from them. But if you ask Mama Ndou about it, she just laughs. But one of her best friends and best customers tells a story about stealing.

“One night, Mama Ndou wanted to go to the shops while we were drinking at her place. So we said she must go. We said that we would watch the beer for her.

As soon as she left, my friends and I thought we would take a couple of isikalis. Mama Ndou would never know. But the beer was too strong. I do not know what happened. The others said I fell into the big beer pot. And that is how Mama Ndou found me – with my head in the pot. But, as you can see, we are still good friends today,” he says, laughing.

Mama Ndou says she is not going to run her shebeen forever. She is waiting for one of her children to come. Then she can rest and her child can run the shebeen. She will teach her child the secrets of umqombothi – just like her own mother taught her.

So don’t worry, all you customers at Mama Ndou’s. When you are 300 years old in a few years time, you will still be able to wet your lips with Mama Ndou’s magic drink. So lets drink to that. Cheers!


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