Adamou Idé is to thank for my recent foray into one of Niamey’s red light districts. I was reading a short story from the Nigerien author's Misères et grandeurs ordinaires when I came across a line about getting drunk from “chapalo sold on the sly.” Throw together a mysterious food item with a catchy name and the phrase “on the sly” and you are guaranteed to pique my curiosity.
Paulina, font of all Nigerien knowledge, doubled over with laughter when I asked her to tell me about chapalo. She found it thoroughly amusing that I even knew about the stuff and was happy to tell me all about it. Chapalo is a type of traditional beer that is brewed in many West African countries. It is especially popular in Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. Although you can find it in Niger, it is usually produced and consumed by Togolese, Beninese, and Burkinabé immigrants living in pockets around the capital city, making it a popular target for conservative Muslims who view it as haram, or dirty and strictly forbidden. By the end of our conversation, my gardener had joined in as well. Both he and Paulina agreed that the best chapalo comes from Burkina Faso in terms of flavor and quality. So of course, my next question was, “where do you get it?”
The Burkinabé chapalo “cabaret” is tucked down the narrow alleyways of a residential neighborhood most non-residents would never even notice. From the outside, it looks like any other housing compound fenced in with straw mats tied between stripped tree branches. But once you walk through the corrugated tin door of the establishment, you realize that this place is different. Four large black cauldrons bubbling over hot, wood fires stand in the center of an open-air courtyard littered with large pans, coals, and yellow calabash bowls. A stout woman with her head tied up in a scarf stands watch over the scene. She is introduced to me as the chapalo brew master and proprietress of the cabaret. All Burkinabé chapalo is made by women, who learn the art from their mothers.
The woman explained to me that her chapalo is made from red millet, but that it can also be made of sorghum, or a combination of both. First, she washes the millet in large buckets of distilled water kept in clean, plastic garbage cans before transferring the grain to the cauldrons. These are covered and left to boil for two days, after which the contents are strained through a large, loosely woven basket into a wide, shallow pan.
Once the honey-brown liquid is collected, the pan is placed in the shade of a straw mat hangar that also serves as a bar. Yeast is added, and the chapalo is allowed to cool and ferment for one day before it is poured into old (but thoroughly washed) paint buckets from which the woman’s daughter serves the fresh brew. She uses a half-liter glass juice bottle to measure out the beer into small calabash bowls (150 CFA). For those who want their chapalo to go, she fills up whatever receptacle the customer brings - usually the ubiquitous liter-and-a-half Telwa or Rharhous water bottle (450 CFA).
The clientele on this sleepy afternoon include students from the local university discussing a text they are leafing through, a group of cloudy-eyed old men speaking in a language that is clearly not Hausa or Zarma, a businessman in a tie reading the paper, and some women who work as housekeepers. Children run in and out of the dappled shade of the bar, stealing a sip here and there from customers who are generous enough to share what is in their bowl. The Burkinabé believe that chapalo is good for the health and begin giving it to their children from a young age. Everyone is either holding their calabash bowl or letting it rest on a hand-made tripod of thin, twisted rebar kept near their feet.
After paying for my liter-and-a-half, I took my fresh find home and shared it with friends, who said they would not trade the popular commercial Flag beer for the sour, grainy flavor of home-made chapalo. Not wanting it to go to waste, I combed through my cookbooks and came across Carbonnades à la flamande, by Julia Child. Having been raised on beer stews, I couldn’t resist the idea of combining French/Belgian cuisine and traditional West African beer. Served alongside a frosty glass of chapalo, the stew and the beer were a success! So much so, that I went back to get more chapalo…
This time, I went a little later in the day, more towards early evening than late afternoon. The crowd at the chapalo cabaret had clearly turned from the family friendly daytime group into a very male-dominated evening crowd who stared at me as I waltzed through the door. The warm, welcoming atmosphere in which I had been introduced to chapalo was replaced by a steely-eyed coldness that clearly told me to buy my chapalo and get out. On my way out the door, I noticed that the street was littered with used condoms.
The culture that surrounds chapalo is multifaceted. While it is a drink that is enjoyed by family members and close friends at a neighborhood “pub” where kids run around and play while adults share stories with whoever happens to drop in (including me), it is also a drink that is associated with prostitutes and having fun in the shadowy folds of the night – a side they don’t want to share with outsiders, much less curious foreign women.
So, curious (but not foolhardy) foreign woman that I am, I will settle for returning to my Adamou Idé novels and his characters, like those in Camisole de Paille, to better understand the world of those men and women of the night whose lives are obscured by the darkness and straw walls of the Niamey chapalo cabarets.