Tales from Tanzania: Making beer, wedding skirts & attaching to chameleons with the Irwq

DSCN1314See that guy? That is Martin, and today we visited his house. He is one of the chiefs of the Irwq tribe, the second largest group in Tanzania (after the Maasi).

The Irwq (which is nearly impossible for English speakers to pronounce because it requires a guttural sound) are agriculturalists. The traditional Irwq house is built into the ground, due to a slight conflict with the Maasi who believe that all of the cows in the world belong to them. The Maasi would come to the Irwq villages in the middle of the night to “reclaim” their lost cows. To compensate, the Irwq started building their houses into the ground as dugouts so that when the Maasi would look for the Irwq houses, none would be visible.

In 1974, the president of Tanzania said that the Irwq couldn’t build thier houses in this manner any more because it used a lot of trees, and he understood the need for conservation. To stop the conflict between the Maasi and the Irwq, the president declared if the Irwq could prove that their cows had been “reclaimed,” the government would give them 10 cows to replace it. This eliminated any hostilities between the two groups almost immediately.

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Martin (our friend pictured above) is allowed to keep his house because he and his tribe teach traditional crafts and ways to the Irwq people (and a small group of HMNS travellers), somewhat like a museum. He taught us about two very important parts of his culture: beer making and wedding skirts.

The “local beer” is super important and is prepared before any big job, ceremony or wedding. To make it, corn is ground and mixed with yeast and cane sugar or honey. Finger millet is ground and added to this after a few days. It is then boiled and left to sit for two days. On the third day, it’s ready.

After trying the local beer, which I would say has the flavor of applesauce made from diluted vinegar, I think I will stick with Shiner.

The other skill Martin’s wife, Victoria, showed us was how to make a wedding skirt. The skirt is made from dried goat skins. Once the skin has been dried out, a special tool is used to scrape off the hair. The skins are then cut into wedge pieces and sewn into an apron shape, and beading is applied.

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When Victoria asked for volunteers to try the beading, I hopped right up! Sewing is a skill I can get behind. The beading is similar in technique to Native American seed beading and every pattern has a meaning.

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The blue river pattern, Martin explained, is a metaphor for life. The river goes up and down, just as life has ups and downs. In the rounded patterns at the bottom you can see the tree of life, and just above those you can see a gourd shape, which represents a calabash.

The colors have meanings as well. Yellow represents the natural resources and minerals, green for vegetation and black for the African people.

The best part of the visit happened in the last few minutes. Some of the village children were playing in the bushes and found a chameleon. Apparently the kids are taught that chameleons are poisonous (maybe to keep them from bothering them?), and I have heard a couple different versions of folk tales that say if a chameleon bites you, it won’t let go — and the chameleon becomes part of you. So the kids were willing to show us the chameleon, but from the far end of a very long stick.

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We, on the other hand, had no such worries, and you can tell by Dave’s face that he was tickled pink to get to hold it.

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Oktoberfest … right now? Yep, it’s possible with SCIENCE.

You’re probably familiar with Oktoberfest, the international festival held annually in late September and early October in Munich. It’s a family affair and a place to eat and party. Bavarians celebrate their heritage by wearing elaborate native costumes — think Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but instead of cowboy hats and boots, men of every age sport lederhosen. People go for the day to see the livestock show, ride carnival rides, eat lots of unhealthy food, and drink beer. Lots and lots of beer.

BEERS

When I arrived, my first question was “Where are the beer tents?” They were actually right in front of me, but they looked nothing like tents. They are elaborate structures with brightly colored paint and moving figurines. The insides are decorated with banners, flowers and chandeliers.

The Hoffbrau House and Lowenbrau tents are very popular for the partying crowd. The ump-pa-pa bands play traditional German beer-drinking tunes and the popular songs of the day. Seemingly every 15 minutes “Ein Prosit” is played and everyone stands on their bench and raises their mugs to the unofficial Oktoberfest theme song.

Oktoberfest traditionally starts in the third weekend in September and ends the first Sunday of October. (There are many laughs when the Americans show up throughout October for the celebration.)

HMNS celebrates the history and science behind Oktoberfest and beer every year at Saint Arnold Brewery with founder Brock Wagner and his beer-making mentor Scott Birdwell of Defalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies. This year’s date is Sept. 25. If you want to raise your stein with us, click here for more info and to purchase tickets. The deadline for ticket purchases is Sept. 19.

From the Munich Tourist Office:

Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy royal event. The fields were renamed Theresienwiese (“Theresa Fields”) to honor the Crown Princess, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to “Wiesn.” Horse races in the presence of the royal family marked the close of the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races in subsequent years gave rise to the tradition of Oktoberfest.

In 1811, an added feature to the horse races was the first Agricultural Show, designed to boost Bavarian agriculture. The horse races, which were the oldest – and at one time – the most popular event of the festival are no longer held today. But the Agricultural Show is still held every three years during the Oktoberfest on the southern part of the festival grounds.

In the first few decades, the choices of amusements were sparse. In 1818, the first carousel and two swings were set up. Visitors were able to quench their thirst at small beer stands, which grew rapidly in number. In 1896 the beer stands were replaced by the first beer tents and halls set up by the enterprising landlords with the backing of the breweries. The remainder of the festival site was taken up by a fun-fair. The range of carousels offered was already increasing rapidly in the 1870′s as the fairground trade continued to grow and develop in Germany.

Today, the Oktoberfest in Munich is the largest festival in the world, with an international flavor characteristic of the 20th century. At the foot of the Bavaria Statue, adjacent to the Huge Oktoberfest grounds there are also carousels, roller coasters and all the spectacular fun for the enjoyment and excitement of visitors of all ages.

The festivities are accompanied by a program of events, including the Grand Entry of the Oktoberfest Landlords and Breweries, the Costume and Riflemen’s Procession, and a concert involving all the brass bands represented at the “Wiesn.”

The Oktoberfest celebrated its 200th Anniversary in 2011, only wars and cholera epidemics have briefly interrupted the yearly beer celebration.

You will learn more beer history at HMNS’ Oktoberfest: The History & Science of Beer on Sept. 25 at Saint Arnold. Yes, that Saint Arnold: the patron saint of brewers.

Can’t wait until Sept. 25 to learn more about this saintly man? Click here.