By Daniel Saire
Uganda has permanently featured on the list of the “most drunken countries” in the world and no doubt Wandago could be generously contributing to this ranking.
Located 18 kilometers from Jinja town along the Jinja-Iganga highway, Wandogo village needs no introduction as the scent of crude Waragi can even awaken dozing passengers to the fact that they are in Wandago, a village where residents potently earn a living through brewing crude waragi.
The unique odor from a combination of molasses, waragi and dregs will hit your nose and remind you how far you have travelled.
To some travelers, this is the signal that beckons them to pullover, and buy a bottle before proceeding.
While this writer has plied the Jinja-Iganga highway severally, it required a special visit to unravel the truths and myths that many people hold about Wandago.
Location and population
Wandago is one of the parishes that make up Magamaga Town Council in Mayuge district. It is made up of four villages (wards); Wandago A, Wandago B, Church zone and Isiiko zone with a population of about 15,000 people, according to secretary for defence Church zone, Stephen Magaju.
Wandago has for decades gained notoriety for distilling crude waragi and this has offered a lifeline for the thousands of area residents. A stroll around the villages exposes one to a beehive of activity by different people related to waragi distilling.
In one home, several blue 200 litre drums are covered with polythene bags as they hold molasses under fermentation. In another, a lady in her early 30s is tending to six drums that are on a smoldering fire. In the next 30 minutes, the lady who preferred anonymity says she expects the waragi to start flowing. So, the jerrycans are being readied to tap it.
A few meters from here, a man arrives with a heap of firewood on a motorcycle and price negotiations ensue. Bingo! He has pocketed Shs20,000 on top of getting another order to deliver two similar bundles the next day.
Within the vicinity, is 26-year-old John Zirimenya, an attendant at a molasses holding tank, is busy selling to several customers that have come carrying heavy duty black jerrycans on bicycles. Zirimenya sayst he works for a businessman at the 3-tone tank where he is paid Shs100,000 a month.
Source of molasses
So, where do the people get the raw materials for waragi distilling from? This writer poses the question to Magaju who had turned into his guide around the area.
Madhivan Sugar factory, which is just a few kilometers away, seemed to be the obvious answer, but on the contrary, Kaliro, Mayuge, Bugiri and Kamuli sugar factories are some of the suppliers of molasses to traders in Wandago.
“We used to get it from Kakira but they no longer sell to us as they use it to manufacture ethanol and other spirits,” Magaju explains.
Magaju adds that at times, even the said factories also run out of molasses. When this happens, those with the capacity import it from Awendo in Kenya.
Indeed, on the day of the visit, the writer witnessed a group of young men in Wandago A village, offloading a trailer which they said had brought the molasses from Kenya.
Waragi distilling business
Magaju, who is also a distiller, explains that to get a 20-litre jerrycan of waragi, you need one-and-a-half jerrycans of molasses mixed in 100 litres of water and then ferment for five days. By this time, it is then ready for distilling.
The same quantity will be produced by a heap of firewood worth Shs20,000. A jerrycan of molasses from Uganda costs Shs56,000 while that from Kenya is at Shs68,000.
Magaju adds that a jerrycan of waragi goes for Shs110,000. He is distraught though with too much work involved in the brewing process yet profits were too low.
“After putting in a lot of money and labour, you can earn between Shs10,000 and Shs20,000 as profit. This is too low but we have nothing else to do for a living,” he laments.
He says that importers of molasses were the ones earning big profit margins than distillers.
Others earning more, are owners of big distilleries that import their own molasses. There are three major waragi factories in the area.
Efforts by this reporter to engage with the owners were met with rejection. An employee from one of the factories says that their boss suspected that this reporter was a government spy posing as a journalist.
Who are the consumers?
The long held view about Wandago is that the village paths are full of drunken people all day long. If you are the type, then think twice.
It is difficult to find a visibly drunken person let alone a bar in this area. A walk around the villages brings you face-to-face with people engaged in either brewing or other small businesses.
So, why is this the trend yet out there, we know you people as drunkards? I pose the question to another resident Ronald Mawejje.
“Waragi distilling is a business just like any other. People engaged in it do it for a living,” he says.
He adds that traders come from as far as Karamoja, Teso, Kampala, Mbarara and from some parts of Kenya to buy waragi from Wandago.
Though this reporter couldn’t verify the information, it was learnt that some established companies in the country, buy waragi from Wandago, purify, and bottle it in small containers, before selling it under their brands.
Mawejje explains that people there, lack land for farming and their main stay is waragi distilling. From this, a number of them have registered successes like educating their children up to university, bought land and constructed houses plus buying of vehicles.
The good and bad of waragi distilling at Wandago
The business is said to employ over 10,000 people who do different jobs in the industry. This includes distillers, transporters, tree farmers, and casual labourers among others.
“We have celebrated over 30 degrees in this place during the recent past, all of them coming from selling waragi,” Mawejje says.
Zirimenya, says that other than using molasses for waragi distilling, some people buy it to feed animals while others use it as an alternative for cement during construction of houses.
On his part, Magaju says that while outsiders hate the bad smell from the black liquid that remains in the drums after distilling waragi, it kills germs and viruses.
“That is why there were no covid 19 cases in this area,” he boasts.
This liquid is poured into trenches and filters into the nearby valley where it mixes with water there.
Indeed, the place faces a high level of poor sanitation as you have to endure jumping trenches of overflowing dregs known as salala in local dialect. At another turn, you risk falling into a pit full of dirty water a thick green cover that is used as a coolant during the distilling process.