Posted: Monday 28th January 2013 at 11:13 am

The rise of the ‘Spirits': Saving the traditional Pito industry and the youth from death

Feature Article of Monday, 28 January 2013

Columnist: Eric K. Amoh

Strong alcoholic beverages such as the various brands of locally manufacutred gin and whisky are increasingly taking over the market that was once dominated by the popular local brew, “Pito”, in Bolgatanga and its environs, thereby rendering brewers of the traditional drink jobless.
Modern quaffs such as gin, “akpeteshie”, Alombo bitters, Opeimu, Schnapps, among others varieties, have become so attractive to the hitherto pito consumers that they prefer to indulge in these high percentage alcoholic beverages with least attention to the dangers associated with those ‘modern’ drinks.

Pito is a traditional wine consumed by a section of the people in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions of  Ghana. It is brewed from guinea corn, malt, and sometimes from other cereals, and drunk for leisure.

It is also used for the performance of certain customary/traditional functions such as the pouring of libation at social functions, funerals, marriage and child-naming ceremonies, as well as the performance of spiritual sacrifices among the Gurune speaking people of the Upper East Region and other parts of the north.  Therefore, the emerging dominance of the local and foreign gins presents a threat not only to the health of consumers but also to the tradition and culture of a good percentage of the people of the North, especially those in Bolgatanga and its environs.

Pito and traditional music linkages:

The pito brewing industry is a formidable sector of the local economy, and is dominated by women both in the Bolgatanga Municipality and the remote areas in the Regions. The roles of men in the brewing process are usually limited to carting firewood to the kitchen on push carts for the brewing to be done. Some men also do the splitting of firewood in smaller pieces, especially those logs that are too large to be pushed in between the stones that support the boiling pots in the brewery huts.
In the Bolgatanga township of the 1980s, the Bolga Naba’s Palace was the centre of the traditional stuff, where a variety of ‘Goji’ and ‘Kolko’ traditional violin and guitar live music entertained customers who filled the numerous pito bars that surrounded the Palace.

These violinists and guitarists competed for fame by singing praises and reciting poetic incantations to please the prominent customers present in the pito bars.

Patrons who were touched by these praises dished out monies to the praise singers who shower more accolades on them and raise raise their status higher on the social ladder, most often to the point of exaggeration.

The mention of other popular Pito bars in Bolgatanga brings to mind names such as Abeele’s House B12 which was located close to the “Techiman Market gate” and which often attracted large numbers of customers.  The Pink House, Rock House, Atangosco, and English House which was patronised mainly by Civil Servants who would get tipsy and butcher the English grammar like nobody’s business. Here, the patrons were mostly educated and so they scared away people who were illiterate, hence the name. The Asumboya’s House was not too different and the Naba-Yere, which literally means the Chief’s House with a chain of Pito bars very close to the Bolga-Naba’s Palace. 

   The interesting thing is that these traditional musicians told folklores in their narrative songs and these folklores served as a source of  inspiration to the people, especially those in the lower segment of the society.

But as time went on, and  with the arrival of the gins and the whiskys, some of the praise singers had to look for other sources of income to supplement the dwindling incomes that came from the equally shrinking Pito business.

Economic Decline:

     Indeed, the gradual collapse of the pito business in the north, especially in the Bolgatanga Municipality, is a matter of a grave concern, as more and more women who engaged in the one time booming economic venture have been rendered jobless and redundant.

In a hearty chat with some of the brewers, it came as no surprise when most of them now in their sixties remembered their roles as bread winners in their hey days from the trade they inherited from their mothers and grannies.  Madam Agnes Abilba, known in pito circles as Mma Asakisina (literarily meaning she hears and yet keeps her cool), told this writer that her hope was to bequeath the trade to her off spring, “but they have all taken to education” and would not pay heed to  her requests and aspirations for their future. To her, Pito brewing is not just an ordinary trade but an inheritance, a culture and tradition that is part and parcel of the lives of the people of Bolgatanga and indeed amongst the entire Gurune speaking people, or Frafras as some people prefer to call them.

From the trade, Mma Asakisina gave education to her children, relations and offered support to friends. She gave hope to people around her, her home was the happy type and still remains so in spite of the fact that things are no longer the same. 

Gin and Death:

Today, regretably, the story is quite different as more young people continue to die at that young age because of excessive intake of strong alcoholic beverages such as the Gins, Whiskies, bitters in all kinds of shapes, thus depleting the country’s manpower base. These strong alcoholic drinks such as the categories of bottled gins, whiskies, Akpeteshie and the so called bitters are taking too many young lives in the Bolgatanga Municipality and the country in general.

     A good number of the rising cases of Hepatitis B and C related deaths have been attributed to excessive consumption of strong alcoholic beverages. “Pito never ‘took photograph’ of its consumers like the way akpeteshie does, it did not kill, it rather gave good health to all as its purpose was to rehydrate, give energy and make people happy”, Mma Asakisina remarked in relation to the subject about acohol-related deaths, and observed that pito had very little or no health risks at all.

Revival Strategies:

     From every indication, pito consumption has drastically declined in the Bolgatanga Municipality. The one time vibrant source of employment, leisure and entertainment seems to be withering, and this calls for efforts from key stakeholders including traditional authorities, the Upper East Regional House of Chiefs, and government agencies such as the Centre for National Culture and the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture to save this traditional heritage.

     It is suggested that these bodies come together to pass laws that would regulate the importation and consumption of gins and other related strong alcoholic beverages in the Upper East Region in particular to minimize related fatalities they cause to the youth in the area.

      It would also be a good idea for the few Pito brewers who are still in existence to form a vibrant association to enable them to table their needs and source funds to bring some innovations into the production process. For example, with the needed support and technology, it is possible to produce canned or bottled pito. When this is done, it could make consumption of the stuff more convenient to local consumers and even exported to other parts of the country and abroad. When this is done, the ever diminishing demand for Pito and the shift for the gins would reverse. A friend in London called and said she missed home because she longed for Pito. There could be several hundreds of northerners and people of northern descent who are craving for the taste and smell of Pito, but it is rather hard to come by.

     The country’s research institutions such as the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute (SARI), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and research departments of the country’s universities to revisit this important heritage and revive the industry as a matter of urgency.  When this is done, it would bring back to life the dying Pito business which would in turn empower more  women  in the region economically and enable them to give their children a better education.

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