•Secrets of good wine tapping revealed
By Sunday Ani ([email protected])
Enugu-Ezike in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State is known throughout the state and beyond, as home of palm wine tappers. But, there are certain communities in the area where it could be said that palm wine tapping is a tradition. There, palm wine tapping is passed from generation to generation. And people go there daily in search of unadulterated, strong palm wine.
One of the communities in Enugu-Ezike known for palm wine tapping is Amaechara. It is casually said that in Amaechara, palm wine tapping is the first profession of every male child. The people of Amaechara equally regard palm wine tapping business, as their second nature. They argue that it is a tradition that is passed from one generation to another. Daily Sun visited the community recently and beheld the palm wine-tapping prowess of the people.
To buttress the claim that palm wine tapping literally belongs to the people of Amaechara, young, able bodied men are actively involved in the business. Unlike in some other climes where palm wine tapping is an exclusive preserve of men in their late 40s to 50s and above, men as young as 18 years old take up the business as a life time vocation.
The journey to Amaechara community, which borders Kogi State could only justify why palm wine merchants from neighbouring communities and towns, who go there to bring out the wine, sell at cut-throat prices. Most of the roads that link various Amaechara villages where good palm wine tappers reside are only accessible to pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles; vehicles cannot ply the roads because they are too narrow. Even for motorcycles, the narrow, snaky road is only suitable for expert riders.
However, getting into the heart of the community brings one face to face with a people who are happy doing what their great-grand fathers bequeathed to them, irrespective of several other available vocations brought about by civilisation and modernisation. Though, they lack most of the basic amenities of life, such as accessible roads, potable water and electricity among others, they are relatively contented with palm wine tapping, which according to them, is their own mineral resource.
Investigation revealed that palm wine tapping is not just about the availability of palm trees in an area; local science is applied to be able to get raw, undiluted and strong palm wine. This science of tapping palm wine is what the people of Amaechara claim to have naturally gotten from God and which they are not readily willing to let out of the bag. That is because good palm wine is hard to come by. There are palm wine tappers in other areas of the state and even in Enugu-Ezike but those from Amaechara are in a class of their own. Their palm wine is highly demanded and priced because it has a special aroma and flavor that distinguishes it from others.
According to a consumer, Jude Odo, the Amaechara palm wine has no comparison. “There are palm wines and there are palm wines. The ones from Amaechara have no equal. People come from far and wide just to get it. Just a little quantity will intoxicate you and it is sweet. Besides, it is medicinal because it is original and undiluted, unlike some other places, where they would have mixed the natural palm wine with water, thereby removing its potent properties,” he said
He used himself as an example of somebody, who was healed of an eye problem just by drinking original, undiluted palm wine tapped from Amaechara. He said: “I drink palm wine, especially the one from Amaechara. I prefer it to beer because of the yeast it contains. I once had an eye problem and when I visited a hospital, the doctor recommended that I should be taking palm wine with the yeast in it as it will help me to correct the eye problem. I started consuming it and lo and behold, my eye problem was solved. Since then, I have been consuming palm wine. It is medicinal. It doesn’t contain industrial chemical like beer.”
He therefore urged government to assist the people with fertilizers, so that the production could be boosted. “This is because people come from far and wide to buy it here,” he said.
The pertinent questions are: What is the secret to Amaechara palm wine? How do they tap their own? How lucrative is it that young people are holding on to it? And how long does one need to stay as an apprentice?
Giving insights into the business of palm wine tapping, 42-year-old Chike Ugwuanyi, who started tapping palm wine in 1989, when he was just 17 years old, said it is a seasonal business.
Ugwuanyi, who is married with eight children, told the reporter that he does not have any other job apart from tapping palm wine. He said that what he makes from the business sustains his family well enough. He also does not rely on the family palm trees; he goes to other communities to hire palm trees for wine tapping. That way, he is able to get enough quantity that rakes in enough money for him and his family’s upkeep.
As a seasonal product, Daily Sun gathered that the period from September to early March every year is a period when palm wine is readily available. The price is low during the period but between late March and August every year is a period of scarcity and during this period, prices is always very high.
On the quantity he could tap during the two periods, he said: “During the season of plenty, which is from September, I can tap more than eight gallons because I go to other villages to tap. I don’t restrict myself to my village alone. I rent palm trees from people outside my village because that is what sustains my family.”
Asked how much he makes in a week, he said that would depend on the ceremonies slated for the week. “In a week during the season of plenty, the amount we realise depends on the event of the week. If there are celebrations like marriage/wedding ceremonies, burial or funeral ceremonies, naming ceremonies and village meetings among others, in a particular week, we would make more money because it would affect the price. The law of demand and supply will come into play. In other words, the demand will go up and as such, prices would equally go up, meaning more money in our pockets. For instance, a person that taps up to four gallons per day, can save at least N20,000 in a week filled with activities. But, if the week is dull, such amount cannot be saved in a week,” he said.
“During the scarce period, if you can get up to one gallon per day, you can be sure of at least N9000. If you make it up to two gallons, you will be sure of N18, 000 per week. But, personally, I can only get one gallon per day now because this is the period of scarcity.”
Investigation revealed that a palm tree that can produce up to one gallon in a day between September and February can hardly produce a 60 centilitre bottle during the scarce period; March to August.
On why that is so, he said: “It is not a matter of the soil or the specie of the tree; it is just that the tree is resting. The palm tree uses what we call ‘Okpo-nkwu,’ to wrap itself such that it can only produce a little quantity of palm wine during the scarce period. What that means is that the palm tree is resting. When that happens, the palm leaves will also not descend downwards until such a time when the ‘Okpo-nkwu’ is ripe and ready to produce again between late August and early September.
He revealed that pruning is one of the secret of tapping great palm wine. Hear him: “There is what we call pruning of the palm trees. When the palm fronds are too many, we normally prune them so that there will be enough air going into the tree. If you don’t do that, it will also not produce a very sweet and strong palm wine. It would rather produce watery and weak palm wine. But, when you prune it, it will attract enough sunlight and air, which in turn, will enable it to produce very strong and sweet palm wine.”
Also lending his voice based on personal experience is 35 year-old- Mr Uja Ebe Chijioke, who has been tapping palm wine for over 20 years. He started at the tender age of 15.
Chijioke, who revealed that his immediate elder brother taught him how to climb palm trees and tap wine in the early 1990s, said it has been a very good business for him. “On a good day, I can tap over two gallons of palm wine. Although, it is seasonal because at some period, the quantity that one can tap would be much but at some other time, the quantity would be very little. For instance, this time around is a scarce period, so the trees hardly produce enough palm wine and that means that we can only tap a little quantity. The time of plenty when we have bumper output is between September and February. Any moment from September, a good tapper can tap more than five or six gallons per day. But now that it is scarce, you can only get a half gallon and at best, one gallon per day. I am talking of unadulterated palm wine; the one that really has all the natural ingredients to intoxicate,” he said.
He added: “For now, a gallon of palm wine is sold for N2, 500, but from September, the price of one gallon would drop to even N1000. From September, you can get two gallons for N2000 or less but now, two gallons is sold for N5000 or more depending on the quality.”
Is there any art to identify the palm tree that could produce good wine? He explained: “There are two types of palm trees – one is called Nkwu-Oha while the other is called Nkwu-Akwu. NKwu-Oha is designated for palm wine tapping. You don’t allow it to produce palm nut. Once you notice palm nuts sprouting from it, you will quickly cut it off otherwise, it would affect its palm wine production capacity and quality. It is solely set aside for wine tapping. The other one, Nkwu-Akwu is allowed to produce palm nuts from where palm oil and palm kernel are processed.”
He stated that palm wine tapping is what he does for a living. He equally revealed that he has no intention of quitting the vocation; hence, he goes about renting palm trees to be able to make more money. “That is what I do for a living and I intend to continue with it for life. I make enough money from it. Although, I am yet to get married, I am sure that the proceeds from it will be able to sustain me and my family when I have one. We rent from people who have many trees. Sometimes, we pay N1000 per tree for six months.”
According to another younger palm wine tapper, 34-year-old Ifesinachi Nwezenwodo, palm wine is a natural resource for the people of Enugu Ezike as a whole. “The Ijaw people are known for fishing but here, if you are not into palm wine tapping, then you must learn another trade. But by and large, this is what we are known for. I have even gone to Gabon to do business but eventually returned home to settle for palm wine tapping because already I know how to climb palm trees. We learnt that as children; it is part of our culture here.”
For Simon Ojobor, who started tapping palm wine even before the Nigerian civil war in 1967, only death could stop him from the job. From his own experience, the older a palm tree becomes, the stronger the wine it produces. Although, age is seriously telling on him, he still matches on in the business but he gives out most of the palm trees to the younger ones, who do not have any handiwork, to be able to take care of their families.
He also revealed the secret of good palm wine tapping, which according to him, is what makes Amaechara palm wine thick. He told the reporter: “There is a level beyond which you cannot open the tapping hole; otherwise it won’t produce good, strong wine. When the powerful wine is about to come, it comes with an aroma. When you want to open the tapping hole, you do it by the side of the base of the palm frond, so that it will produce strong wine. So, the way and manner you tap it determine how strong it will be. During the rainy season, you must ensure that rain water does not enter into the hole by ensuring that while opening the hole; it does not pierce through to the back. Before you get to the back, you need to bend your hand a bit to make it sloppy; that way, rain water will not enter it and the wine will eventually be strong and sweet. Again, a tapper visits the palm tree three times in a day – morning, afternoon and night. So, if you want a good wine, you go from 8:00pm for night session. If it is earlier, it won’t be as good. In the morning, you remove the ones that have percolated overnight, and then you clean the hole and extend the opening a little before you put back your bottle and tighten the whole area again. If the opening is tight, it would produce strong and sweet wine but if it is lose, it would produce watery, weak wine. In the afternoon, you clean the hole of the effervescence and tighten it once more.”
The Amaechara palm wine is in high demand by the neighbouring communities of Obollo, Ivoko, Iheaka, Nsukka and others. It was also gathered that Amaechara palm wine attracts customers, even from Enugu, Onitsha and as far as Lagos and Abuja.
Apart from outsiders, who troop to Amaechara for the precious product, the people use it for various merriments. According to Nwaonoja, “We use palm wine for marriage/wedding ceremonies, burial/funeral ceremonies, naming ceremony, new yam festival, club meetings, kindred meetings and any kind of festivity in this community. It must be palm wine; beer is just consumed as supplement, especially during the scarce period.”
What the people want from government
Considering the lucrative nature of the business, which has seen some people buy cars and even build magnificent houses, they want government’s assistance in the area of fertilizers. “The palm trees thrive well on a soil where fertilizers are applied. When you apply fertilizer to the soil to boost the yield of your crops, the palm trees indirectly taps from the fertilizer and make use of it for growth.
Speaking further on what the people want, Tobias said: “I want the government to provide good road network. You can see how snaky, narrow and rough the road is. Any town that is accessible has a chance to market whatever it is producing without much stress. During the rainy season, people would want to go there and buy palm wine but due to the bad nature of the roads there, they would prefer to wait for palm wine merchants to go there to buy and sell to them at a higher price.
“Secondly, there is erratic power supply. Some of the youths, who are into the business need to be connected. For instance, a young man who is into palm wine tapping business should be able to relax in front of a television to know what is happening after tapping wine for the day.”
Retired tapper speaks
Offering further insight into the processes involved in tapping wine, a retired palm wine tapper, Mr. Anthony Nwaonoja said: “Once you open up a tapping process from a virgin palm tree, you are expected to visit it three times a day. In other words, you are expected to climb the tree three times a day. Starting a tapping process means that you will get on top of a palm tree and remove some palm fronds to make a hole at the base, after which you will fix a bottle or a local small calabash to it. The process of fixing the bottle or the calabash must be skillfully done to be able to tap a good wine. It must be air-tight.”
Nwaonoja, who said he retired due to age, also revealed that each time a tapper goes up the tree; he is expected to carry out a particular process, which is what distinguishes one tapper from another. The process, according to him, determines which wine is sweet and strong or watery and weak.
On how long a tapper should tap from a particular palm tree, he said: “If you open up a tapping hole, it can only last for two weeks, after which you turn to another side and open another tapping hole because the earlier one would have been exhausted by then. Allowing the palm tree to carry palm nut will prevent this process because you won’t find a space to open another tapping hole when the first one is exhausted. You keep doing that until you have gone round the tree; some palm trees even have two tapping holes at a time.”
He also advised the young ones in the business saying: “I want them to know that palm wine tapping is not a lazy man’s job; it is a serious and hard business meant for the hardworking and strong-hearted people. There is money in it but it is very hard. I would advise them to be very careful as they climb the trees to avoid any form of accident like falling off the trees.”
During the time of plenty, you use big containers to fix on the tapping hole but during the time of scarcity, you can just use a bottle of small local calabash.”
Also speaking about the palm wine tapping business in Amaechara, Tobias Odo from Umuzakpa in Amaechara said it is the predominant business in Amaechara. He said that professionals such as lawyers, lecturers, doctors, engineers and other professionals from Amaechara all graduated from wine tapping before their present status. “It has been a source of livelihood in Amaechara. There is no successful businessman that does not know how to tap palm wine in Amaechara because that is the first business that we learnt and a good number of us are into it. They are surviving very well on it. People have discovered that it is better to live on a natural alcohol than living on a synthetic one and because of that, unadulterated palm wine is very profitable now and it is giving our people a sizeable source of income,” he said.