Shebeen - A delightfully African Bar - News - Gondwana Collection

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Shebeen - A delightfully African Bar

Avatar of inke inke - 09. June 2017 - Discover Namibia

Impression of the African way of life: the shebeen at the Etosha Safari Camp. Photo: Gondwana Collection

Down to earth, relaxed, innovative and charming are Etosha Safari Camp's alluring qualities - and of course, its proximity to Etosha National Park. Extending the theme of Etosha as being a 'Place of Legends', Etosha Safari Camp takes it one step further by bringing home the story and spirit of Africa. And the result is - legendary! Here, the typical informal bar or shebeen, well-known and beloved throughout southern Africa, is given expression in the restaurant and bar with local colour and country bric-a-brac.

The shebeen has its roots in 18th century Ireland and Scotland. The name, probably derived from the Irish Gaelic word seibin ('small mug', but also 'inferior ale), was used for a small bar where alcoholic beverages were sold and consumed without a licence. Often it was homebrewed beer or self-distilled whiskey. The 20th century saw the first shebeens in South Africa, from where they spread to Namibia.

It is not that alcoholic beverages were unknown in southern Africa at the time; alcohol was regarded as one of the most important commodities in 19th century trade. The colonial powers, however, saw a serious problem in selling alcohol to Africans, as the Brussels Conference of 1890 shows. But it was hardly possible to stop this trade, and the African peoples knew how to brew alcoholic beverages anyway. Beer made of traditional grain and a sugar cane drink were common in northern Namibia during German colonial times (1884 - 1915) and also under South African rule (occupation from 1915, as a League of Nations mandate from 1920). Large quantities were brought in from Angola where home brewing and self-distillation was tolerated by the Portuguese colonial power.

With the onset of industrialization in South Africa, towards the end of the 19th century, traditional beer also made its appearance in the towns. In 1908 the authorities started to introduce stricter controls on brewing and selling beer. Municipalities were allowed to operate breweries and ‘beer halls’ and ban home brewing. Nevertheless it was a controversial issue. On one hand many men were tempted to spend their family’s household money in the beer halls. On the other hand the ban on home brewing meant the loss of additional income, or even the main income, for Africans. Women were often affected the most. Beer hall boycotts and protest marches of women and children were the first form of organised resistance against racial segregation. 

Some towns decided against the beer hall monopoly, others failed at enforcing it. In 1926 'blacks' were banned from entering 'white' bars. The number of shebeens increased. Apart from low priced drinks they served a few simple dishes. Music and dancing, sometimes with live bands, were the next addition. The bar counter and public room were furnished with various recycled items which often took on a witty new function or served as humorous decoration. Many shebeens were painted in a dazzling array of colours because the job was usually done with odd lots of paint.  

Thus the dwelling turned into a cultural meeting place, the shebeen into a self-contained African version of the European bar. It became an expression of identity and pride, and even defiance of ‘blacks’ towards ‘whites’. Many a shebeen was raided by the police and shut down because it was a suspected meeting place of anti-apartheid activists. 

South Africa’s mandate for the administration of the former colony of German South West Africa paved the shebeen’s way into Namibia. First it advanced into the townships in the southern and central parts of the country. The more densely populated north, on the other hand, already had its Cuca Shops, named after the largest brewery in Angola. Apart from the popular Cuca beer, these shops sold homebrews and a variety of daily necessities. More than often they were run by women whose husbands were working in the mines or in the towns. As time passed, however, Cuca Shops were ousted by shebeens. Here, too, the bar served as a political platform. Even today this is evident in the propaganda and election campaign posters which remain pasted onto the walls.

Based on the recommendations of the Odendaal Commission tasked with introducing homeland politics to Namibia, the alcohol ban for 'blacks' was relaxed in 1969. Registered persons were now allowed to obtain a liquor licence. Thus legal bars started to appear in the north and in the townships of central and southern Namibia, but the number of illicit bars also increased rapidly. A new law was enforced in 1998, eight years after Namibia gained independence. It made registration easier but at the same time introduced conditions, e.g.regarding hygiene. At present there are 350 registered shebeens in Katutura/Windhoek alone, plus a much larger number of illicit ones. And there is the Namibia Shebeen Association, the acronym of which displays the same kind of humour as many of the shebeen names: NASA.

After Namibia’s independence in 1990 many 'black' Namibians joined the middle and upper class and moved to the more expensive 'white' suburbs. Some shebeens turned into elegant bars modelled on the 'white' example, others became watering holes for the poor. Solid iron bars between the bar and the public room are a characteristic feature which prevents theft and protects the staff from molestation by drunk and rowdy patrons. Nevertheless, many shebeens still are a social and cultural meeting place where you can listen to the latest songs by Namibian artists. You can also catch up on news about the neighbourhood – or about your home in another part of the country. Many shebeens in Katutura draw a particular group of patrons that all hail from the same little place somewhere in the north.

Great love for detail has gone into the shebeen-like styling of the restaurant and the bar of Etosha Safari Camp at the fringe of Etosha National Park. Street musicians provide live music for dancing. Guests have the opportunity to experience African creativity and joie de vivre. At the same time the memory of the shebeen as a pre-independence institution, which has almost disappeared in this form, has been preserved. 

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