Musa Kamara is a simple man. He lives in small hut in a remote region of the Sierra Leone jungle. He lives with his wife and daughter under a palm-branch roof that he built himself. For food he grows a few vegetables in his garden and hunts his own bushmeat. Musa gets almost everything he needs for his family from the jungle. Maybe you would expect it, maybe you wouldn’t, but Musa is an extremely happy man. If you ask him why, he’ll probably say it’s because he has the finest poyo in Sierra Leone.
It was Wednesday at twilight when I first saw Musa. I was in the passenger seat of a white Land Cruiser, traveling down a dirt road that looked more like a shallow, red clay river. We were returning from Dogolaia village where I had interviewed rice and okra farmers near the Guinean border. I was hanging out of the window, watching the jungle pass by when Musa came into view through the palm trees. He was sitting on a wooden stool in front of his hut. He was shirtless and smiling. With a Krio accent he said, “Got de finest poyo in Salone.” And that was all. I shouldn’t have even been able to hear him over the engine of the Land Cruiser. But I did.
Finest poyo in Salone? Constantly on the lookout for that authentic drinking experience abroad, I couldn’t pass this up. I had heard of poyo before I arrived in Sierra Leone. Poyo is a slang term for palm-wine. An alcoholic drink extracted from palm trees and revered for its deliciously relaxing effects. I got the driver to hit the brakes and we backed that cruiser up to Musa’s hut.
“How de body?” “De body fine. Kushe.” “Kushe” “Tapped dis an hour ago.” Then he proceeded to pour a mug full of whitish liquid. Honestly, I was revolted. It looked like a cup of soapy water with globs of snot floating in it. Top it off with bits of bark and gnats swimming in it. Musa had a huge grin on his face, but I’m sure my face was contorted in disgust. You have got to be kidding. This was going to take some convincing. So what is the big deal with this poyo?
The process starts with Musa finding the right palm tree. The liquid is stored inside the trunk and can be tapped about once a year. There is a whole art (which I won’t pretend to know) of selecting the tree at the right time. Tap the tree when the poyo is too young and it will be overly sweet and weak in alcohol. Tap the tree too late, and the poyo will have fermented too long and taste sour. You can also do some distilling outside the tree trunk, but that’s not Musa’s style. He likes to keep things organic.
Once Musa has the perfect tree ready, he climbs it with a strap made out of old palm branches tied together. It looks like it is going to snap at any second… but Musa doesn’t seem to mind even when he is over 30 feet off the ground. When he gets to the top of the tree he pulls out his tap. It is a very simple wooden carving that he hammers into the trunk of the palm tree. Once he pounds it into the right spot, out flows the poyo. It’s as simple as that. No filtering, no aging, no refrigerating. Just tap and drink. That’s where all the delicious floaters come from.
With Musa standing in front of me pouring the sap into a plastic mug, I was starting to get a bit nervous. The mug looked filthy and the poyo looked like it might kill me. I was actually thinking more about what diseases I could get from drinking out of this guy’s mug than anything else. But Musa brought me back to attention by filling me in on an African tradition. The pourer always takes the first taste. Always the pourer. With a grin, Musa put the mug to his lips and took a healthy swig. “Dats fine poyo.” The look of sincere pleasure on his face as he said this had me convinced. My turn.
He handed me the mug and I looked in side. Besides there being a healthy amount of “stuff” floating in the mix, there was a dead honey bee bobbing on top. Musa explained that was a good sign. The poyo was just so tasty that the bee fell in, got drunk, and died. Who can argue with that?
I held the poyo up to my nose and took a deep inhale. I was strangely shocked. Nothing like the smell of coconuts or pineapple here. You won’t even believe what it smells like. The strongest aspect of the smell reminded me of a pungent pickle relish. Think of something similar to a freshly chopped up palm leaf. On top of that, there is a woody smell in the poyo… something that imitates a savory beef aroma. Put it together and you have a drink that smells oddly like a McDonalds value meal. I’m not kidding.
So with no more procrastinating I drank up, paying attention to avoid the bugs. The taste followed the smell… a watered down milky drink, with a woody relish flavor. It sounds awful. But actually it wasn’t that bad. I could immediately tell that it was an acquired taste. The loan officer with me, who is something of a poyo connoisseur, was next up. We took his taste and pronounced, “That’s very fine poyo.” It doesn’t get fresher than that he said. If you get it in town, it would probably be diluted with sugar water. This was the good stuff.
Not to break tradition, we pulled up stools in front of Musa’s hut and shared a couple liters of poyo. At times I’ll admit I was choking it back. But the stories were good and the drink had an endearing disgustingness to it. After paying Musa for his poyo, we headed on our way back to Kabala.
Would I drink poyo again? Well… I wouldn’t buy it at Starbucks. A liquid hamburger just isn’t at the top of my list. But in the middle of a jungle, listening to stories in Krio as the sun goes down… pass me another mug.