All decked out in our suukas and kanzus, we were on our way back from Mbarara district where we had just attended a neverending introduction ceremony. It was the end of a long day that had began with a five hour drive from Kampala and we all needed a drink. When this intent was declared, I knew not to be too eager; I was the eighteen year old stuffed in the back of a four wheel drive with two of my uncles and one of my aunts. So it was with a beer in mind that we pulled off the desolate highway and into the gravel driveway of a roadside bar.
You know the kind of bar; small room with a tiled verandah, bathed in either red, blue or green light, complete with an uninterested bartender behind an excessively polished wooden bar counter towering over white plastic furniture. While one of my uncles began to order our beers, his eye caught what he really wanted.
I remember the silhouette of the little man with a top hat, coat tails and knee high boots; marching in a one man-parade from my childhood. The first time I realised how much of a big deal he was, these same uncles had come home to visit and been offered whisky, but the bottle in the cupboard bore another white man’s name.
It wasn’t Johnnie Walker.
They passed the bottle around and laughed, held it at a distance and laughed some more, making sure I never forgot that not all brown liquids in clear bottles are the same. Then they drank it anyway.
“Eh! Baine Red?” My uncle exclaimed, pointing to the shelf behind the uninterested bartender. Huddled closely in a three by three formation sat a group of 500ml Johnnie Walker Red Label bottles. Sure, it was not Black Label, but it was more than they were expecting this far out of town. He ordered a bottle and some glasses to be taken to the verandah where the air was fresher and the lights less harsh.
At eighteen, I was about to have my “first” drink. I say “first” because I had already been drinking (whisky when I could) for at least a year before that, but this would be my first drink in the (neon) light of truth. I watched my uncle pour his brother a drink and then offer his sister some, which she declined, then pour himself a glass and set the bottle down.
“Umm.. Uncle, may I have some whisky?” I asked, nudging my empty glass forward.
There was a pause and then my uncles laughed and laughed and laughed. In my memory a firm hand attached to a face of bemusement gripped my shoulder. He held me at a distance with a big smile and told me this was not quite my level.
At eighteen, I realised that for many people, whisky is not just something to get you drunk. It comes with connotations of age, class, masculinity and accomplishment. When my uncles shared a glass of whisky, it was as part of a journey they had been on together since before I was born, a journey I may not have understood enough yet to partake. My “first” drink was going to be a beer.