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Alcoholism, Race, and Decolonization

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In the June 1958 issue of the Nchanga Drum, Dominico Chansa, a social welfare worker on the Northern Rhodesian (Zambian) Copperbelt, asked readers the question, “Is Beer Drinking a Good or Bad Habit?”

Zambia and the Copperbelt

 The author claimed that there was “no subject on the Copperbelt today which draws more heated debate”—a surprising yet surprisingly accurate assertion.  Surprising because this was a period of rapid and sometimes violent political change that would culminate in Zambia’s independence from Britain in 1964, and the question of who would rule was by no means settled.  Surprisingly accurate, because the local press and official and corporate records are filled with discussion and debate over alcohol use and regulation (Zambia’s reputation would make it one of the case studies in the well-known WHO cross cultural study of alcohol use from the 1970s).  Writers on this blog have focused a great deal recently on addiction and disease models—to stimulating effect.  Yet I have been struck with just how Eurocentric these debates appear to be.  Today’s post updates Mr. Chansa’s question, asking “was beer drinking a habit in colonial Zambia?”

Chansa himself concluded that there was nothing wrong with beer drinking, but that there was  “everything wrong with the way it is drunk on the Copperbelt” – the mining zone that had made Zambia one of the most industrialized and urbanized territories in Africa by the 1960s.  What is especially striking to me is that in the myriad articles and reports that examined the alcohol problem in Zambia during this period, including a series of four articles on “drunkenness” that appeared in mining company magazine, Mufulira African Star in 1960, excessive drinking is treated exclusively as a “social problem” not as a disease or addiction.  Those four articles, for example, catalogued in great detail the damage done by excessive drinking, but betrayed no interest in the issue of why people drank.

Zambian Drinkers

Whites justified the strict regulation of African access to alcohol in predictable, racial, terms:  Africans, collectively, were both more susceptible to inebriation and unable to limit their consumption.  Alcohol abuse among the substantial white settler population was in contrast characterized in individual terms, as a disease or addiction.

A small, whites only, AA group began on the Copperbelt in 1951, and in 1957 a private society secured funds to open a residential clinic to treat white alcoholics. As independence approached, Zambia slowly desegregated public facilities, but the clinic remained exclusively white.  In 1963 six African men approached the society for assistance in dealing with their alcohol problems, but no consideration was given to the possibility of treating them at the clinic.  The idea of exposing Africans, in the intimate confines of the clinic, to “diseased” whites—male and female—remained unthinkable.   Residential treatment was deemed inappropriate for African problem drinkers—the term “alcoholic” was rarely associated with Africans.

"Third World Drinking" = Second Wave Colonialism

With independence the society brought Africans onto its board, quickly reinvented itself as the Zambia National Council on Alcohol and Addiction, and closed down the clinic.  Reflecting its links to AA, the old organization had focused its attention on the treatment of individual white drinkers.  The new one launched an ambitious education and training effort designed to limit the production and consumption of alcohol nationally—a modernized version of the racial model of African susceptibility, a model that persists in studies of “Third World” drinking.  What are we to make of this?  The kinds of public health approaches to African drinking advanced by the ZNCAA beginning in the 1960s are probably more in line with current research on alcohol abuse than a focus on individual pathology, yet these approaches clearly have a heritage in a colonial racial order that resisted full personhood for Africans.

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