Mbege & Music - Sha’ban in Tanzania

Dinner

Photo by Jay Grandin — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The Sounds of Wisdom festival celebrates the best of East African music in the historical center of Zanzibar City, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. While Tanzania is well known for its eclectic mix of Swahili architecture, rambling streets of bazaars and breathtaking landscape, it’s not a top name in the food festival scene. So this week, we’re going to put the emphasis on “culture” instead of “culinary” by learning a bit about the Islamic festival of Sha’ban.

A large part of the Tanzanian population consists of practicing Muslims who zealously observe traditional holidays like Ramadan and Sha’ban. Sha’ban falls in the eighth month of the Islamic calendar, a period sometimes referred to as the month of “separation” during which Pagan Arabs left their camps in search of water. Throughout the duration of Sha’ban, stores close on Mondays and Thursdays when observers fast. In the middle of the month, the streets are decorated with lights and gifts are exchanged between neighbors and family members. The fast is broken with small dishes of rice, fish, duckling, chicken and vegetables, all lightly sweetened with sugar. “Mbege”, a time-honored beverage of the Chagga ethnic group, is traditionally served as well.

Made from banana, African millet and bread, this fermented banana beer plays an important role in the social life of the Chaggas. Business transactions are usually conducted around a bottle of Mbege, and the beverage is even used as payment in certain court cases by the losing party. Mbege is served at social celebrations and festivities like weddings and parties, as well as solemn rituals, like funerals. And multitasking Mbege plays a nutritional role as well. When properly formulated, it is naturally gluten free, chock full of unaltered proteins, Vitamin B and potassium to prevent muscle cramps. (So it’s good to keep a bottle on hand if you plan on hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro).

I don’t know about you — but I plan on attending the Sounds of Wisdom in the wisest way possible — with a fresh bottle of Mbege by my side and the sweet sounds of Taarab tunes in my ears.

Tempted by Tanzania? Find other live festivals here.

- Courtney Maum

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