A boozy banana drink in Uganda is under threat as authorities move to restrict home brewers

Girino Ndyanabo's family peels bananas used for Tonto, and throws them into a wooden vat carved like a boat on Dec. 11 in Mbarara, Uganda. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

MBARARA, Uganda — At least once a week, Girino Ndyanabo’s family converges around a pit in which bananas have been left to ripen. The bananas are peeled and thrown into a wooden vat carved like a boat, and the patriarch steps in with bare feet.

The sweet juice he presses out is filtered and sprinkled with grains of sorghum, which converts the juice into ethanol, and left to ferment for up to a day. The result is a beverage Ugandans call tonto, or tontomera, a word in the Luganda language that alludes to drinkers’ poor coordination. Weaker than bottled beer, the drink has a fruity aroma and bits of sorghum floating on its dark surface.


Tonto is legendary in Uganda. Folk singers have crooned about it, politicians seeking a common touch take a sip when hunting for votes, and traditional ceremonies terminate at dusk with tonto parties. Its devotees are many, ranging from officials in suits to laborers in sandals.

But its production is under threat as cheap bottled beer becomes more attractive to drinkers and as authorities move to curb the production of what are considered illicit home brews, which have the risk of sometimes deadly contamination.

And because tonto production takes place outside official purview, authorities are unable to collect revenue from its sale.

A bill in the national assembly seeking to regulate the production and sale of alcohol would criminalize the activities of home brewers of tonto, along with other traditional brews made across this East African country.

But farmers have a more pressing concern: Not enough new banana juice cultivars are being planted to produce the brew. Communities are prioritizing the more commercially viable varieties that are boiled and eaten as a popular mash called matooke.

Ndyanabo, a farmer in the western district of Mbarara whose first experience with tonto was as a little boy in the 1970s, said he has only a few plants left of the cultivars from which the banana juice is extracted.

He sources his bananas one bunch at a time from farmers near him until he can fill the small pit on his plantation. The natural underground heat ripens the bananas within days as Ndyanabo prepares for the weekly pressing.

The event is so important in the family’s routine that they can’t imagine a time when there would no tonto to sell.

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