Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?

Near the end of the earth there are lines one might not cross for fear of falling off.

OK, you won't really fall off, but you will become scared and lost.

The area of my research in the Ituri was, by many standards, one of those places near the end of the earth, with the lines that have consequences if you cross them. This region of Africa, with complex and important topography, was the last to be figured out by Western explorers and geographers. As recently as 1889, Europeans thought that the Semliki River flowed from the Rwenzori Mountains into Lake Albert, and most people did not know that the lake to become known later as George was a separate lake from Edward.

If you look at the tracts followed by these early explorers, mercenaries, and others, they tend to lead around and partly into but not across the Ituri Forest. In the 1880s there was a dispute over whether this forest even existed: One argument was that there were 250,000 square miles of forest in this region. Another asserted that there were only 2,500 square miles of forest in the region. In truth, the Ituri is about 25,000 square miles (so we split the difference in orders of magnitude) and the overall Congolese forest is considerably larger.

The reason that this research facility was set up where it was, in fact, was because it was one of the most remote areas of Africa. I won't go into the reasons for that now, but it was a major factor.

So, the lines. When one goes to a place like this, you first go to a city, by plane, then usually into the bush by vehicle, and at some point possibly by foot.

At the time that I worked in Zaire, the Peace Corps had a rule that Peace Corps workers could not reside or work extensively more than a certain distance ... measured in hours of travel time ... from a certain class of airport. This actually restricted Peace Corps activities considerably, so I personally only ran into Peace Corps people when I was in the big city. There was a line the Peace Corps people could not cross, effectively, and it was pretty close in to the major airports. (Most of the smaller airports had fallen into disuse.)

Beyond this line, things would become increasingly remote until you get to what I call the Blender Line. Here, a blender ... the kitchen appliance ... stands in for Western Middle Class Luxuries. These sorts of things, including washers and driers, food processors, and so on, required regular electricity and some sort of supply line. Electricity would typically be supplied by generators on site, but those generators needed to be fed fuel, and the fuel needed the supply line. The Blender Line was beyond the Peace Corps line by about the distance a regular vehicle could drive any time of the year (wet or dry season) in about three hours.

Now, let me be clear. Almost no one living between the city and the blender line actually had a blender. But if you wanted a blender it would be possible to set up a building, a generator, get a blender, have a semi-regular supply of fuel, and plug in a blender.

Beyond the Blender Line was the Beer Line. This was the line beyond which there would be no beer, but within which, beer was available as long as you were willing to store it for a week or two. Since the Beer Line is beyond the Blender Line, the beer will not be refrigerated, but it is amazing how quickly one becomes accustom to the beer being cool and not cold. Beer is carried beyond the Blender line by a combination of methods, including young men on bikes, so the Beer Line is close to a day's regular drive from the cities where the breweries are (meaning, not via 4-wheel drive vehicles). The Beer Line actually penetrated to between 30 and 10 kilometers of our research camp in the Ituri, depending on conditions.

Beyond the beer line was the Anthropologist Line. This line went all the way to the end of the earth as far as one could drive in any motorized vehicle. But not beyond. Most of the researchers with the Ituri Project were quite comfortable relying on very rugged roads that could only be traversed with very rugged vehicles, and not from just any direction and not just any day of the year.

But the didn't go everywhere. Many of the researchers didn't go far into the forest, or into the forest very long. In total, about a half dozen of us lived in the forest, beyond the road, a day or two walk (or more) from the road itself, for days or weeks at a time. So even the Anthropologists (and other researchers) had their limits.

But what about the missionaries, the subject of this series of posts?

Well, that depends. The Catholic Missionaries drank beer, and the Evangelicals did not. Or at least, not so far as I observed for most of them. Well, OK, the Australian Baptists drank beer when there were no other Australian Baptists around, but otherwise no. But the Catholics drank beer and wine on a regular basis, and therefore, they either lived within the limits of the beer line or they did what they needed to do to make sure the beer line was extended out to their more remote missions.

The Evangelicals did not drink beer, so they were not limited by the beer line, but they did strongly prefer, for religious reasons, a middle class lifestyle with the blenders and the washing machines and so on. Therefore, the evangelicals lived within the blender line, and in some cases, did what they needed to do to move the line to where they wanted to be.

But, let me be clear: There were missions in the Ituri Forest that were formerly occupied by Evangelicals but with the steady disintegration of the supply lines in the Eastern Congo at that time were abandoned as the blender line moved back farther and farther towards the cities. The nearest non-Catholic mission stations to our study area were hundreds of kilometers away in most directions, but the nearest Catholic mission was about 50 km away. Yet, 22 miles or so north of our study site was a mission formerly occupied by white, foreign missionaries, with blenders. That was abandoned by them (but not by the Africans who lived there) quite some time before I ever saw it.

Why did the Evangelicals require blenders for religious reasons? Well, there are two or three answers to that question.

What they said: The civilized lifestyle of cleanliness was specified in the scriptures as appropriate. These missionaries had to set an example. The fact that the only way they could manage this was to have a LOT of servant's at every level making this middle class lifestyle work, and that those servants lived in either dormitories or grubby huts, was ... well, things were said to be in transition. And besides, the Africans were accustom to this lifestyle. And besides, this was better than life in the traditional villages. And so on.

What was true: These people were mostly up from trailer trash, or in some cases middle class, and they weren't going to give up this improved lifestyle for nothing. Never. Good thing they had religion to justify the indentured servitude of the African workers.

Out of fairness, though this is still not fair to the servant's, I'll mention by way of comparison that the Catholic missionaries were there as adults with no children, and the Evangelicals were reproducing all over the place. So the missionaries with kids wanted more luxuries. And of course, there were plenty of servants to take care of the kids. And blenders. For baby food and stuff.

More like this

Who would have thought that the beer line is beyond the blender line . But it does make sense given that beer is more important than creamed carrots.

Surely you just make your own beer. Monastery style.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

Brewing halfway drinkable beer in Africa beyond the Blender Line is not exactly straightforward - it's too damn hot. Plus, if you're beyond the Beer Line, you're probably beyond the Malt, Hops and Yeast Line too...

Home 'brew' beyond the beer line has three forms in Central Africa:

1) Palm wine. This comes out of the wine tree ready to drink. It is quite magical.

2) Kases or Kasesi (pronounced "Ka Ses, does not rhyme with english "cases", or Ka Ses ee). There are other names. This is fermented plantain. Comes in 22 liter containers.

3) Kadingi. This is Kases or whatever distilled in a still. It is 100 proof, plus or minus. Puts hair on your chest, then the hair catches on fire.

I have come to realize that there is a generational watershed on the Maginot Line.

Right, but the Maginot Line had become part of day to day speech as a metaphor for all sorts of things. In fact, it was even used in sports, as a war analogy applied in football.

I suppose it may have initially been a metaphor for strength and preparedness, then it became a metaphor for preparing for the wrong thing. Then, the line that would live in infamy faded away, aparently.

Is Pearl Harbor still in our psyche?

Wycliffe missionaries, evangelicals all, at least the ones I knew (I was brought up an MK,) often started work beyond the blender line, and occasionally around the anthropologist line. But I never knew of one who didn't manage to quickly stretch the blender line to include his/her station. After all, they "need" electricity for the translation work, don't they?

Good thing they had religion to justify the indentured servitude of the African workers

Really? Were they not paying them anything, or was that hyperbole (serious question, I have no idea how the servants are paid)?

Indentured servants are usually paid.

But yes, this is snark. They were not legally indentured, but they were spiritually so.

Puts hair on your chest, then the hair catches on fire.

OK, that's a LOL! Reminds me of when my Mom said about something "that'll put hair on your chest... or take it off!"

By David Harmon (not verified) on 27 Jun 2009 #permalink

While in Papua New Guinea I was disappointed not to discover Noel Coward's "vintage coconut wine" which was allegedly served with the yams and clams and human hands. Thankfully I didn't have the experience of being served human hands (but the yams and clams were fine).

I'm glad I've never donated to missionaries though. I've seen baptist missionaries bragging about how they get US$300 per month for each child in their so-called school and how they only actually spend $20-$30 on each child and get to pocket the rest. These particular missionaries were buying rather expensive houses which were also expensively furnished and they sported expensive cars too. Doing the Lord's work sure pays off.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 27 Jun 2009 #permalink

Their is a generational issue involving the Maginot Line? Oh this another thing I am going to have to be bitter about. I am 27, am I in the wrong generation to know about this?

I guess I will have to ask my friends.

Their is a generational issue involving the Maginot Line? Oh this another thing I am going to have to be bitter about. I am 27, am I in the wrong generation to know about this?

I know about it, but I'm French so the generation thing probably doesn't apply.

By Caravelle (not verified) on 28 Jun 2009 #permalink

There is...not Their is. I just saw that error and feel quite stupid.

I'd like to know more about the effect of western religion on the religious fabric of the indigenous society.

The antics of pomposity are a fun read, to be sure. But would it be fair to say that, as an example, the introduction of original sin, and guilt, has a longer lasting and deeper effect?

All across central and south America, native peoples have had customs shredded by western religion. Same for Native Americas here in the US. And the shocking cultural denial to slaves in the US is well known.

What happens in Africa when indigenous values (which, Greg, you don't actually talk much about)â what happens when indigenous social customs and religion are challenged by western religions doctrine? What are the near term doctrinal effects, and the longer term effect on social organization and order?

If you know, of course :-)

By michael Spencer (not verified) on 28 Jun 2009 #permalink

Michael, a lot could be said about this. I can tell you that the degree to which various subgroups of Africans have been affected varies a great deal. FOr the most part, the Efe (Pygmies) I worked with are simply not christians, though they are perfectly happy to go along with the idea that there is this other god that the white people have, and they generally get that the god is vengeful but his son is and OK guy. Otherwise they don't really care much. But that is only one small group.