Amasi, Nelson Mandela’s Favourite Drink

Last Saturday marked the 27th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, after he had spent 27 years incarcerated. In honour of Madiba we thought that we would talk about one of his favourite drinks, amasi.

Amasi, or maas, is a drink made from fermented milk. Some people believe that this traditional Zulu drink came about because of a lack of refrigeration in rural villages, while others speculate that Zulu people are genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance. Regardless of the reason, it’s a drink that’s been consumed by the Zulus for eons, and still  remains a popular beverage today. Traditionally amasi is prepared by pouring unpasteurised ‘green’ milk (fresh milk) into an igula (calabash) and putting it in the sun to ferment. The fermented milk develops a watery substance called umlaza*, with the remainder being amasi. The thick amasi is mixed with porridge to make pap, or drunk by itself, where it would traditionally be served in an ukhamba (clay pot). It’s thought that amasi makes men strong, and protects children from diarrhoea. It’s also used to cure mouth ulcers and thrush.

Nelson & Winnie Mandela, after Mandela's release from prison, 11th February 1990
Nelson & Winnie Mandela after Mandela’s release from prison, 11th February 1990

Ironically, being Mandela’s favourite drink, it’s also the thing that nearly got him caught while he was in hiding. While staying in a flat in a white suburb in Johannesburg, Mandela put some bottles of fresh milk on the windowsill to ferment. One day he overheard some African men discussing the milk, and how strange it was that someone should be preparing amasi in an area where only white people lived. They thought something was suspicious and were trying to decide what to do about it. Shortly after this incident Mandela decided that it was time to move on, and over the years often referred back to this silly mistake that he had made.

* Umlazi in Durban was purportedly named after umlaza: it’s believed that when King Shaka was passing through the area, he refused to drink from a local river claiming it had the taste of umlaza

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