The Spirited Traveller: Dawa, Nairobi's "medicinal" cocktail


'Dawa' means 'medicine' in Swahili, as in 'I need dawa for my headache.' It is also the name of a refreshing cocktail found in Nairobi - and on a hot afternoon, it sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

The drink is a mix of vodka, lime juice, honey, and a little sparkling water, often with sugar around the rim of the glass.

"It comes with a stick so you can stir the honey from the bottom - a 'dawa stick'," explains Beth O'Donnell, an American photographer and artist who also leads safaris in East Africa where she lives several months of the year.

In addition to a cold Tusker Beer, with the iconic African elephant on the label, the Dawa is the drink to request, especially at one of the local hotel bars.

"If I'm in Nairobi and I'm at a bar, I order a Dawa and they'll know what I'm talking about," O'Donnell says.

Failing that, opt for a classic Gin & Tonic - during the British colonial days, the quinine in tonic water was purported to help ward off malaria.

"If you're in Nairobi on a conference, it might be at the Norfolk Hotel ," O'Donnell says.

This historic hotel, which opened in 1904, is famed as the place where "Out of Africa" author Karen Blixen lived in the 1920s, and the Norfolk's terrace bar is a top choice for tippling in old-world colonial-style.

Meanwhile, luxury hotel Tribe in upscale Muthaiga, near the United Nations compound, also offers a prime spot for a poolside drink. Noted as the most modern hotel in the area, O'Donnell describes the bar scene as 'sophisticated', and the environs as 'very First World and shocking to see in Nairobi.'

Then there's Carnivore restaurant, which claims to have invented the Dawa, but is perhaps best known for the meaty offerings (lamb, pork, ostrich, even crocodile) its name suggests. Here, the house drink is delivered on a tray by a "medicine man" named "Dr. Dawa", and brandy, rum and tequila dawas are available in addition to the traditional vodka-based cocktail.

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