It’s particularly popular during the safari equivalent of happy hour. During a traditional sundowner, the game drive breaks to drink cocktails and watch the striking sunset over the African plains. It’s a ritual rooted in British colonial rule that dates back to the 19th century, when sipping gin and tonics had the added benefit of preventing malaria.
Dawa means medicine in Swahili, so one might assume the drink also has curative properties. But, unfortunately, it has no such romantic story. Samson Kivelenge, who has worked at The Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi since it opened in 1980, is credited with naming the cocktail. He explains with a laugh, "It treats your stomach so that you have an appetite for the meat."
"It treats your stomach so that you have an appetite for the meat."
The Carnivore claims to have invented the dawa. As one of Kenya's most famous restaurants, it's known for exotic offerings like grilled giraffe, impala, and wildebeest. The boisterous restaurant still thrives today despite the Kenyan government’s ban on game meats. This is partly thanks to the restaurant’s signature cocktail.
The dawa is actually based on the caipirinha. Company chairman Martin Dunford first tried Brazil’s national drink during a trip that inspired the restaurant, as The Carnivore is modeled after churrascarias combined with the Swahili tradition of grilled meats. He knew a Kenyan twist on the cocktail made with cachaça, sugar, lime, and ice would appropriately complement a meaty menu.
Aside from its refreshing tang, part of the dawa’s allure lies in its eye-catching yet simple presentation.
Replacing funky cachaça (which probably wasn’t widely available in Kenya at the time) with neutral vodka may seem questionable. But the caipiroska, a variation that substitutes vodka, is quite popular in many South American countries. Adding honey also makes the dawa more authentically Kenyan, since the country has a long history of traditional beekeeping.
Kivelenge has specialized in mixing dawas ever since The Carnivore opened over 30 years ago. Today he’s more commonly known as Dr. Dawa, traveling from table to table wearing a 1920s-era cigarette girl-inspired tray carrying the libation's necessities. Not to mention a flamboyant pink feathered hat similar to those worn by African witch doctors.
While vodka remains the most popular spirit for building dawas, Kivelenge believes Kenya Cane is a worthy substitute. The highly-refined spirit is made with triple distilled sugarcane, yielding a clean and neutral flavor that is more similar to vodka than rum. Dr. Dawa doesn’t remain wedded to rules, though. He’ll even fashion a dawa with brandy by request.
Aside from its refreshing tang, part of the Dawa’s allure lies in its eye-catching yet simple presentation. The drink is always served with a large stick resting in the cocktail and leaning comfortably against the side of a tumbler. Beyond the honey, these "dawa sticks" are one of the drink’s distinguishing characteristics, and another key item on Dr. Dawa’s tray. Part swizzle stick and part muddler, it’s a decorative flourish that actually serves a purpose. "It’s a magic stick," Kivelenge states.
Dawa sticks are always dipped directly into honey and rolled until thoroughly coated. The stick then hits a glass already containing a mixture of vodka, sugar, lime juice, quartered limes, and ice. "Because once you're stirring and you mix the honey in it, you get a nice taste," Kivelenge explains, "It dissolves everything."
The Carnivore’s dawa sticks look and feel like they’re made of wood, but they’re actually plastic. For sanitation reasons, the restaurant now prefers these to the originals. Although they're not as rustic, plastic sticks are superior because the honey slips right off (the wood sticks are more porous). Yet, decorative dawa sticks, almost always made of wood, have become a popular souvenir throughout Kenya. Many feature intricate carvings, or even the famous beadwork of the country’s Maasai people.
Despite its presence at sundowners, the dawa is truly a post-colonial cocktail. Of course, Kivelenge thinks it’s worth lingering in the city to try the dawa where it all began. "Yeah, it started here at The Carnivore and all of Nairobi and Kenya, they now copy us," he says. "And the way they make it, they can't make it like us." And he’s right, even though the drink is uncomplicated and easy enough to replicate. No one else, but Dr. Dawa himself, makes it with quite as much flare.