The brewer of a batch of traditional homemade beer is listed among nearly 70 people who died after drinking it following a funeral in Mozambique, leaving authorities with many questions.
Mozambique has declared three days of mourning over the deaths that occurred this past weekend. More than 100 people were hospitalized; dozens of them remain in the hospital.
The deaths have been traced to a batch of pombe, a beer often made from millet, corn and sorghum that a crowd of people drank after a funeral in Chitima in the province of Tete Friday afternoon. The first deaths occurred early Saturday.
Many of the victims are related to one another. The woman who made the beer died along with several members of her family.
Investigators are working to determine whether the poisoning was intentional or accidental, Attorney General Beatriz Buchili tells Radio Mozambique. The news agency adds that there are reports that a large container that held the pombe has gone missing.
Samples from the victims and from some of the beer have been sent for testing in both Mozambique and South Africa.
In the small village of Chitima, the scope of the poisoning is straining resources. Many of the dead had to be buried Sunday, Radio Mozambique says, because the local morgue couldn’t accommodate all the bodies.
“It’s the first time we’ve faced such a tragedy,” regional health director Carla Mosse tells the news agency.
Pombe is a drink that’s long been common in East Africa. Historical accounts from the 1800s describe how it has traditionally been brewed by women.
Some health officials in Mozambique reportedly believe the beer may have been poisoned with crocodile bile, a “deadly greenish-brown liquid, produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder,” the AP says.
The agency adds: “When a crocodile is killed, the bile of the animal must be immediately removed and buried in front of witnesses to prove that it has not fallen into the wrong hands, to be used as poison, according to some African traditions.”
But Forbes writer David Kroll notes that there has been some doubt over the toxicity of crocodile bile, citing a researcher’s theory that the bile might have been only one ingredient in a poison mixture that also includes lethal plants.