Banana republic

14/03/2014 11:05

Written by Philip Briggs

Banana tree Rwanda Marian Szengel WikipediaWith its distinctive tall green stem topped by a luxuriant clump of thick, wide leaves, the banana (or plantain, known locally as insina) is an integral feature of the Rwandan landscape, occupying a full 35% of the country’s cultivated land. Grown at a wide range of altitudes – from as low as 800m to above 2,000m – the banana thrives in Rwanda’s characteristically moist climate, and is unquestionably the most important cash crop countrywide, accounting for 60–80% of the income
of most subsistence-level households.

(Photo: © Marian Szengel, Wikipedia)

So it might come as a surprise to many visitors to learn that the banana is not indigenous to Rwanda – or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. One Ugandan legend has it that the first banana plant was brought to the region by Kintu, whose shrine lies on a hill called Magonga (almost certainly a derivative of a local Ugandan name for the banana) alongside a tree said to have grown from the root of the plant he originally imported. If this legend is true, it would place the banana’s arrival in East-central Africa in perhaps the 13–15th century, probably from the Ethiopian highlands. Most botanists argue, however, that the immense number of distinct varieties grown in the region could not have been cultivated within so short a period – a time span of at least 1,000 years would be required.

Only one species of banana, Musa ensete, is indigenous to Africa, and it doesn’t bear edible fruit. The more familiar cultivated varieties have all been propagated from two wild Asian species, M. acuminata and M. balbisiana and hybrids thereof. Wild bananas are almost inedible and riddled with hard pits, and it is thought that the first edible variety was cultivated from a rare mutant of one of the above species about 10,000 years ago – making the banana one of the oldest cultivated plants in existence.

Edible bananas were most likely cultivated in Egypt before the time of Christ, presumably having arrived there via Arabia or the Indian Ocean. The Greek sailor and explorer Cosmas Indicopleustes recorded that edible bananas grew around the port of Adulis, in present-day Eritrea, circa ad525 – describing them as ‘moza, the wild-date of India’.

The route via which the banana reached modern-day Rwanda is open to conjecture. The most obvious point of origin is Ethiopia, the source of several southward migrations in the past two millennia. But it is intriguing that while the banana is known by a name approximating the generic Latin Musa throughout Asia, Arabia and northeast Africa – ‘moz’ in Arabic and Persian, for instance, or ‘mus’ or ‘musa’ in various Ethiopian languages and Somali – no such linguistic resemblance occurs in East Africa, where it is known variously as ‘ndizi’, ‘gonja’, ‘matoke’, ‘insina’ et al.

This peculiarity has been cited to support a hypothesis that the banana travelled between Asia and the East African coast either as a result of direct trade or else via Madagascar, and that it was entrenched there before regular trade was established with Arabia. A third possibility is that the banana reached east-central Africa via the Congolese Basin, possibly in association with the arrival of Bantu-speakers from West Africa.

However it arrived, the banana has certainly flourished there, forming the main subsistence crop for most people in the region – indeed, Rwanda’s mean banana consumption of almost 2kg per person per week ranks among the highest in the world. Some 50 varieties are grown in the region, divided into four broad categories based on their primary use – most familiar are sweet bananas, eaten raw as a snack or dessert, while other more floury varieties areused especially for boiling (like potatoes), roasting, or distillation into banana beer or wine.

The banana’s uses are not restricted to feeding bellies. The juice from the stem is traditionally regarded to have several medicinal applications, for instance as a cure for snakebite and for childish behaviour. Pulped or scraped sections from the stem also form very effective cloths for cleaning.

The outer stem can be plaited to make a strong rope, while the cleaned central rib of the leaf is used to weave fish traps and other items of basketry. The leaf itself forms a useful makeshift umbrella, and was traditionally worn by young girls as an apron. The dried leaf is a popular bedding and roofing material, and is also used to manufacture the head pads on which Rwandan women generally carry their loads.

The banana as we know it is a cultigen – modified by humans to their own ends and totally dependent on them for its propagation. The domestic fruit is the result of a freak mutation that gives the cells an extra copy of each chromosome, preventing the normal development of seeds, thereby rendering the plant edible but also sterile. Every cultivated banana tree on the planet is effectively a clone, propagated by the planting of suckers or corms cut from ‘parent’ plants. This means that, unlike sexually reproductive crops, which experience new genetic configurations in every generation, the banana is unable to evolve mechanisms to fight off new diseases.

In early 2003, a report in the New Scientist warned that cultivated bananas are threatened with extinction within the next decade, due to their lack of defence against a pair of fungal diseases rampant in most of the world’s banana-producing countries. These are black sigatoka, an airborne disease first identified in Fiji in 1963, and the soil-borne Panama Disease, also known as Fusarium Wilt. Black sigatoka can be kept at bay by regular spraying – every ten days or so – but it is swiftly developing resistance to all known fungicides, which in any case are not affordable to the average subsistence farmers. There is no known cure for Panama Disease.

So far as can be ascertained, Panama Disease does not affect any banana variety indigenous to Rwanda or neighbouring countries, but it has already resulted in the disappearance of several introduced varieties. Black sigatoka, by contrast, poses a threat to every banana variety in the world. It has been present throughout Uganda for some years, where a progressive reduction exceeding 50% has been experienced in the annual yield of the most seriously affected areas, and recent reports suggest it is rapidly spreading into parts of Rwanda and the DRC. In addition to reducing the yield of a single plant by up to 75%, black sigatoka can also cut its fruit-bearing life from more than 30 years to less than five.

International attempts to clone a banana tree resistant to both diseases have met with one limited success – agricultural researchers in Honduras have managed to produce one such variety, but it reputedly doesn’t taste much like a banana. Another area of solution is genetic engineering – introducing a gene from a wild species to create a disease-resistant edible banana.

Although ecologists are generally opposed to the genetic modification of crops, the domestic banana should perhaps be considered an exception, given its inability to spread its genes to related species – not to mention its pivotal importance to the subsistence economies of some of the world’s poorest countries, Rwanda among them.

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