This is a special post, excerpted and modified from my book, designed for kids, visiting from The Mini Page, a syndicated feature published in over 500 newspapers every week.
There is no place on earth where bananas are more important than Uganda. Uganda grows eleven million tons of the fruit each year. That counts out to more than 500 pounds per person annually — twenty times more than we Americans peel and eat. In remote villages, where there are few other crops, banana consumption stretches toward the unbelievable: as much as 970 pounds each year for each person. That’s ten bananas per day! In some communities, a banana tree can be found in front of every household. It might have grown there for generations, feeding both infants and grandparents: a century of nutrition in just a few square feet.
The Ugandan fruit, known as the “East African Highland Banana,” is also eaten in the circle of nations surrounding Lake Victoria – the world’s second largest lake, in the mountains on the eastern side of the continent. But bananas are more than just something to dine on. In these nations – Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Kenya, along with Uganda – bananas are sometimes used as money. A farmer might take out a small loan and pay it back with bananas. The harvested crop might work its way through a network of middlemen, transported from village to village by bicycle or boat, the same way a dollar bill goes from your pocket to the cash register at your grocery store, and then on to another shopper as change.
There are dozens of types of bananas in this part of the world, and each has a special purpose. There’s a special breed of banana that’s consumed when twins are born. Another marks the passing of a relative. Another helps guarantee prosperity. There are bananas that, if eaten, help return a straying spouse; another will help childless couples start families. Songs are written about bananas, but they are not commercial jingles, like our Chiquita banana song. They are historic documents, telling tales of birth, death, and renewal.
Ugandan bananas – with names like Monga Love, Mbouroukou, and Ngomba Liko – are grown green, and never exported beyond regional markets. All are about double the size of the bananas we slice into our breakfast cereal, and even cooked, taste more like a potato than a fruit. At the center of all of this is matooke, the word that is used interchangeably, in many parts of this region, for both “food” and “banana.” For Ugandans, nothing says “welcome home” more than this comfort food, served on a banana leaf saucer. It is the macaroni and cheese of the African lakes region. The dish is made by mashing green bananas, wrapping them in their own leaves, and roasting them over a smoky, open fire. A proper matooke will be accompanied by tonto, a banana beer. Kids have the option of sipping a bit of banana juice.
Uganda and its neighbors are not a paradise. Refugees from the war-torn nations of Rwanda and Burundi are crowded into camps on the country’s borders, holding an estimated 1.5 million orphans. Uganda’s cities are impoverished, and basic services are lacking. But one problem the nation has rarely faced is hunger.
“Uganda doesn’t endure famine, and to a great extent that is because of bananas,” said Joseph Mukiibi, the former director of the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organization said, at the opening of a laboratory devoted to the study of the fruit in his country. If famine and war generally appear as part of the same tragic cycle – and they do, according to the International Red Cross – then the African banana is more than just a nutritious or ritual object. It is a peacekeeper.