Bananas in the life of the Kikuyu people

Bananas are richer in nutrients than apples
Bananas are richer in nutrients than apples | Source

Bananas are an important food item to the Kikuyu. Every family in Central province of Kenya which is the epicentre of Kikuyu habitation must have a few banana plants. Those with sufficient land make expansive banana forests that bring their families a tidy sum all year round.

The banana plant is the largest herbaceous plant. It produces a delicious fruit that is eaten as a ripe fruit. Some varieties which are known as Plantains are cooked before they ripen to make a delicious meal. According to the Wikipedia, all banana varieties come from two wild species - Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.


Where did bananas come from?

It is claimed from many quarters that the Banana plant made its way to Africa from Asia several hundred years ago. Some scientist now believe that if indeed the banana plant is a migrant from Asia, that movement happened several thousand years ago. Research done in Uganda identified remnants of banana phytoliths that date back over 5000 years ago.

The word Phytoliths means “plant-stones." These are microscopic silica particles in stems and leaves and are unique to specific plants. Phytoliths survive forever after the plant has died and can be identified in the sediments.


A certain agricultral triangle in Uganda has more banana varieties, than all the varieties of the rest of the world put together. Why there should be such a rich diversity in such a fraction of the world is best left to scientists to explain.

Gacukari - one of the sweetest bananas, it is never cooked but prized as ripe fruit
Gacukari - one of the sweetest bananas, it is never cooked but prized as ripe fruit | Source
Gathimo (or Kiganda) - great for cooking
Gathimo (or Kiganda) - great for cooking | Source
Gatumia (or Nyoro) - has the shortest tree.  Prefered as a ripe fruit
Gatumia (or Nyoro) - has the shortest tree. Prefered as a ripe fruit

Importance of bananas to Kikuyu people

The Kikuyu valued bananas as a food item and recognised several varieties. They seemed to know the nutritional value of bananas and used them as the baby’s first solid food. The mother boiled or roasted the banana then chewed it thoroughly. The mother then picked the mashed food from her mouth with her finger and forced it into the baby’s mouth. I was an eyewitness to this baby feeding method in the 60’s and early 70’s. Many adults in Kenya today who grew up in rural areas were fed this way, which is testament that the method was efficient. It is no longer practiced due to heightened knowledge on hygene and germs transmission.

Bananas are roasted on hot charcoal or baked in hot ash for breakfast. They are mostly eaten when ripe as a quick snack. Due to their specific qualities, some are only good when ripe, while others are only good for cooking. Cooking may involve boiling and then mashing into a paste with greens and maize in the mix. This is best served with a stew.

Some varieties of banana never ripen fully and are rosted in that semi ripe stage to give a unique flavour. Others are multipurpose as shown in the list below.


Varieties of bananas in the Kikuyu language

Mũraru – Good when ripe though it remains green. Does not soften when cooked so it is not considered good for cooking.

Mũcuru – Harder than Muraru when cooked, so it is best when eaten as a ripe banana

Mũtahato – Traditionaly considered the best for cooking and the most nutritious. Valued for weaning babies from mother’s milk.

Mũnyawa – A taller tree variety of Mutahato.

Githumo (or Kiganda)– A short and stubby fruit with black linear blotches, it is assumed to have been introduced from the west, hence the name that is derived from Kisumu City and sometimes the country of Uganda. It is Ideal for cooking as it mashes easily. Remains green when ripe.

Gitagara – A taller tree variety of Githumo

Kibunda – When not fully ripe, it is roasted in hot ash as a snack. It is considered better that way than when either cooked or fully ripe.

Gacukari (Wang'ae) – Has the smallest fruits among the known varieties. The name derives from ‘cukari’ (sugar). It is considered the sweetest banana when fully ripe and a bright yellow. It is never cooked.

Nyahũbe – This variety imitates Gacukari but is slightly off-yellow with some freckles when ripe. It is never cooked. They cause a feeling of fulness and gas and one is discouraged from eating too many of them at one go.

Kibutu – Good as a ripe fruit.

Gitogo – Good as a ripe fruit. The skin turns a maroon colour when ripe.

Mbũũ - When not fully ripe, it is roasted in hot ash as a snack. It is considered better that way than when either cooked or fully ripe.

Gatumia (Ndindigiri, Nyoro) – The tree is the shortest in this family of bananas, hence the first name which means ‘small woman.’ The skin turns yellow with freckles. It is prefered as a ripe fruit is very common at roadside stalls.

Kambara – Assumed to have been introduced from the west, hence the name that is derived from Kampala City. It is most likely a tisue culture variety from the Agricultural institute. It turns bright yellow and is very good for cooking or eating as a fruit. The tree is rather tall and requires proping with a 'y' shaped log.

Njayanti (Giant) – Similar to Kambara, this one is certaily an introduction from the Agricultural institute and as the name suggests, it is a giant species.


This list may discount some long held beliefs about the origin of the edible "yellow banana" available in the Western Hemisphere. It is claimed that a Mr. Jean Francois Poujot from Jamaica found a banana plantain plant that had mutated from the ordinary “hardcore green variety”. This mutated plant produced “soft, sweet, tasty banana fruit with a yellow colored skin.” Apparently it is from this variety that the hard core plantain that was only good for cooking was improved for commercial sweet ripe bananas.


Enjoy this banana song by Nyambane, a Kenyan comedian

Nutritional Value of the Banana

The Kikuyu already knew that the banana was Safe and pure enough for baby's first solid food, as has been declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Below is a list of the nutrients contained in this wonderful fruit.


  • Dietary Fiber
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Niacin
  • Protein
  • Riboflavin
  • Vitamin
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin C
  • Potassium


No part of the Banana goes to waste.


The leaves of the banana are used for wrapping cooked food, roasted meat or as ‘table cloths’ on which to place fresh food. The leaves may also be used to suppress escaping steam in a boiling pot. Banana leaves are good fodder for cattle and goats.


The stem is fleshy with a lot of water. It is chopped into small pieces and given to cattle as fooder. It is not very nutritious though. Cattle fed entirely on this fibrous fleshy chunks are known to lose standing strength during drought periods.


The Flower - At the end of the banana bunch is a vestigial bulb that was part of the flower. This bulb, called a ‘mukono’ in Kikuyu is used as a cap for containers that hold liquids.


References

1. Africa’s Earliest Bananas by Peter Robertshaw - http://www.archaeology.org/0609/abstracts/bananas.html


2. Evolution of the Banana - http://www.tytyga.com/Evolution-of-the-Banana-Plant-a/353.htm


3. http://www.chiquitabananas.com/Worlds-Favorite-Fruit/index-banana-nutrition-facts.aspx

4. Wikipedia



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Comments 10 comments

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Glad you liked this hub Paul. Here the leaves are never eaten except as fodder for cattle so that's an interesting fact you have added, including the festival. Lore has it that there once was a great famine and the only thing left to eat was the root of the banana - the only time the root was eaten. Thanks for commenting and sharing. I am planning to get photos of all the varieties I have included here.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

Emmanuel,

This is a very interesting and useful hub about the uses of all the varieties of bananas the Kikuyu people have. I wasn't very interested in bananas until I came to Thailand and saw how they are used here. We don't have as many different types as you; however, we do have what is called a "finger banana" which is very delicious. As you mentioned in your hub, no part of the banana plant is wasted. The leaves in Thailand are used primarily for wrapping cooked desserts. Parts of the leaves are also eaten in some Thai dishes as "pad Thai." During the Loi Krathong festival in November, the Thais create a Krathong which is a little boat formed from banana leaves, put a candle on it, and float it (Loi) down a stream for good luck and to remove any sins a person has. Voted up and sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Here's tip for you DDE - you can put a raw green banana in the microwave for about seven minutes with its peel still on. Peel it and eat it as a snack with your tea and it will taste great, just like an ash baked banana.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Yes so true one of my favorite treats for any time of day. Thanks for informing me on such a good fruit


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

More bananas coming up claudiafox - I will check the link - thanks


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Thanks for the banarama. And Australia has its big banana. Once s sign - it has now turned into a business. http://www.bigbanana.com/aboutthebigbanana.html


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

@ claudiafox - Thanks for your comment. I will be posting pictures later so that we can compare with the one in your garden and the three available in Australia. Perhaps they are among the 15 listed above.

@cuttler - The myth about the Kikuyu being a 'potato' is a recent creation. Potatoes ware introduced by the British in the late 1800's as the 'Irish Potato.' Previously the Kikuyu had 'sweet potatoes and Yams' for tubers. Even cassava is a recent introduction via the portuguese at the coast but much earlier than the potato. Thanks for commenting and revising your opinion.

@ChitrangadaSharan - Thanks for your comment. I will be updating soon so stay with me.


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

We have bananas here too, but only about three varieties appear for sale. I have one in my garden and it looks like a very very big grass plant. The flower opens like the boot of a car. Amazing. What God has made.


cuttler profile image

cuttler 3 years ago from HubPages

Hello again? I always thought the Kikuyu to be a potato people, but the depth of this hub has made me think twice. I wonder how the importance of bananas to the Kikuyu compares to that of the Abagusii. Nice hub


ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

That's a lot of information about bananas in your region, that is Kikuyu......truly I had no idea about it.

Thanks for sharing this interesting information.

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