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Bananas in the life of the Kikuyu people
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.
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
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin C
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.
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