From its cradle land in South-east Asia, the banana crop was introduced on the Coast by Arab traders between 100 and 300 AD.
It then spread to the interior of the country to the far west of modern Tanzania and then northwards to the Great Lakes region.
Buganda and Busoga in Uganda became its major centres of diversification and spread into western Kenya, initially among the Luhya, then the Luo and the Gusii.
The crop also spread from the Coast towards the Mount Kenya region among the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu.
The diffusion of the banana crop inland never necessarily involved the physical movement of communities.
Instead, it simply spread from one community to the other. This happened for several reasons.
First, because people found it attractive as a cultivar, second, it mostly spread to areas with cool and wet climates and deep mineral-rich soils.
Third, it was mainly adopted by cultivating communities who did not have problems fitting it into their agricultural calendar.
As banana diffused into the interior, it adapted itself to specific climatic and soil conditions and became genetically differentiated into more than 20 varieties.
Some of these, particularly plantains, were either cooked or roasted and eaten with many types of relish.
Others were pounded, dried and ground into flour and used to make ugali. Some varieties that were never cooked were allowed to ripen into sweet fruits and eaten as dessert. Bananas were also used for brewing beer.
BEYOND HUMAN NUTRITION
But bananas’ value was beyond human nutrition. Dried banana sheaths and leaves were used for thatching houses, as fodder for livestock, for mulching, making of ropes and baskets, round supports for water and beer pot and also for balancing water pots during transportation on head from wells and rivers.
They were also used for safe keeping of snuff and the making of aesthetic and religious objects like hats, skirts and human figurines used during funerals and other rituals.
Once grown, the plant took 15 to 18 months to yield fruits, which ranged from 10 to 15 clusters per bunch.
By this time, the mother plant already produced suckers that replicated its life. Some of the suckers were uprooted and used as seedlings.
The banana became a source of larger amounts of food and enhanced peoples’ food security by broadening the range of their diet and enriching it with carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamins C and A. As a consequence, it led to population increase.
The banana was a labour-saving crop, which also enabled communities that planted it to establish more permanent settlements than before.
Millet and sorghum, which preceded it, were seasonal crops that had encouraged shifting cultivation. The banana secured land ownership and control by men.
Moreover, banana production led to inter-ethnic economic and cultural contacts, which, in turn, different degrees of assimilation.
For instance, in central Kenya, Kikuyu and Meru communities who grew bananas at the higher, cooler and more fertile areas around Mount Kenya often travelled to relatively dryer and hunger-stricken areas, including Kambaland, Tharaka, Mumoni, Migwani and Mbeere.
Here, they exchanged surplus agricultural produce, including bananas, for livestock, animal fat, hides, iron and honey.
PROLIFERATION OF THE MONEY ECONOMY
A similar inter-regional commercial network developed between the Suba in Rusinga and Mfangano islands and Gwassi, on the one hand and the Baganda, Ssese Island and Basoga in present-day Uganda and the Bakerebe in the Ukerewe islands in Tanzania, and the Yimbo inhabitants in Mageta Island and the Samia in Kenyand.
Salt, which was manufactured at Sindo in Kaksingri near Mbita was the major item of commercial attraction.
The traders, who travelled in canoes to Rusinga, Mfangano and the shores of Gwassi, bought the salt with foodstuffs, including dried bananas (owugeke in Kisuba). They also carried with them iron implements and the famed Buganda bark cloth.
During the British colonial rule in Kenya between 1895 and 1963, banana fortunes officially changed.
Colonial administrators and European settlers largely neglected it alongside other indigenous fruits. African communities continued growing bananas on their own very much in the traditional manner.
Its production and sale were aided by the proliferation of the money economy, urbanisation, the emergence of plantation and urban labour.
Large quantities of bananas were sold to urban and plantation workers as they subsidised their less nutritious maize meal.
It was not after the 1930s that the Department of Agriculture began to record the quantities and value of bananas produced and exported by African communities.
But the records were quite intermittent and only covered the three districts in Central province: Kiambu, Nyeri and Fort Hall (Murang’a).
For instance, in 1932, it was reported that valued at (Kenyan Pound) K£243,125, banana represented 34 per cent of exports from the province. Later in 1944, it was reported that Nyeri alone produced 658 metric tonnes valued at K£3,000.
WITCHCRAFT AND BIBLICAL APOCALYPSE
In 1949, Murang’a produced 160 tonnes valued at K£12,000. These were the peak years of banana production in Central Province and it was attributed to favourable prices.
The quantities would have been much bigger but for the stringent colonial rule which prohibited inter-planting of coffee with bananas.
After the Emergency was lifted in 1960, people in Central Province became more interested in coffee, tea and pyrethrum, which appeared to be better paying.
It was during this period that the Gusii and other communities commenced a more intensive banana growing to fill in the void.
The Gusii successively grew bananas around Sunika, then Nyakoe and presently around Keumbu and parts of Nyamira.
Among the neighbouring Luo, banana growing was widespread in Kamagambo and the higher and wetter parts of Kasipul and Kabondo.
The shifts and decline in banana production demonstrate the problems that continue to face growers today.
The black Sigatoka disease, which damages banana leaves and the Fusarian wilt that attack the stem and pests such as nematodes and weevils that attack the rhizome and roots are highly responsible.
Most of the peasant farmers, in their ignorance, attribute the decline in banana growing in their respective areas to witchcraft and the Biblical apocalypse.
The banana diseases are manageable through better farming methods, including constant weeding; thinning or de-suckering; de-leafing and the use of the cut leaves for mulching; intercropping; uprooting diseased crops; and application of pesticides and herbicides such as Round-up, Gesapax, Gesaprim and Gramaxone.
Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University, [email protected]