Rwanda: Tracing the Origins and Role of Bananas in the Rwandan Culture

King Yuhi III Mazimpaka, who ruled Rwanda from 1645 to 1675, is mostly remembered to have been exceptionally handsome, intelligent and creative. He was also a poet, with his perfect art “Singikunda Ukundi” loosely translated as I never love again being among the famous.

However, this young king is reported to have had mental health issues, causing him to make some wild orders during his condition’s episodes.

For instance, he reportedly once ordered that some of his close friends and servants be killed. After a few days, he asked for them saying it had been long without seeing them.

His servants told him that he had ordered that they be killed and he was genuinely shocked because he couldn’t imagine himself ordering something like that.

He asked the servants: “was I in my senses?” But since it would have been disrespectful, even a taboo to tell him he wasn’t, they all kept quiet.

One of his young servants lied to him that he made the order while he was drunk. He asked him what he had taken, and the servant replied “urwagwa,” a local banana beer.

Mazimpaka then ordered that from that moment, no one in his family or generations to come would even take a sip on banana beer because of the harm it had allegedly caused. It then became inferior to sorghum beer (ikigage), even until now. In cultural functions that require alcohol, it will never be banana beer, but sorghum beer.

The ban on banana beer continued even until the last king’s reign and among families of high ranking officials, although the general population kept enjoying the beer and growing banana extensively.

Around 1957, King Mutara III Rudahigwa hosted a party at his home in Nyanza, and people around the kingdom were invited.

One of them from Bugoyi upon his return narrated to his neighbours how he was shocked that the palace didn’t have even a single banana plant, yet every household had them.

Banana fields were very important in the culture because the produce would be used for different things. They would eat bananas, but they would also make juice and beer from them.

Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a historian, told The New Times that several decades ago, children from wealthy families would inherit cows from their parents, while the rest would inherit banana fields.

Now, at least 90 per cent of households in Rwanda grow banana, and the crop covers 23 percent of the country’s arable land.

People in the city where limited agriculture is done also grow it, even when they don’t grow anything else but a few flowers.

This is mainly because it doesn’t require much attention and is climate resistant. It also grows throughout the year.

Despite the fact that an average Rwandan consumes about 227 kilograms of banana per year, which makes the country the second largest consumer in the world, this food is not considered Rwandan, at least culturally.

This is most evident in the annual Umuganura celebrations (thanksgiving) on the first Friday of August where sweet potatoes, beans, maize, and cassava are served, but banana.

Some will even confuse you to be Ugandan or to have grown up from there if you love it so much.

Restaurants that serve local food, including mashed green boiled bananas are mostly referred to as those with “Ugandan food.”

There is no lie though. Mugabowagahunde told The New Times that researchers trace the introduction of banana to Rwanda to 1400s, on Mibambwe I Sekarongoro I Mutabazi’s reign when the king of Bunyoro (now in Uganda) attacked Rwanda and took over for some years.

“They initially wanted to take cows, but after winning, they settled and introduced some of the crops that included banana,” Mugabowagahunde said.

Moreover, he adds that while he agrees that the king of Bunyoro introduced it, he thinks that based on another research that says banana plants were in Uganda 500 years before the birth of Christ, banana plants were also in Rwanda but could have failed because of pests and re-introduced in the 1400s.

Centuries later, Rwandans have been growing banana which is eaten when boiled, mashed, as dessert and even brewed into beer. Even in bars, brochettes will occasionally be served with boiled or fried green bananas.

A decade ago, banana was the second most cultivated crop after beans in the country, except the former was mainly for beer.

Rwandans have always frowned upon eating banana anyway, whether boiled or for dessert, according to Mugabowagahunde.

“Rwandans grew banana especially for beer. Even yellow bananas which were later introduced by colonialists were only for children,” he said.

Despite the fact that bananas are a good source of several vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, Rwandans have always chosen their bottle of beer, and not much has changed.

Rwanda’s banana beer growth reduced from 90 per cent of all bananas in 1990, to 71 per cent currently.

Furthermore, Rwanda’s consumption of alcohol has already been proved problematic, according to experts.

The country is one of the top fifty in the world with a relatively high level of total alcohol consumption per capita among men, and the first in the region.

A 2018 UN report portrayed that Uganda, Rwanda and Seychelles consumed the equivalent of approximately 11 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2016, more than in Europe (10.3 litres) and the United States (9.3 litres), and far above the global and African averages of 6.4 and 6.0 litres respectively.

However, this is not news. Traditionally, every milestone is celebrated with alcohol and so is every grief washed down with it.

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