Plantains and Bananas: “The Staff of Savage Life”

In 1857 Richard Burton, with Speke, explored Zanzibar and the nearby East Africa mainland.  In the following excerpt he details the numerous ways that the banana and plantain parts are put – another example that key food crops in Africa must offer more than something to eat.

Richard Burton and travels in East Africa

Burton was one of the most vocal of colonial racists, whose views influenced future explorers, the Royal Geographic society, and others who sought explanations as to the origins of Africa’s indigenous populations.  He was, however outrageously brilliant and his writings are generally well-researched, though framed by colonial notions of race:

The Musa [banana & plantain], which an old traveller describes as an assemblage of leaves interwoven and twisted together so neatly, that they form a plant about 15 spans high, is an aboriginal of Hindostan, and possibly East Africa where, however, the seeds might easily have been floated from the East
It grows almost spontaneously in Unyamwezi [central Tanzaniaa] and upon the shores of the great inland lakes. Here the banana [and plantain], which maturing rapidly affords a perennial supply of fruit, and whose enormous rate of produce has been described by many writers, is the staff of savage life, windy as the acorn which is supposed to have fed our forefathers in Europe.
[T]hese East Africans apply the plantain to a vast variety of uses, and allow no part of it to be wasted.
  • The stem when green gives water enough to quench the wanderer’s thirst and to wash his hands;
  • The parenchyma has somewhat the taste of cucumber, and sun-dried it is employed for fuel.
  • The fresh cool leaves are converted into rain-pipes, spoons, plates, and even bottles:
  • Desiccated they make thatch, and a substitute for wrapping-papers; and
  • Some have believed that they were the original fig-leaves of the first man and his wife.
  • The trunk-fibre does good service in all the stages between thread and cord. 
  • The fruit yields wine, sugar, and vinegar, besides bread and vegetable, and
  • Even the flower is reduced to powder and mixed with snuff.
Never transplanted and allowed to grow from its own suckers, this banana has now degenerated : it is easy to see, however, that it comes of noble stock. In parts of the interior the people have during a portion of the year little else to live upon but this fruit, boiled, baked, and dried . . .
Source: Richard Burton – Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast (London: Tinsley Brothers, 18, Catherine St. Strand; 1872)
[Chapter VII – The March to Fuga. Ascent of the Highlands of East Africa . . . (Tabora)]

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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6 Responses to Plantains and Bananas: “The Staff of Savage Life”

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