Big Green Bananas
Wow they eat a lot of bananas in Uganda. Not the sweet familiar bananas that we eat in the UK but big green ones which we call Plantain but Ugandans call Matoke (Ma-toke-ay).
Matoke is to a Ugandan what Potatoes are to the Irish, they are intertwined. (Any Irish person wanting to refute their country’s proximity to potatoes should know that Ugandans refer to potatoes as Irish). Today in parts of rural Uganda you can see a modern example of a population so reliant on one crop that if that crop were to fail it would lead to widespread starvation. It would make a great field trip for anyone studying Ireland’s potato famine. To give you an example of how heavily some Ugandan’s rely on Matoke I can tell you a story from a hospital we visited recently in Southern Uganda; here they often treat children suffering from malnutrition, not because they have nothing to eat, but because all they have been fed is Matoke and Matoke does not contain all the nutrients that a child needs.
You have to feel sorry for these fructivourous children. On top of the fact that their poor diet is a fairly good indicator that their family is impoverished, eating Matoke is horrible. I’ve never liked bananas so I may not be the best judge, but frankly it is barely edible. I think over time your body grows accustomed to whatever it is that provides the bulk of your carbohydrates and you start to crave it when hungry; by this process most Ugandan’s are life long Matoke addicts from early childhood, but sadly for me, I think it might be too late. I’m refusing to touch the stuff.
I understand that if you did want to cook Matoke you have to peel the hard white bananas with a potato peeler or knife and wrap them in leaves and steam this bundle in a pot, usually over a charcoal fire. I don’t know exactly how long you have to steam it for but I’d guessing it is at least a day. The result is usually mashed up into a tasteless, sticky, yellow, stoge.
Everywhere you go you see the bright green bunches of Matoke being transported. On market day the big roads in and out of Kampala are clogged with mud smeared, battered trucks belching black smoke and piled high with Matoke. (Even trucks that aren’t transporting Matoke have a few bunches poking out of somewhere presumably for the driver). If you look closely at the side of these trucks, through the mud smears, you notice that the majority of them have Japanese Kanji written on them. Most of the vehicles here are imported second hand from Japan (where they also drive on the left). Uganda is where Japanese trucks go to die.
As you get further out of the city you start to see people transporting Matoke on push bikes. The Matoke bunches are sold with the stalk still attached. The stalk hooks back on itself (as though the bunch tried to grow straight up, but then wilted back down with the weight of the fruit) the stalks are used to hook bunches onto bikes anywhere possible, if you can’t hook it on then tie it on. Usually you see two bunches attached on either side of the back wheel, like panniers, then as many bunches as you can manage on top of these above the back wheel and, if you’re happy to push the bike instead of ride, a bunch hooked onto the frame’s cross bar (picture).
You also regularly see people carrying Matoke on their heads, though not so much in the city. A bunch of bananas is a fairly irregular shape so the fact that people can carry them on their heads for any distance is quite an achievement. I saw two little barefoot boys, only six or seven years old, each with a bunch of Matoke half their size balanced on their head. They were walking along a dirt track on the top of a very high ridge in the mountains that separate Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The effort of trekking up there was almost enough to kill me. I don’t know where they were taking their Matoke, but if they were taking it all the way down to the little village in the valley, or even half way (and God knows how far they had come already), they’d have needed the strength of an ant, the agility of a mountain goat and the posture of a gymnast; there may be something in this Matoke after all.