Litter Pick

This morning the ICS Volunteers in Kamachumu – more on them soon – organised a litter pick in town.  Canadian translation: picking up garbage.  The 17 volunteers (citizens of the UK and of Tanzania), members of their host families, me, some KAVIPE staff, miscellaneous community members and an army of children set out kusafisha mazingira (to clean up the environment).


Those of us who speak Swahili were given the task of explaining to the people of Kamachumu what we were up to.  Everyone was asking questions once they saw the volunteers outfitted in their VSO headbands, gloves and garbage bags; an excellent opportunity to increase awareness on protecting the environment, community spirit and volunteerism.  One of the Tanzanian volunteers got a text from his friend in Dar es Salaam saying, hey, I hear you guys are picking litter in Kamachumu!  Word travels fast by African mobile….

One thing we discovered is that the Western idea of taka taka (trash) is not the same as the Tanzanian concept: to us, things foreign to the environment, that don’t break down, are litter, i.e., plastic, glass, metal and to a lesser degree, cloth and cardboard.  People helping out were initially bringing lots of leaves, banana stems, sticks; which to us are not such an issue when you see them on the side of the road.  We took the opportunity to explain why plastic is worse than banana leaves.

Then, the rain came.


We hid at the Paradise Hotel Tea Room.


We got a range of responses to the activity.  Most people were really thankful and thought the site of a bunch of mzungu picking up trash was hilarious.  Some people just stared blankly.  A few derisive snorts, and one guy who asked, unpleasantly, if we were going to recycle all the plastic (I wish!).  Wilson, one of the KAVIPE Board members, said that although people generally keep the areas around their homes/farms clear of litter, nobody is responsible for the public areas, and little care is taken about the litter issue.  

My take-home idea was to put the legion of willing children and young adults to work every Sunday after the weekly market, by far the dirtiest part of town.  Kamachumu’s Environment Warriors?!  I’m in for that task! 

We also plan to find some garbage cans/rubbish bins to place around the busy areas in town – made of local materials like woven banana leaves!

Next time, we’ll budget for more gloves.  More gloves = more potential participants!


Banana Mnyauko

Pronouced mm-nya-ou-ko, this crippling banana disease is number one on famers’ list of problems here in the Kagera Region of Tanzania. Its English name is Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW). Don’t ask me how that’s pronounced.

In 2001, this bacterial banana disease was detected in Uganda.  Despite quick action to control the disease at every level – commercial production down to the subsistence farmer – within five years it had spread to Rwanda, DRC and Tanzania.

Why is it such a big deal? First of all, cooking banana is the main food source, usually boiled with beans and lots of salt in a dish called matoke (ma-toh-kay).  Most of the population eat it at least once a day and it’s often the only thing eaten, all day.  Every family has a little farm (shamba) in their backyard, which is principally a small banana plantation with other crops grown in the understory. Bananas are perennial, so it works well as a holistic system, with corn, pumpkin, coffee, fruit trees and beans all under the shade of the bananas. Since banana is the staple food, and everyone has them growing year-round, people generally can feed their families from the small shambas. Generally. Until banana disease comes into play.

Beautifully diverse shamba, or small backyard farm, complete with banana, corn, beans and goats!

Cultivated bananas are naturally susceptible to disease outbreak since they propagate through clones, small offshoots of the main stem, called suckers. Once the main stem produces a fruit, it dies and a sucker grows up to replace it, producing its own fruit in 7 months or so. When you want to plant a new banana tree (not actually a tree but a pseudostem!), you simply take a sucker and plant it somewhere new; thus bananas of a certain variety are all genetically very similar, with similar susceptibility to invading pests. So disease spreads fast.

It’s only a matter of time until an intensively cultivated banana population becomes challenged with serious disease pressure. The bananas we eat in North America – bright yellow, having been artificially ripened in rooms flooded with ethylene – are of the Cavendish variety.  Cavendish replaced the previous popular variety, Gros Michel, when it was all but wiped out by the fungal Panama disease in the 50’s.  Wikipedia informs me that Cavendish has 10-20 years before it goes the same way as Gros Michel (from a different disease, of course).

The staple food here in Kagera is going the same way as Gros Michel unless a solution is found, which will probably involve genetic modification for a resistant variety.  Think potato famine.  Right now, extension officers preach cutting down infected stems and burying them, sterilization of tools used in the shamba, cutting off the male flower to discourage spread by pollinators (insects and birds), and ensuring that new stock is disease-free.  Lack of adherence to these measures, and the highly infectious nature of the bacteria, mean that not much control has been achieved.

Farmers say that about 1 in 5 new banana plants produce viable fruit.  Not only is it the staple food but many people make their living from bananas as well, so lack of food and lack of income with which to replace that food has meant a severe decrease in standard of living since 2006.  People complain they are no longer able to buy soap and pay their children’s school fees.

Banana plants infected with mnyauko

I heard some of these stories the other day, when I went with some of my youth volunteers (two from the UK and two Tanzanians) and the Ward Agricultural Officer (a woman!) to meet with a banana producer’s group.  I sat back to take notes, letting the volunteers direct the meeting, as they were collecting information about the group’s knowledge of mnyauko.

I wavered between annoyance and tears upon hearing the outpouring of desolate stories; the latter because I know they’re true, the former because people try hard to make their words resonate when they see three white faces sitting there.  From experience I know how to highlight that I am only offering the exchange of knowledge, before I even walk in.  It’s best to keep expectations low even if you do have hopes of finding funds, otherwise you end up with a room full of people yelling at you; what are you going to do about it?!  “It”, mnyauko, has researchers across the region stumped.  No, we are not offering loans, chemical pesticides (none are effective), or money.  The worst part is that in cases where a crop variety must be replaced by something more pest-resistant, farmers tend to be resistant as well… to the switch.

The meeting was informative for the volunteers and for me.  We managed to mitigate expectations after a few tense moments.  People are sick of hearing about control measures in the face of their potato famine.  They’re sick of talking, of knowledge exchange, of pamphlets.  Solutions are in demand, but nobody has any.

Daily banana market on my street in Kamachumu – people mostly bring their bananas by bicycle

A few [poorly cited] sources.

East African Highland Banana:

Bouwmeester et al. 2010. The Potential Benefits of GIS Techniques in Disease and Pest Control: an Example Based on a Regional Project in Central Africa:

Viljoen 2010. Protecting the African Banana (Musa spp.): Prospects and Challenges:

Biruma et al. 2007. Banana Xanthomonas wilt: a review of the disease, management strategies and future research directions:

Adriko et al. 2011. Banana Xanthomonas wilt sampling procedures: A technical publication: