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:

Beauty In Karagwe: Perched On The Edge of The World

“A beautiful view does not fill your stomach” – Peter Moore in Swahili for the Broken-Hearted

I could fill ten blog posts with what I’ve seen in the past three days. Not to mention that the two previous weeks still have blog-able events pending.

During In Country Training, we had a presentation in which someone said “there is no doubt that this picture shows abject poverty”. All I recall is that it was a mud house. I remember thinking, how does one make that statement from looking at a picture? I feel the same way about the images of World Vision children – protruding bellies and flies in their eyes*. I’ve been to some very poor communities in West Africa and having spent time with the families, in the farms, in the kitchens, lounging in the hot afternoon during Ramadan, dancing with my girls and roaming the village, I would not call it abject poverty, although it almost certainly was. When traveling in Mali, we passed through village after village that I swear were being kept poor just so the tourists would have something to look at. On a boat trip up the Niger River, I just stopped getting out at villages. I couldn’t stomach being the rich white girl with the camera for one more second. But would I ever have noticed, if I had not forced myself to face up to it? Probably not. And for some reason it feels different when you’ve taken the time to learn the language and behave respectfully in the culture. Is it? I don’t know.

I have some deep-seated aversion to calling attention to people’s misfortune, it’s the Single Story of Africa, and the world deserves to know more. So when I was asked to take a picture of some elderly people living in a house made of corn husks this weekend, I initially refused. I did, in the end, mostly because we were on a Monitoring and Evaluation trip and one must document to see change. But why the hesitation? Is it just too hard to see? Am I creating my own single story by refusing to cater to the one that already exists? Or am I being respectful, as I would like to think?

This may seem like a picture of despair, but it really shows hope: the shack next to her used to house all five members of the family plus a battered woman who hid there with her two children when her husband was abusive. SAWAKA donated the sheeting for the roof on the house in the background, and with much persuading (they were not enthused), the community helped build the walls. Now the family has a more permanent structure and were also given a goat, which looks shiny, healthy and gave birth a few months ago.

Even if I had tried to hide from abject poverty this weekend, I would not have been able to. We were traveling in Karagwe, a district North-East of Muleba (where I am) on the Rwandan and Ugandan borders, the uppermost corner of Tanzania. It’s beautiful, breathtakingly so. We were working mostly with an NGO called SAWAKA, who have a contingent of very capable, English-speaking staff, and nice office facilities. In fact, Karagwe town surprised me. It’s bigger and more developed than Kamachumu. However once you move outside the town, which I’m sure few do, you find a different story.

The red circle is our base, Kyanga. The green are project sites that we visited.

Up in the hills, roads made slick by the rain (a month and a half early, I might add), we visited families and groups supported by SAWAKA and VSO’s gender fund. There were projects ranging from tailoring to selling fish to cultivating pineapples to raising chickens. We met people; widows, divorcees, volunteers; providing for their communities, their extended families, for people living with HIV, for orphans, for battered women, for girls forced out of school by “poor moral character”, i.e., pregnancy. Most of all these people are struggling to send children to school; school fees are a constant problem. But other things are a problem too: blankets, roofs, walls, food, sleeping space….

These two lovelies (I’m not talking about myself) have a beautiful home, and the Mama leads their women’s group deftly. What is not apparent is that her husband left her and her daughter (on the left) got pregnant and now will likely never be allowed back to school although she qualified for secondary. She is participating in the income generation projects and learning a lot about business, though! She also has a brilliant role model in her mother. 

On Saturday we stopped on the way home to visit a man living in a beautiful compound. The first thing I noticed was Noam Chomsky on the sizable bookshelf, then the flatscreen and the white reclining couches. He’s a retired diplomat who has lived all over the world but chose to retire to Karagwe, his home. Exclaiming over the magnificent scenery, I was brought up short when he said that scenery doesn’t matter when you’re poor, that lack of infrastructure requires these people to haul water and produce up and down those sheer, picturesque hills, that even if power lines were to mar the vistas, the villagers wouldn’t be able to afford electricity. Reading my book that same night I came across the quote I opened with.

I don’t like writing these things any more than I liked seeing them. I don’t feel holier-than-thou with solutions and reasons and having been the person taking that picture of poverty. But I guess it’s part of the story too. It’s just as real as dancing and clapping and laughing and skinny cows and banana disease and drunk driving and crappy roads and entrepreneurial women making wine and donuts and loving parents and people who do talk to their children, every day, and girls who climb onto your lap and speak fluent Swahili at the age of 4, and dishevelled clothing and dropping out of school and rape and the difficult coffee markets and strong women mentoring their communities and orphans growing their own food and husband-wife teams and social isolation and the divide between rich and poor. It’s all real, so real most of us close our hearts to it, so the real challenge is to face it head on, I guess, and don’t block it out. But not to revel in poverty like we’ve been anointed to save the world. It’s a fine line. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s invisible, and who can contend with that?


*Ironically enough I am now working somewhat closely with World Vision, and just the other day got to hear about the developing-country side of the child-sponsorship funding mechanism. I hope to visit a Canadian-sponsored Area Development Program within the next few weeks.