Ireland and Uganda on the face of it appear very different. Over 90% of the population having no running water or electricity is one major contrast, for instance. However we were both British colonies, so the Queen’s English gives us a lingua franca, so to speak. Although Ugandans also enjoy growing and eating potatoes (called there ‘the Irish potato’ to differentiate from the sweet potato), their favourite staple is banana, or matooke.
I saw bananas (mostly green) wherever I travelled in Uganda. 11 million tons are grown annually, mostly for domestic consumption. The average Ugandan eats 400 kg of banana a year. You see it for sale on the side of the road in every town and village. It is served looking to me like a large plate of creamy mashed potato. Also, ‘waragi‘ is a popular alcoholic beverage made from distilled bananas. I have yet to sample ‘waragi‘, but ‘matooke‘ was very acceptable. However, give me a feed of spuds with butter, salt and pepper any day!
Nonetheless, the banana food culture is amazing with over 100 varieties of banana in Uganda alone. The first two banana species arrived before the 6th century AD, via Swahili trade routes from the Orient. One species (Musa accuminata) originated in Malaysia and the other (Musa balbisiana) originated in India. Interbreeding of these banana species has resulted in the plethora of varieties today.
In the same way that Ireland’s population grew rapidly while depending on the potato in the 18th and 19th century, the 20th century has seen Uganda’s population grow phenomenally. The population has grown from 4.8 million in 1950 to about 35 million today. The median age is 15 years and the average birth rate is just under 7 children per woman. High infant mortality from malaria and a serious HIV problem seem to drive the high birth rates also. However who is going to deny the banana – or indeed the potato – are in their own ways, an aphrodisiac?