With its distinctive tall green stem topped by a luxuriant clump of thick wide leaves, the banana or plantain is such an integral feature of Ugandan landscape and worth seeing on Uganda safari that it may come as a surprise to learn that it is not indigenous to the country. Kiganda folklore claims that the first banana plant was brought to the kingdom by Kintu, whose shrine lies on a hill called Magonga which can also be seen while on safari in Uganda. If this legend is true, it would place bananas arrival in Uganda in perhaps the 13th – 15th century probably from Ethiopian high lands. Only one species of banana (Musa ensete) is indigenous to Africa and it doesn’t bear eatable produce. Most of the related grown diversities have all been propagated from two wild Asian species (M. acuminate and M.balbisiana) and thus cross breeds. It is believed that the initial eatable variety was cultivated from a rare mutant of one of the above species about 10,000 years ago – making the banana one of the oldest cultivated plants in existence. Edible bananas were most likely cultivated in Egypt before the birth of Jesus Christ probably arriving through the Indian Ocean or Arabia. The early explorer and sailor of Greek origin noted that edible bananas grew around the port of Adulis in present day Eritrea, cAD525 – describing them as “Moza, the wild-date of India”
The route via which the banana reached this famous gorilla tracking safari country – Uganda is exposed to speculation. The furthermost origin regarded as Ethiopia, the cradle of most of the south centered movements in the previous two millennia. Nonetheless it’s fascinating that while the fruit is known but the name approximating to the generic Latin Musa throughout Asia, Arabia and northeast Africa – Maz in Arabic and Persian for instance or mus or musa in the various Ethiopian languages and Somali – no such linguistic resemblance occurs in the east Africa, where it known variously as Ndizi, gonja, matooke etc. This peculiarity has been cited to support a hypothesis that the banana first travelled between Asia and the East African coast either as a result of direct trade or else via Madagascar and that it was entrenched there before regular trade was established with Arabia. A third possibility is that banana reached Uganda through the basin of Congo with the arrival of Bantu speakers from West Africa.
However it arrived in Uganda by all means, the banana there forming the main subsistence crop for an estimated 40% of the population. Some 50 varieties are grown in the country divided into four broad categories based on their primary use – Matooke for boiling, gonja for roasting, Mbile for distillation into banana bear (Mwenge) or wine (Mubisi) and the more familiar sweet Menvu that can be eaten raw for snack or dessert on your Uganda safari visit. The bananas are not only restricted bellies. The juice from the stem is traditionally regarded to have several medicinal applications. All this can be experienced while on a safari in Uganda.
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