SOME OF US older folk in Trinidad still refer to bananas as “figs” even though we know the two fruits are different. My cousin Savi took the easy way out and used the term “banana figs”.
Banana is a fruit which all of us in the Caribbean have grown up with and have eaten “green” or ripe. Whether in soups, salads, mashed, boiled, baked, fried, “soused” in a salty lime pickle or just consumed greedily to fill the spaces in our hunger, we know it well. I remember Sophia Loren speaking about growing up in Italy during the Second World War. Life was difficult and people were starving. Someone gave her a shrivelled-up banana and, never having seen one before and not knowing that it should be peeled, she just gobbled it down.
We do not only know the banana well but are known for it, not just its production but as a metaphor for our governance. William Sydney Porter, known as O. Henry, was famous for his short stories (including Cabbages And Kings). He first coined the term, “banana republic” not the clothing retailer owned by The Gap but as a term for a politically unstable country whose economy is largely dependent on exporting a limited-resource product such as bananas, oil, sugar-cane or even tourism. It is distinguished by a ruling group of business, political or army elites and a large, poor working class. This small group or oligarchy controls the national economy. Whoever leads it is the “top banana”. The top political bananas of the Caribbean are known as the Heads of Government with the unfortunate acronym HOGs.
Because Trinidad, like some of the other Caribbean countries, was not dependent on bananas, we were unaware of its importance and, more, its history. I remember laughing at a Grenadian boy who recited a couplet at a concert in our elementary school, “Saltfish and plantain me never eat at all/ But when the hard time come, me eat the skin and all.” Eating plantain or banana skin? You mad or what? Even the poem The Song Of The Banana Man by Jamaican Evan Jones, while stirring and powerful did not reach us with its theme so much as its tone. It might have reached the “cocoa panyols” or people of Spanish-descent who farmed bananas in the forested areas, but almost every yard in our village had some bananas growing and the market always had more than we needed. We had no idea that the “Gros Michel” (which we called “Grammy-shell”) had been wiped out by what is known in the trade as “Race 1” of a particularly virulent disease called Fusarium wilt or Panama Disease and was replaced by a species called Cavendish. In fact, up to last week when I read an article on the threat of complete extinction of bananas in Latin America and the Caribbean, I still thought of the large local or imported bananas as “Gros Michel” not knowing they had been replaced.
In Trinidad, we also have a medium-sized and very sweet type we call “silk fig” (known in Guyana as “apple” bananas). The best tasting, though, is a very small one we know as “chiquito” (Spanish for “tiny”). Every year when I see our president on the back of a pickup truck reviewing the motley troops in our Independence celebrations, something that happens in the other Caribbean countries as well, I always regard it as proof that we are the “chiquito” of banana republics and wonder what my hero O. Henry would have made of it all.
Now our status as banana republics is threatened not by new visions of ourselves, better governance, or less pomp and ceremony but by a new circumstance. A new strain of Fusarium wilt (Tropical Race 4 or TR4) has moved from South East Asia to Africa and while not yet in the Americas the experts predict that a jump from these areas to the Americas is extremely possible. In fact, it is not an “if” but a “when”. What makes this story both poignant and urgent is that there is no cultural, physical or biological treatment to manage TR4. According to a report in the Washington Post, “While dozens of different varieties are grown around the world, often in close proximity to one another, commercially produced bananas are all the same (quite literally in fact, because they are effectively clones of each other).”
The banana is the world’s most important fruit and is the main source of livelihood for many Caribbean people. The Post concludes, “We don't have a formidable replacement that's resistant to the new strain of Panama disease. Once it reaches Latin America, as it is expected to, it could be only a matter of decades before the most popular banana on the planet once again disappears.”
There was a hit song from a Broadway musical of the 1920s which owed its popularity to the play on words, “Yes, we have no bananas”. Now, following the death of King Sugar which should have taught us to diversify, we are facing another slippery slope. In a grisly pun, it has been suggested the now is not the time to go bananas but really if we give a fig for the region to come up with ideas and solutions. God and the big right hand will certainly help but we need to work with the scientists and companies like Chiquita to find a way out. Gros Michel, now Cavendish, perhaps something else, who knows? In the meantime, I think of my friend Errol who, we teased, could put a Gros Michel “fig” in his mouth sideways and whistle, and I mourn the carefree days of plenty, the passing of time and the time of many passings.
• Tony Deyal was last seen trying to cheer himself up with a banana riddle: What do you call two banana peels? A pair of slippers.