Making Banana Matoke in Uganda

Matoke, or ‘banana-mush’ as I christened it during our short trip there in October 2013, is one of Uganda’s staple dishes. The consistency of mashed potato with a distinct flavour of banana, this complex carbohydrate serves as the main source of sustenance for many poverty-stricken families in Kayunga, Uganda, and is regularly eaten straight from the leaves in which it is cooked.
As we carried the newly chopped branch of banana-tree back through the shanty village of rusting huts and makeshift washing lines sporting colorful arrays of materials, a gathering a of local semi-naked children gathered pied-piper like behind us. Jumping and hollering and swatting one another out of the way to allow themselves a better view to stand briefly in front of the giant metal contraption they somehow knew was recording them, the din of their excitement and swarm-like congestion around us almost caused me to drop the 2-metre long waxy leaves of the banana tree I had been entrusted with. My charge, a 17-year-old girl named Jan, looked back over her shoulder and laughed heartily at my struggle, as she had only minutes earlier when I had failed to muster the strength required to chop through the 2-foot width of trunk, even after repeated hacking and several grumbles of frustration. She had simply taken the machet from my hand, tipped the spot on the tree where she planned to chop, and in one large swooping motion far more powerful than any of us could have anticipated from her, amputated the thick branch from it’s bark.
“Like that!” she proclaimed proudly.
The brief respite from shame which followed my failure was broken as I tried to move the large bunch of bananas that had fallen with the branch. A sensation akin to taking that extra step in the dark at the top of the stairs when there is none, I found I had severely underestimated the weight of the cluster of 30 or 40 bananas. It wouldn’t budge.
Again Jan chuckled happily to herself and, having fashioned a circular crown-like base for herself out of the thick leaves on the ground, hoisted the bunch of almost-yellow fruit atop her head, and proceeded to walk steadily back through the trees the way we’d come. I was left, cheeks burning, to wrap several long waxy leaves in strips and bind them securely together, following my guide like a lost puppy as I struggled with the substantially lighter option of the leaves of the tree upon my head.
Once we’d made it back through the herd of local children, we set to work on the front porch of the shed-sized dwelling where Jan lived and supported her widowed mother, and 5 younger siblings. Skinning each banana, and placing it inside a pot-shaped weave formed from several of the branch-leaves, the process itself was fairly straightforward, yet it was the pace at which Jan worked which shocked me. I had barely finished skinning my third banana, and she had already moved on to her second bunch.
When all had been successfully added to the pot, I was put on clean-up duty while Jan skillfully lit a small fire inside the doorway of the homestead, and placed the ball of leaves containing the raw bananas upon it. Straightening herself up and casting a pitying glance as I scrambled to collect all the stray banana-skins, she announced with a sigh;
‘And now we wait’.

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