Democratic Republic of Congo

Congolese Banana Beer, a Culture Symbol, Under Siege as Bacteria Quickly Spreads

In Kirumba, a village in DRC's North Kivu province, banana bacterial wilt (BBW) is currently ravaging banana plantations, striking a devastating blow for local populations as they’re losing bananas they rely on not only to make a locally-cherished style of brew known as Kasiksi.

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Congolese Banana Beer, a Culture Symbol, Under Siege as Bacteria Quickly Spreads

Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

When jerry cans of kasiksi, a local liquor made from fermented banana mash, arrives via truck in Kirumba, a crowd of locals gather. The drink represents cultural values and is considered a symbol of peace and unity in this unstable region.

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KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – A banana leaf flying on a wooden stick is a sign.

Heralding a Congolese speakeasy, it means kasiksi is for sale.

Vivuka Mumbere, 35, has been selling kasiksi, a liquor made from fermented banana mash, in his local hut for the last eight years. He prides himself on creating an environment of calm and camaraderie for his more than 40 daily guests.

Sounds of relaxing, local music sung in the Kinande language, a Bantu language spoken by the Nande in DRC, fills the small hut. Customers dance, chat and laugh, as if armed groups killing and kidnapping people had vanished once and for all.

Kasiksi offers cherished moments for residents of this violence-prone place to drown their sorrows and retreat from the painful reality of the insecurity of daily life, Mumbere says, adding that it has become a symbol of peace, possibility and connection in Kirumba.

“Ages and ages ago, our forefathers valued the significance of kasiksi in our society,” Mumbere says. “Our traditional banana beer represents an opportunity for community members to get together. I quickly realized the need to turn it into business.”

Last year, business was booming. He said he was selling as many as four jerry cans of kasiksi every day. But that was before an invasive strain of Banana Bacterial Wilt, known as BBW, devastated an estimated 75 percent of local banana crops.

BBW is caused when the yellow bacteria Xanthomonas campestris invades the flowers of the banana tree. As the disease spreads throughout the region, local kasiksi brewers, sellers and customers fear losing this special drink that has become a symbol of peace and unity here, they say. Together, they are appealing to local agronomists to find new ways to counter the problem, dubbed “banana Ebola” because of the way infected bananas shrivel and liquefy.

Symptoms of BBW include wilting leaves, shriveling of the male buds, premature ripening of the fruit and a yellow ooze.

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Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Throughout Kirumba, banana trees show signs of Banana Bacterial Wilt, an invasive disease devastating banana crops and known by locals as “banana Ebola.”

Banana crops are being brutally attacked, says Justin Kasereka Maneno Kanyabana, an agronomist at Programme d’Assistance aux Pygmées en RD Congo (PAP-DRC), an organization that works to support the Pygmy people who live in the areas where banana crops grow.

Kanyabana says BBW was first reported in the area back in 2002 and has spread throughout much of the region. It is also common in Uganda.

“The disease reached its peak in 2016,” he says. “The main culprit of the Banana Bacterial Wilt’s unabated spread is the use of sharp tools not being cleaned after chopping infected plants.”

As a result, at least 75 percent of banana crops here have been infected, he says.

For Matabishi Kavugho, a local banana farmer, the bacterial disease is a disaster.

“The disease is described as the banana’s version of Ebola because it’s wildly contagious and ruthlessly devastating for the bananas,” he says. “We feel totally at a loss for an answer to the problem. We are waiting for someone to come to our rescue.”

Without healthy banana plants, the culture of kasiksi, which is used for everything from neighborhood gatherings to enthronement ceremonies for traditional chiefs, is in jeopardy. Residents say the banana tree serves many other purposes, including using its dried strips to build roofs and using its leaves as bedding materials in place of mattresses, which are not common here.

We feel totally at a loss for an answer to the problem.

Makasi Kasereka, a local high-school teacher, says banana trees in general, and kasiksi specifically, have deep significance for the community.

“No village leader can be enthroned in the absence of kasiksi, and this is also true for the celebration of marriage,” he says. “At all of our events, kasiksi is of paramount importance to us, because it shines as a beacon of our culture and values.”

Kalumbi Paluku, also a local teacher, agrees. He says the devastating effects of BBW are putting the culture at risk.

“I’m concerned that the disappearance of kasiksi will result in the withering away of our solidarity, spelling doom for all of us,” he says, referring to the violence that remains prevalent in the country but less so here.

Kanyabana of PAP-DRC says they are working to uproot infected plants and replant BBW-resistant varieties.

Back at the bar, Mumbere says he is hoping that farmers learn to control and then stop the spread of the disease.

“Otherwise, kasiksi beer sellers will be forced to go out of business and close their doors for good, inevitably leading to the total loss of our cultural identity,” he says.

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.