31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 18: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

May 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara

Africa_39Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine Prize – colloquially known as “the African Booker” – for “Jambula Tree,” a lesbian love story. The simple act of writing the story was not without risk for the author; homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since the time of British colonial rule and in 2007 a conviction carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A 2014 law strengthening anti-gay sanctions in the country was struck down on a technicality, but president Yoweri Museveni’s government is apparently determined to pass a revised version of the law.

All of which is to say that Arac de Nyeko is unafraid to deal with fraught political material in her stories, which are devoted to shedding light on social injustices in her native country.

“The Banana Eater” is not about homosexuality, but it does focus on systemic oppression, in this case of women. The story is narrated by a girl, Amito, who lives with her mother in Kampala’s low-income housing estates. According to Richard Campbell Mayer of MIT’s department of urban study and planning, “The majority of government and private developers who build new housing are only providing units affordable to Kampala’s minority of wealthy and well-connected elites. The majority of Kampala’s residents are low-income earners who currently live in unplanned slum neighborhoods that consist of mostly informal rental housing.” In 2011, the government evicted more than 1,700 tenants from the Naguru-Nakawa housing estate where Arac de Nyeko grew up.

This is the backdrop against which Amito and her mother, a labourer at a printing press, attempt to eke out an existence. Ma’s sole capitulation to a creative impulse is her backyard garden, which is the most attractive and welcoming in the housing development. So welcoming is Ma’s garden that the men who work as market vendors have taken to squatting there, using the family backyard as their own personal resting ground where they engage in loud talk and thoughtlessly dump their detritus.

The dramatic arc of the story involves the confrontation that develops between Amito, her friend Naalu, and the vendors. Amito will not leave the matter to her mother, whom she fears is ineffectual in opposing the men. When Ma tells the vendors to leave, saying that the backyard garden is on her property, they react with indignation and undisguised hatred: “They told her that no one came into the estates with any piece of land on their heads. They called my mother a whore. They said she was a husbandless slut, a fanatic Christian, a sex-starved bitch who should migrate back to the north of the country where people were uncivilized and lacked manners.” The gendered nature of the vendors’ attack is key here: they assert their supposed right to Ma’s land on the principle of some unstated patriarchal fiat, while belittling the woman by calling her a slut and a whore.

Ma has been carrying on an affair with a man named Patrick Aculu, who is the subject of much mockery on the part of the vendors. Aculu is known locally as “Red Devil” on account of eyes “the colour of red devil peppers”; his presence in the family home upsets Amito, who secretly wishes he would appear to confront the vendors so that they might attack him and put him in hospital. Amito resents Red Devil for taking the place of her absent father, and worries that his “brain was not wired properly,” a condition she fears is being passed on to her mother.

In the face of her mother’s inability to roust the vendors – she alters her routine so that she returns from work late, but they merely wait her out and confront her after dark instead – Amito decides to enlist Naalu in a retaliatory campaign: “The bastards must pay. It is war. It is war!” Amito and Naalu’s series of attacks, which culminate in dumping a bucket of rancid fish water on the vendors’ heads, provokes the intervention of Naalu’s father, a local chairman who is successful in evicting the vendors, but also separates the girls by sending Naalu off to a Catholic boarding school.

There are a series of ironies at work here. Naalu’s father and Amito’s mother dislike each other because they come from different backgrounds. The former is a Catholic and, like the majority of the vendors, a Muganda. According to Amito’s mother, the Baganda ethnic group “were thieving traitors who’d been selling the country to the highest bidder right from the time of the British.” For his part, Naalu’s father believes that northerners like Ma “were to blame for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in the country – the coups d’état, the bad roads, the hospitals without medicine, the high price of sugar, his addiction to nicotine, and the fact that the country was landlocked.”

Ethnicity, class, and gender all become entangled in the story’s finale, which reasserts the dominance of the male figure – this time Naalu’s father – who solves Ma’s problem but also banishes Naalu from what he feels is a bad influence on her. The institutional forces in the country continue to dictate how women must exist (Red Devil also disappears following the chairman’s intervention), and the only recourse for Ma is to accept what appears to be the lesser of two evils. Arac de Nyeko illustrates the impossibility of Ugandan women – especially those confined by straitened economic circumstances (which means the majority of them) – to make decisions about their own lives or to live without interference. The situation Ma and Amito are caught up in is summed up nicely in the girl’s repeated epithet: “Such nonsense.”

NOTE: The version of “The Banana Eater” referred to here is the one contained in the Hay Festival and Rainbow Foundation Project anthology Africa 39. A slightly different version appears online at the website of the literary journal AGNI. The online version is not substantially different, although it contains material that is deleted from the print version, much of it providing context and nuance to the story’s characters and their situations. The online version makes connections within the story more explicit – the vendors, for example, are pictured dropping banana skins in Ma’s backyard, which connects them definitively with Naalu’s father; this detail is left out of the print version. It is unclear whether these changes were made due to space considerations or at the request of the author; for the fullest version of this story, a reader is advised to consult the text online.

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