For nearly a decade, Rosette M’Chentwali and other farmers in her village struggled against the dizzyingly fast spread of banana bacterial wilt. Then one day, she decided she was sick of fighting the disease. Mrs. M’Chentwali made the tough decision to replace her bananas with vegetables.
Mugaruka Désiré lives nearby. His bananas are also blighted by bacterial wilt, but he disagrees with his neighbour’s decision. Pointing to Mrs. M’Chentwali’s garden, now dotted with amaranth, he says: “I am poor today because [my bananas] produce nothing now. But I’m not crazy enough to [uproot them] like my neighbour did.”
The decision to uproot her bananas was not one that Mrs. M’Chentwali took lightly. Widowed in 1984, she had fed and educated her four children by selling kasiksi, a local brew made from bananas.
She explains, “When he died, my late husband left me everything to support the family, including his banana plantation. I learnt how to brew kasiksi at my mother’s knee.”
Mrs. M’Chentwali was well known for her high quality kasiksi. She says, “My home was flooded with consumers when it was ready.”
When her bananas became infected by bacterial wilt, production fell to nothing. Mrs. M’Chentwali recalls, “I could no longer produce kasiksi and we were really miserable. Eating became a luxury for my children.”
She had to sell her a large part of her belongings to meet her daily needs. Unable to wait for a treatment for bacterial wilt or a new, disease-resistant variety, she started experimenting with vegetables.
One day, Mrs. M’Chentwali harvested some amaranth from the small plot around her house. She recalls, “We feasted on these vegetables daily, but then I sold some at the small village market to get the money to buy some salt and palm oil.” She realized that growing more vegetables would earn her an income. But she did not have any vacant land near her home.
She says, “I realized that the land occupied by the sick and unproductive bananas could be used more effectively to grow vegetables.” So she uprooted the banana trees and planted more amaranth and eggplants.
Now she sells her vegetables twice a week at the local market and earns 15,000 Congolese francs, about $16 U.S. Her children are back at school, and eating is no longer a luxury.
Vegetables have changed Mrs. M’Chentwali’s life. She used to slake people’s thirst with kasiksi, now she is a vegetable trader.
But Mrs. M’Chentwali has not given up on bananas. Once the disease problem has been solved, she might renew her banana plantation by planting new suckers. She thinks she might divide her land in two – part for bananas, part for vegetables.