The Banana Girls
Author: Karim F Hirji
Published by: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd. Pps 129
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu.
What are the workings of the societies in which we live? What values govern them? Does any length of time go by without our taking part in a discussion about how, for all the scientific and technological innovation of our times, our children seem to be becoming less compassionate, less refined and less knowledgeable or more impolite, more lacking in concentration and more self-absorbed? Those among us of a certain age nostalgically lament the ‘good old days’ when there were three pillars for the propagation of probity and service to others: one of them being the family, defined in nuclear guise as father, mother and child; a second consisting of teachers who were revered in the school environment and a third comprising spiritual leaders in places of worship. Since then, the family seems to be crumbling by the day, teachers are deemed to be largely replaceable by information technology (‘just google it’) and religious conviction is increasingly considered to be for those who seek solace in irrational dogma. So, what are we to do in order to pass on guidelines for responsible citizenship?
Karim F Hirji, a retired Professor of Medical statistics and a Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences has come up with a personal contribution in the form of a book, The Banana Girls, within which he has embedded many nuggets of social, economic and political wisdom. The narrative chronicles 2003 days in the lives of two bosom friends, Rehema and Fatuma, and millions of days in the existence of the banana, the fruit which, eaten either ripe or cooked, the girls at some point determine will be the only solid component of their daily diets. The banana becomes not only the symbol of ideal nutrition but also, by turns, of social engineering and of neo-imperialist exploitation.
Rehema and Fatuma are Tanzanians by nationality and brainboxes by genetic coding, with an enduring monopoly of either the first or second position in any examination for which they sit. They excel in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics particularly and are always the first two to solve any mathematical or scientific challenges which are presented to their successive year groups and, by extension, to readers of the book. For example, here is Banana Problem 7, from the text: District X has 30 banana-growing villages. You need a reasonable estimate of the annual tonnage of bananas produced in the district. Each of your 10 research assistants can cover only one village and spend at most 5 days at the site. Work out a detailed plan to accomplish your objective. Among the girls’ preoccupations is memorisation of the 1,000 digits of Pi; Pi being the mathematical constant which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. By the time they get to university and opt to stay in Tanzania rather than to accept scholarships abroad that would separate them from each other, the girls present, with the help of encouraging professors, a paper entitled Towards a Probabilistic Formulation of the Special Theory of Relativity. How is that, for size? As the days go by, Rehema and Fatuma abandon junk food forever, they also adopt wholesome tastes in what they watch and what they listen to, and they make a good friend, Alice, who, unlike them, is from a rich family but who is adequately informed to join them as committed activists in the BLF, the Banana Liberation Front. Their activism lands them in jail. All three girls see through the machinations of their own government to oppress their own people and of global capitalism to bring about régime change, the better to sustain a stranglehold over poorer economies and to prop up aptly named ‘banana republics’. One malevolent operator is pointed out by name: he is President Ronald Grump of the United States of America.
Enough has been given away to suggest didactic and allegorical intent. And rightly so. In writing a story with a series of edifying and explanatory messages, Karim Hirji displays an agenda to educate and enlighten. And since it is a timely initiative that decision points to his book’s strengths. But by the same token its weaknesses lie in the emergent realisation that the story will not prove entirely credible to those who refuse to go along with the author’s fruity conceit. Spoilsports could have niggling questions up their sleeves. Like, can the girls live on bananas alone? And would they have remained friends after the policeman father of one had led a brutal clean-up exercise involving the farmer father of another? Why do Rehema and Fatuma have to be so clever? Does that mean that their discoveries are beyond the understanding of watu mashinani, that is (because Kiswahili is often used in the text) of people at the grass roots’ level? Why are the arts given such short shrift in the messaging? Does that imply that only the sciences can lead to real, social transformation? And, in terms of readers’ engagement, would those with a shaky mathematical foundation even bother to attempt to offer solutions to Banana Problems 1 to 7 or to commit the progression of Pi to memory? What good will it do them if they do? In this regard, can The Banana Girls really be described as a novel? What with problems to solve and indications of supplementary links on the web and sources of reference as well as pages with song lyrics and food recipes? Why has the author avoided the paramount problem of ethnicity as a pressing concern? Could it be that it simply does not exist in his native Tanzania and is only to be found in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda? Why does the author openly condemn leaders in highly industrialised countries but remain relatively unforthcoming about the state of visionary leadership in Tanzania?
However, enough quibbling. For fear that Karim Hirji might find this an inadequate recognition of his literary achievement, to my mind The Banana Girls is quintessentially a book for the young. To complement that assessment with genuine praise, it ought to be required reading in high schools across the whole East African region, if not the whole African continent. As benefits, The Banana Girls (incidentally, noteworthy for having girls as its protagonists) will lead our youth to appreciate learning for its own sake; to analyse their attachment to all things foreign; to interrogate why our roads, hospitals and bridges should be built by experts from afar? Why our raw materials should be processed elsewhere? Why we are reluctant to consecrate our own spiritual, creative and political role models? Why our wealth fails to trickle down to the most needy among us?
Karimi Hirji’s three heroines in The Banana Girls certainly lead young minds to confront, intellectually, the problems which need to be confronted for our societies to progress, with integrity and selflessness as defining features, and to become adequately mobilised, again intellectually, to consider themselves tasked by fate to provide viable solutions to those problems in the future.
Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu