The State of Aloha
They surrounded our house when I was growing up. Trunks colored green with streaks of darkest red and covered with light brown bark shot several feet out of some primeval heap of dead trees, leaves and mud. The newest and greenest leaves reached upward toward the skies and flapped in the wind. The brown and dried dead ones waned and delicately hung to the sides of the trunk.
We would peer through the tops of each grove until we saw a glint of yellow. We had to act fast. Letting it go a day or two invited mynah birds or rats. We would cut down the tree and slowly pull it down to ensure that we didn’t bruise the fruit. Once safely on the grass we would cut it further into hands.
Bananas were ubiquitous in my youth. Cutting down stalks and handing out hands to friends and loved ones was such an everyday experience that the thought of having to go to a store and buy bananas was an absolutely foreign and terrible concept for me.
And yet, when I moved to the Mainland thousands of miles from our banana trees I was confronted with this dilemma. Could I do it? Do I really go out to buy a hand of bananas?
Native Hawaiian voyagers are believed to be the first to bring bananas to the islands. Polynesian bananas originated in Papua New Guinea, where they were domesticated by humans nearly 7,000 years ago. They traveled with seafaring migrants throughout Indonesia and eventually made their way to Polynesia.
The bananas from Polynesia, called “mai’a” by Native Hawaiians, were an essential part of precontact life. They are part of the indigenous Hawaiian religion and belief system. Renowned scholar Mary Kawena Pukui notes that the banana is considered the embodiment of Kanaloa, one of the four major deities in the Hawaiian religion.
Bananas also play a part in the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Nearly two centuries ago, the kapu system and the religion of the kingdom came to an end. One of the main architects of this downfall was Queen Ka’ahumanu, consort to King Kamehameha.
After the king’s death in 1819, Queen Ka’ahumanu brought about the end of the system by eating with men at a feast. The food she ate in violation of kapu and customs included bananas.
Native Hawaiians used the fruit, flower and sap for medicinal purposes. It was believed to cure stomach ailments and cured constipation. Its leaves were used for steaming meats in imu and at one point the long braids connecting the stalk to the heart were used to adorn hats.
But the mai’a brought by Polynesian voyagers, regulated by the kapu system and eaten by Queen Ka’ahumanu are not the same ones growing in our yards or sold in stores today. The varieties that dominate Hawai’i gardens, yards and fruit stands now were introduced in the mid-18th century.
The older variety of mai’a are still around. Dedicated farmers and botanists have carefully cultivated the many kinds of diverse bananas that were part of precontact Hawai’i.
Wild bananas are still around too. Deep in the mountains are mysterious patches growing in the floors of valleys and clinging to towering ridges. You can see old banana patches by helicopter. The trees growing along the rim of the gulches may be what’s left of camps for the workers who constructed irrigation ditches used to water sugar cane more than a century ago. Workers planted bananas as a quick and easy food source.
Other patches are even older. Scientists believe that in these isolated places the older banana varieties can be found. These were the mai’a believed to have been used as a food source during times of famine, drought and war.
Hawaiian mythology provides a different explanation. A race of people who lived deep in the forests and mountain valleys were known as the Mu-‘ai-maia, which means “the banana-eating Mu.” The Mu are similar to Menehune. They are fast runners with bushy hair and eyebrows, long beards and speak a guttural language distinct from Hawaiian. They were believed to have come from the interior of Kauai at the source of Wainiha Stream, a place known for its wild banana groves.
The Mu are intriguing. Are the banana trees growing far from any human settlement the work of refugees during the sometimes violent and disruptive wars between chiefs? Or are they evidence of the mythic Mu?
By the way, I couldn’t do it. I still cannot bring myself to buy bananas at the store. When there are no bananas ready, I can’t buy them. I prefer being patient for our bananas to ripen; just like the Hawaiian saying: ” ‘A’ohe hua o ka mai’a i ka la ho’okahi” which roughly translates to “a banana does not ripen in a day.”
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”