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Tony Deyal | Tony the banana man

Published:Saturday | March 25, 2023 | 7:27 AM

Remembering Evan Jones and my days watching the ships in many Caribbean islands being loaded at the wharves.

Mr King, our Standard Three teacher and an actor from the far-off city of Port-of-Spain, tried very hard to teach us the English language. In an early-morning session about ensuring that we had the best breakfast as young and growing children, he asked Hanzy, “So what you had for breakfast this morning?” Hanzy’s father and mother were cane-cutters who went out in the fields at four in the morning with their cutlasses and “flambeaux” or “fire torches”.

They were always completely covered from head to toe, tall boots on, to protect themselves from the thousands of mosquitoes that surrounded them looking for loopholes. That meant Hanzy and his sisters had to grab what they could and then rush to school as soon as it was daylight. Hanzy was always first in school but not in class. He was what we called a Stick-em-Up “pyong” or fanatic.

We each plucked a stick or piece of bamboo we used as a gun. At other times, we played a game of ‘Police and Thief’ where the police group hunted down the other group and shot to kill. Unfortunately, that game stopped when we realised that, in Trinidad, the police had become indistinguishable from the thieves.

Hanzy’s sisters and the other early girls had found a piece of rope in the cane field, definitely off some big “cattle” neck, and they spent their time in jump rope or joined the other girls playing hop-scotch. When the boys had time, or had got a couple years older and made time, we sat down flat on the ground and looked at the girls jumping. The ground was so hard that their uniforms flew high enough to almost cover their faces, which were definitely not important to us in those circumstances. But Mr King did not know that food was secondary (if we had any), so when he asked Hanzy what the family had for breakfast, Hanzy replied, “Fig, sir.” Mr King immediately corrected him, “We don’t have figs in Trinidad or the rest of the Caribbean. We have bananas. What you had for breakfast was a banana, not a fig.”

GAVE A FIG

Quite honestly, none of us gave a fig or cared a fig about what was which. It was like my cousin Savi who went to the village shop and, in her best voice and accent, said to the owner, “Mr Pollard. Good morning, sir. My mummy sent me for a pound of rices, five cents ices, and two banana figs.”

We laughed at her then but I later found out that, while there are no fig bananas, there is a Caribbean product known as a ‘banana fig’. Actually, in most of the Caribbean, every banana is a fig, and what it lacks in taste it has in appeal. In the Greco-Roman culture, figs are associated with fertility and the female genitalia. They are also supposed to be a sign of blessing and they help to ward off curses. Fortunately for them, their curses are nowhere close to those of Caribbean people for whom “mother” can be a four-letter word. The Romans also have a “mano fico” (fig-hand) because it was thought to resemble the female private part, more a leg-end than a legend. In my case, I see things both figuratively and literally. In this, I am very much like the Jamaican poet, Evan Jones. In his poem The Song of the Banana Man, he captured my emotion and spoke my language, “By God and dis big right han I will live an die a banana man.”

While in ancient Greece certain rituals involved beating men and women with the branches of fig trees to promote fertility, and in Egypt the great sex symbol, Cleopatra, preferred figs over any other fruit, including Mark Anthony, they were not alone in their ‘figonometree’. Moroccans still throw figs to wish “fruitfulness” to newlyweds. In my case, I am happy like pappy with my bananas and have a health of a good time on them. While Romans use figs to wish fruitful lives to one another, they don’t know that bananas have more vitamin B6, vitamin C, and manganese than figs. In fact, vitamin B6 is 20 per cent higher in bananas than in figs and they have four times more vitamin C. While the fig has two milligrams of vitamin C, bananas have eight. More important for old folks like me, banana has less sugar. I suppose that is why the two old ladies stood in the vegetable isle of the supermarket discussing the price of figs. One was pointing out that, although they were a dollar each, they could get three for $2.50. Her colleague eventually capitulated and replied, “Ok then, we can always eat the third one.” For those in the know, male or fruit caprifigs are usually dry, spongy, sticky and inedible. Better to stick to bananas. However, don’t tell my daughter. When she was much younger and I told her that humans eat more bananas than monkeys, she was not convinced and I insisted, “It’s true!” To which she replied, “Right, Daddy. When last you eat a monkey?”

SIMILAR TO PLANTAIN

Our banana fig, or what in some islands like Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Dominica and St Lucia are ‘green figs’ or ‘green bananas’, is similar to a plantain although shorter, broader and sweeter. One writer said it has “pale strawberry flesh”, a “very sweet, full flavour” and no bitterness. Another said that a mango looked at one and said to it, “We came from India just like some of you and we are so proud that you are taking a step in the ripe direction.” Actually, according to Hindu legend, the banana was the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. After the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve covered their naked bodies with banana leaves than skimpy fig leaves. It may also be why the banana-fig is known as the musa paradisiaca, which translates into ‘banana of paradise’.

While some of my friends quip “Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana”, they don’t know that, as I rapidly approach the age of 78, I have to be very careful. While I always hope for the best, I am not so optimistic that I will buy green figs or bananas. I am at what they call “a ripe old age”.

Tony Deyal, after telling his daughter that a shoe made from bananas is a slipper, then asked her, “So when they locked him up, what happened to the banana?” He won his case on appeal. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com