Ethiopia: Wasa – Symbol of Life

Among the Sidama and other Ethiopian ethnic groups, wasa is the staple food crop. It is a dark flour, obtained from a bulbous plant called ‘ensete muse’ in the national language. The plant is popularly known as ‘false banana’.

The ‘ensete muse’ requires a portion of a rhizome to reproduce. The most common way to propagate this plant is by using rhizome pieces called suckers. To propagate a false banana plant from a sucker, the sucker has to be removed and then replanted.

Within three years, the plant forms a false trunk, which can be up to 2 metres high – with leaves that can be up to 3 metres long and 70-80 centimetres wide. From afar, the plant can be mistaken for a real banana plant; though the false banana has much larger leaves that grow lower down the plant, compared to the leaves of real banana trees, which grow at the top of the trunk.

Only women are in charge of the wasa production. Obtaining the dark flour from false banana plants is not an easy task, and men don’t have the necessary expertise. If a man’s wife dies, he will charge the daughter with the task of making wasa, and if she is not able, a female relative will step in and receive a reward for her work. If the relative is not available, the third option for the husband is re-marrying – and the fourth is starving.

The ensete leaves can be used for different purposes. Women use the shoulder blades of cows to scrape the leaves. They then put the pulp extracted in this way into a bucket made from the intertwined leaves of the plant. Then, they bury the wrapped pulp of the false banana in an underground pit for two to three weeks. After this time, the pulp has turned into dry fibre strands. The wasa is ready now. It is very dry and greenish; it is often mixed with beans and cooked vegetables, or hard-boiled eggs, and on special occasions it is combined with pieces of boiled meat. Salt and butter are also added to the mixture. The broth that comes from the boiled meat is generally drunk separately, but it can be also poured on wasa to make it softer and more flavourful. The dish is eaten with the hands.

The ensete leaves are multi-purpose. They are used for making wrapped-leaf food containers for wasa, or for making sitting mats. They are used as umbrellas and sometimes as cradles for babies. The petiole-base fibre is used for making very resistant ropes. Pieces of leaves can be used as spoons for eating wasa. After being processed, banana-leaf filaments are soft like cotton wool and can be used as hand grips, providing thermal insulation for handling hot pots.

Ensete has high water content, which is beneficial when used as fodder during dry periods. A few years ago the Ethiopian government decided to destroy entire forests, cutting down the trees in some provinces of the country and replacing them with maize fields. Maize does have a higher nutritional value and requires less labour than ensete. But a few years later, when the country was affected by drought, farmers experienced a maize crop failure that resulted in a famine – because maize cannot grow without water. Only the former Sidamo province, where the drought-resistant ensete plants were not replaced by other crops, was spared from starvation. Every day now, trucks loaded with wasa drive from Awasa to Addis Ababa’s markets.

Foods derived from ensete are not particularly high in nutrients. They are not rich either in vitamins or in proteins. By itself, Ensete is mainly a source of carbohydrates and therefore a poor nutritional source; but if it is combined with other ingredients, it becomes a complete food. Wasa is essential to the inhabitants of the densely populated southern and south-western parts of Ethiopia. This is visible even in the local proverbs: ‘Wasa and sand do not mix’, for example, means that good things and bad things don’t go together. Another saying is: ‘When a woman found a rat eating her wasa, she drove it from the tray instead of killing it, to save the wasa’. The moral of this saying is that one must accept compromise in order to save something valuable.

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