Many could be forgiven if they do not know that Zimbabwe’s first president was not Robert Mugabe. That historical credit belongs to the interestingly-named Canaan Banana in 1980.
Banana was many things, among which included a theologian, clergyman, anti-colonial champion, convicted rapist and a man with awfully-thin skin.
Perhaps, that last part may be understood if one should take into account how many jokes they can accommodate when their name is “Canaan Banana”. A Biblically-significant town and a tropical fruit; imaginations were bound to run wild.
So two years into his ceremonial role as president, Banana got Zimbabwe to pass a law banning any and all jokes regarding his name.
Writing for the Irish Times, Mark Steyn recalled that when Banana became president, “the citizenry seemed reluctant to accord His Excellency the dignity his office required….”
But the jokes even began before he was president. It is rumoured that when Britain forced Zimbabwe to adopt a two-head system (president and prime minister), they were more than grateful when Mugabe’s ZANU-PF nominated Banana to be president.
For Lord Carrington and the British negotiators, Banana as president of a former colony that had caused the British so much trouble would be a practical joke. In London, they’d call the new country “Banana Republic”.
Across Zimbabwe, it was common to see comical references to the president. Old and young, everyone offered their own creative bend on Banana’s name.
As is almost always the case everywhere there is a press, they joined in the craze in Zimbabwe. Satirical pieces and even serious critiques could not help themselves.
The clampdown on the Banana-jokes proved effective so that when he was not even president, they were still in Zimbabwe’s law books.
But even if he succeeded in his country, Banana could not gag the free press of foreign countries. The likes of the British Herald, BBC and The Guardian, got in on the action, maybe, inadvertently.The foreign media “jokes” were perhaps, richer when they came in headlines surrounding Banana’s rape accusations by his bodyguard.
The BBC went with “Banana appeals against sodomy conviction” while the Guardian chose “Banana forced officer to have sex“.
Indeed, these accusations came on the back of Banana’s friend Mugabe, voicing his vehement opposition to homosexual rights. Mugabe spared no insult or name-calling when talking about homosexuality.
One could imagine how Mugabe felt about Banana’s misadventures. First, he was a victim of his name and second, Banana turned out to be one of the people Mugabe hates most.
Banana died in 2003, leaving behind a legacy tainted by his own doing and, if one may say, “bad luck” of his surname.