I will tear down those Banania smiles from the walls of France.
~~ Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet and first president of independent Senegal*
Branding. Such a loaded word, when you consider it. For many Americans it suggests branding cattle and other property, to prove ownership. Very capitalistic, those cowboys, don’t you think?
In any case, branding products sometimes pinches cultural nerves.
Banania, a French product with very strong branding, began in the heyday of France’s colonial empire and is still a part of French life.
Originating in 1912, the French company Banania began marketing a cocoa-flavored breakfast powder. Using foods imported from France’s tropical colonies, chiefly in West Africa, Banania created a product that became part of many French people’s fondest memories of childhood. The “recipe” for Banania’s product reads like a weaning food: cocoa, cereal, banana flour, sugar, and honey. Note that bananas, cacao, and sugar were all major export crops.
The story began in 1909 when French banker and journalist Pierre-François Lardet spent some time near Lake Managua, in Nicaragua. He stumbled upon a recipe for a cocoa-flavored beverage. Likely his inspiration came from the activities of United Fruit Company, a significant presence in Nicaragua at the time, and in other Central American countries.
Lardet returned to France, set up his company, and began marketing the cocoa powder in 1912. Banania’s slogan during World War I played on French feelings of patriotism and nationalism: Pour nos soldats la nourriture abondante qui se conserve sous le moindre volume possible (“for our soldiers: the abundant food which keeps, using the least possible space”).
Preliminary advertising featured the face of an Antillaise woman, later replaced by the widely recognized Tirailleur Sénégalais.
“Y’a bon,” the most prevalent slogan imprinted on Banania’s advertising, was nothing more than a made-up phrase intending to convey the dialect of French spoken by Africans. The slogan has not been in use since 1977.
In 1915, Nutrial, the company that owned the rights to Banania, came up with the following logo:
The smiling African man represented the Tirailleurs Sénégalais – West African troops who fought (and died) for the French in World War I, 30,000 of them.
Writers such as Frantz Fanon have derided Banania, calling its advertising “racist” and colonialist. Fanon, in Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952) discussed the objectification of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, saying they became ”an object in the midst of other objects.” (p. 109)
The Collectifdom or le Nutrimaine acquired Banania from Unilever in 2003. Collectif des Antillais, Guyanais, Réunionnais et Mahorais — a group that advocates against vestiges of colonialism in France — forced the company to give up its copyright to the “Y’a bon” slogan, even though, as stated above, it had not been used since 1977.
Amazingly enough, you can order Banania on Amazon.com. **
Vous Tirailleurs Sénégalais, mes frères noirs à la main chaude sous la glace et la mort
Qui pourra vous chanter si ce n’est votre frère d’armes, votre frère de sang?
Je ne laisserai pas la parole aux ministres, et pas aux généraux
Je ne laisserai pas -non!- les louanges de mépris vous enterrer furtivement.
Vous n’êtes pas des pauvres aux poches vides sans honneur
Mais je déchirerai les rires banania sur tous les murs de France.
… Léopold Sédar Senghor, Hosties noires (1948)
**But you can also still buy Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, too, in the United States, their brands linked with smiling pictures of African-American stereotypes. And if you look at Betty Crocker, you’ll no longer see the smiling face of a stereotyped 1950s American housewife.
Chocolate Banana Smoothie, a Substitute for Banania
1 banana, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup chocolate milk
1 T. cocoa powder, either sweetened or bitter
1 T. chopped walnuts or almonds
1/4 t. vanilla extract
Put everything in a blender and whirl. Serve in a tall frosty glass.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen