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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, September 22, 2013

Focus on Africa: Banana Land Radio

It is stated that the banana is the world's most popular fruit with an annual worldwide production in excess of 150 million tons. India grows the most bananas at around 30 million tons each year. There are around 1,000 different varieties of banana, though the bright yellow Cavendish is the most popular.

Historians tell us that the banana originated in South East Asia and New Guinea. The name banana is taken from a West African tribal language, Wolof, where this fruit was known as banaana. Interestingly, the Arabic word banan means finger, and this term is also applied to the banana in the English language.

Bananas were introduced to the western world when Lorenzo Dow Baker bought a small ship load in Jamaica and sold them in Boston in the year 1870. Interestingly, Lorenzo Baker was the captain of a ship called the "Telegraph".

The fictitious title Banana Republic was coined in 1904 by the American writer O. Henry and it was applied to the imaginary Republic of Anchuria in his book, Cabbages & Kings. A Banana Republic is traditionally a fictitious Central American Republic under a dictator.

This, our opening topic in Wavescan today, tells the story of Banana Land Radio. However, this Banana Land is not a Central American republic, nor is it necessarily related to the banana fruit. Instead, this Banana Land is a coastal province in West Africa, at the Banana Creek Inlet at the mouth of the mighty Congo River in what was the Belgian Congo, Zaire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This area was settled in the 1880s as a seaport for the Belgian slave trade.

The regional newspaper, the New Zealand Herald dated for the 3rd day of the Maori month Haratua in the year 1902 informs us that four men with the English Marconi Company were involved in the construction of a wireless station at Banana in the Belgian Congo. Work began around May 21, and the Congo Free State issued an agreement to the Marconi company for the installation of the station on July 23. Very little is known about this original wireless station in West Africa.

However, 20 years later, this same Marconi company was involved in the installation of a network of 17 wireless stations in the region. The main station at Banana, callsign ONA, was housed in a mobile cabin, the main mast stood at 210 feet, and electricity was generated by a petrol motor. A magazine photo shows the building on stilts in a flat area.

The Marconi company announced that this new station was due to begin service in the latter part of the year 1922. At the time, the capital city for the Belgian Congo was Boma, 60 miles upstream on the Congo River.

Initially, messages from Boma in the Congo to Brussels in Belgium took a very circuitous and time consuming route. This was the procedure in 1922:

Boma, Belgian Congo to Banana, Belgian Congo by Pigeon Post Mail 50 miles
Banana, Belgian Congo to Ambriz, Angola Wireless 130 miles
Ambriz, Angola to Luanda, Angola Telegraph line 75 miles
Luanda, Angola to France Submarine cable 5000 miles
France to Brussels, Belgium Telegraph line 500 miles

By the year 1935, there were 18 wireless stations in use in the Belgian Congo, and most identified on air with callsigns beginning with the two letters ON, OO or OP. The main station for some time was still located at Banana, and in addition to the primary callsign ONA, three additional calls were in use, OND, ONE & ONF.

However, at this stage, a new communication transmitter facility was under construction on the edge of the more recent capital city, Leopoldville, and that's our story next time when we touch the two Congos.