The Igbo Network































The Origin of Yam



Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani



The story runs that in olden times there was nothing to eat, so Eze Nri (King of Nri) considered what should be done to remedy the defect. He took the drastic course of killing his eldest son, cutting the body into small pieces and burying them. His daughter met a similar fate. Strange to say, five months later, yam tendrils (me ji) were observed to be growing at the very places where the dismembered parts of the body had been enplaned. In a similar fashion, ede (koko-yam) began to grow where the remains of the daughter had been buried. After six months, the Eze Nri dug up fine large yams from his son’s grave and Ede from the place where he had buried his daughter. He cooked both and found them sweet.


At this time, the king was unable to rest or sleep during the day. On one occasion, one of the children of the village came along in search of fire. Eze Nri gave a piece of cooked yam to the child who ate it, went home and promptly fell asleep. The child’s people were surprised and, when he awoke, asked him to relate to them what had happened. He replied that he did not know what it was that Eze Nri had given him to eat. So the process was repeated and it happened again as at the first instance. Then the people asked for yam and Ede. The king demanded a great price before he handed out supplies, and gave instructions on how to plant the yam. From that time, yam and ede appeared throughout the nation.


The above is our legend as related in Nri. In general, the origin of yam is traced to wild species found in the bush. Through the generations, they have been collected, and by cultivation improved, until they are as we have them today. The most common explanation of its presence is that yam was introduced by the Portuguese to Nigeria during the slave trading days.


Yam in the past and during my younger days was the Igbos favorite food. It stands to him as potato does to the typical Irishman. A shortage of yam supply is a case of genuine distress.  For no substitute gives the same sense of satisfaction. This preference for yam and the time and labor necessary for its production are some reasons why yam is a very important Igbo food. It was the most serious occupation for the Igbos. Conditions have changed in recent years and the more sophisticated people are not now so entirely dependent upon it as their fathers did.


There are many varieties of yam tubers; they differ in size, appearance and flavor. The same soil does not suit the growing of all varieties. I will spare you the trouble of discussing the method of planting and the enormous time and labour it takes to plant yams. The code of laws that formerly operated in connection with yam planting was very stringent. Infringement of the laws led to serious results and not infrequently to blood shed. It was a capital offence to rob a farm of its yams whether they were newly set seed or the mature root. In spite of the danger attendant upon the deed, farms were sometimes raided. When the operations in the field are at an end, a regular time of the feasting follows, beginning with the Ịwa-ji (breaking of the new yam). Between whiles, the men are engaged in trying the farms, one by one, to open upright frames in such a manner that wind and sun may have free access to them. Yams rot very quickly if left lying on the ground. The yam stacks (Ọba) stands in a secluded part of the compound and is penned off with a stout fence and the entrance locked.


Yams will not thrive unless properly tended. Not only must yams be kept free from weeds; sticks must also support them. The tendrils run to several feet in length and will deteriorate unless they can climb. The main crop of yams grown on higher grounds is not harvested until later in the year round about the end of October and November.


Until the last few years it might be legitimately affirmed that the life of the people was bound up with the yam supply. Fore generations it was the stale food of the Igbos. From an agricultural point of view, the yam is a very extravagant vegetable to grow. Each tuber requires a full square yard of land, which in itself is a big demand. For seven or eight months of the year regular attention must be given to its care absorbing much time and labor. The farm is a family and wages do not enter into the calculations nor does time count to the Igbo family. It is doubtful foreigners can teach the Igbos much in respect of yam growing.


“ỊWA JI” is observed as a public function on certain appointed days of the year. It is the feast of new yam; the breaking of the yam, harvest is followed by thanksgiving. An offering is offered and the people pray for renewed life as they eat the new yam. An offering is made to the spirits of the field with special reference to the presiding deity of the yam crop. In the olden days, fouls offered as sacrifice must be carried to the farm and slain there, with the blood being sprinkled on the farm. When the ceremony is completed, everything is taken home; the yams are laid up before the “Alụsị” (deity) together with all the farming implements, while the fowls are eaten at the subsequent feast. The whole community shares in this harvest and thanksgiving called “Afịa-ji Ọkụ”. The meaning and significance of the name is worth explaining. The idea behind “Afịa-ji Ọkụ” seems to indicate exertion, industry, to strive after, hence to trade; “ji”, to lay hold of and “Ọkụ” riches. Thus, the full meaning is:  “Industry or trade brings wealth.” In those days, yam largely constituted wealth.


The feast is held once a year and is observed at a sacred spot. It is held in the sixth month after planting and in some parts is observed on an Nkwọ day only. It is held when the first new yams are available. The seed of which were planted in the first month of the year, in order to be ready in time for the ceremony, whereas the main crops is planted in the second month.


In the ceremony blessing is sought of the yam spirit. Kola nut is produced and standing in front of the “Alụsị” the petitioner appeals: “Eat this kola and help the yam in the small farms that, if the rain be too much, they may not drown , and if the rain be too strong, he may not cause them to whither.”


The sacrificial offering varies little in different localities. The gift may consist of kola nut and a fowl, together with “ogilisi” and new yams, the last being boiled. Sometimes, thick skin together with kola nut and young palm leaves are offered. The petitioner says, “See this fowl which I have brought to you!” Afịa-ji Ọkụ na ọkụkụ m’wetalụ kam’nye i.” The throat of the fowl is slit and the blood sprinkled. The carcass is given to the children wherewith to make soup. He the petitioner goes on to say, “If I plant yam as small as this, when I dig it up, may it be so long as this, indicating with his hands and arms the sizes he has in mind. He prays that fever may not trouble him or his people and that all things may prosper in his hand.


That night, a feast is held of which men only partake, as they are responsible for the growing of the yam. In any case, women do not eat food that has been offered to a spirit. A month after, the people begin to dig up their yams.



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