Yams (Dioscorea batatas, and other species of Dioscorea) are common throughout the world's tropical areas. The yams most commonly cultivated in Africa may have come from Asia in the first century AD. Yams are a staple food throughout much of Africa, but are particularly important in Western Africa, where they are used to make Fufu and other Fufu-like staples.
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Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes
Yams and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are unrelated and cannot always be used interchangably, despite the fact that sweet potatoes have been called yams for centuries in North America, begining when enslaved Africans applied their West African word nyami to the North American sweet potato that resembled their African yam. Nyami (or nyana) became yam in English, igname in French and ñame in Spanish.
There are many varieties of yams, and many varieties of sweet potatoes, and certain types of yams may be quite similar to certain types of sweet potatoes. Some of the yams commonly cultivated in Africa are usually very large, sometimes measuring several feet in length and over a hundred pounds in weight. Whether yams like those in Africa can be obtained outside the tropics is a matter of some debate, since so many stores sell sweet potatoes labeled as "yams". Genuine African-style yams would most likely be found in African, Carribean, Latino, or Asian markets, or large grocery stores that sell imported items like cassava (or yuca) tubers. Yams have a brown peel that looks like the bark of a tree. The edible, inside portion ranges from light tan or pale yellow to red or purple. When large yams are sold in grocery stores they are usually cut into pieces weighting a few pounds each and wrapped in plastic.
Chinua Achebe is one of Nigeria's best known writers. The importance of yams in traditional Igbo (or Ibo) society is shown clearly in his novel Things Fall Apart (1959, various editions available). Coco-yams (Colocasia esculenta) have nothing to do with chocolate. They are better known as taro, and also called eddo and dasheen. Taro is probably native to Asia and is grown in Asia, Polynesia, Africa, and the Carribean; its leaves are cooked as greens and its tubers are eaten baked, boiled, or steamed. In Hawaii, the tubers are used to make poi.
Yam, the king of crops, was a very extracting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost. The young tendrils were protected from earth-heat with rings of sisal leaves. As the rains became heavier the women planted maize, melons and beans between the yam mounds. The yams were then staked, first with little sticks and later with tall and big tree branches. The women weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yam, neither early nor late.
Share-cropping was a very slow way of building up a barn [of yams] of one's own. After all the toil one only got a third of the harvest. But for a young man whose father had no yams, there was no other way. And what made it worse in Okonkwo's case was that he had to support his mother and two sisters from his meagre harvest. And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father. She could not be expected to cook and eat while her husband starved. And so at a very early age when he was striving desperately to build a barn through share-cropping Okonkwo was also fending for his father's house. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes. His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women's crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man's crop.
Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.
The Feast of the New Yam was held every year before the harvest began, to honor the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan. New yams could not be eaten until some had first been offered to these powers. Men and women, young and old, looked forward to the New Yam Festival because it began the season of plenty--the new year. On the last night before the festival, yams of the old year were all disposed of by those who still had them. The new year must begin with tasty, fresh yams and not the shriveled and fibrous crop of the previous year. All cooking pots, calabashes and wooden bowls were thoroughly washed, especially the wooden mortar in which yam was pounded. Yam foo-foo and vegetable soup was the chief food in the celebration. So much of it was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relatives they invited from the neighboring villages, there was always a large quantity of food left over at the end of the day.
Every child loved the harvest season. Those who were big enough to carry even a few yams in a tiny basket went with the grown-ups to the farm. And if they could not help in digging up the yams, they could gather firewood together for roasting the ones that would be eaten there on the farm. This roasted yam soaked in red palm-oil and eaten in the open farm was sweeter than any meal at home.
Richard F. Burton, the great 19th century traveler, writer, and translator, documented the Western African Yam Festival in his Wanderings in West Africa (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1991 "Two Volumes bound as One"; originally published by Tinsley Brothers, London, 1863).
The principal festival in the year is the Yams Custom, which Europeans call native, or black Christmas. It is celebrated at the end of August or the beginning of September, and at the same time their New Year's Day occurs. The first eating of that vegetable is connected with many ceremonies; the Fetish must begin, then the king, and so on. This is called Yereyelo. Follows Homowo, literally the "outcrying" or "mocking of hunger;" a harvest-home, celebrated on the coast with gun-firing, singing, dancing, music, eating, drinking, and merrymaking, in the interior with human sacrifices now familiar to Europe.
(Volume II, Chapter IX, A Pleasant Day in the Land of Ants [Accra])
James George Frazer was a professor of social anthropology at Liverpool who spent a good part of his life writing and adding to his major work, The Golden Bough (Abridged edition; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1922; first published 1890; various editions since then). He included this description of a yam ceremony in his section titled "The Sacrament of First-Fruits".
The ceremony of eating the new yams at Onitsha, on the Niger, is thus described: Each headman brought out six yams, and cut down young branches of palm-leaves and placed them before his gate, roasted three of the yams, and got some kola-nuts and fish. After the yam is roasted, the Libia, or country doctor, takes the yam, scrapes it into a sort of meal, and divides it into halves; he then takes one piece, and places it on the lips of the person who is going to eat the new yam. The eater then blows up the steam from the hot yam, and afterwards pokes the whole into his mouth, and says, ‘I thank God for being permitted to eat the new yam’; he then begins to chew it heartily, with fish likewise.
(Chapter L. -- Eating the God, part 1. The Sacrament of First-Fruits)
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