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The Most Fascinating Thing You'll Read About Nigerian Yam Production All Afternoon

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My copy of the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Central European Agriculture must have gotten lost in the mail, because a study titled "Determinants of Yam Production and Economic Efficiency Among Small-Holder Farmers in Southeastern Nigeria" somehow managed to escape my attention.

Authors Pius Chinwuba Ike and Odjuvwuederhie Emmanuel Inoni, of the Delta State University Department of Agricultural Economics, begin with an abstract that reads:

The determinants of yam production in Southeastern Nigeria were investigated using a stochastic frontier production function, which incorporates a model of inefficiency effects. Farm-level data were collected from a sample of 120 yam farmers in Enugu State and used for the analysis. The results indicate that labour and material inputs are the major factors that infl uence changes in yam output. The effects of selected farmer-specific socio-economic characteristics on observed inefficiencies among the farmers were also examined. Farmer-specific variables, such as education, farming experience and access to credit, were the significant factors implicated for the observed variation inefficiency among yam producers.

But, here's proof that, if one looks hard enough, they'll eventually find something interesting in literally anything:

The importance of yam as a crop in rural Southeastern Nigeria is more than its economic value. Considerable amount of ritualism has developed around the production and utilization of yam. The most important manifestation of this ritualism is in the new yam festival celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season. No other crop has taboo and festivity as yam. Yam is currently being exported from West Africa and Caribbean countries to Europe and North America where sizable population of yam consumers are found.

Yam ritualism? Yam-related taboos? Harnessing the magical powers of both Google and Bing (god, remember libraries?), I tracked down a 2007 paper published in the Nordic Journal of African Studies by Professor Ukachukwu Chris Manus of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, called "The Sacred Festival of Iri Ji Ohuru in Igboland, Nigeria."

Manus takes a look at, among other fascinating details, the Iri Ji Ohuru, or "New Yam Festival," and "the divine origin and the sacred nature of yams in the traditional belief of the Igbo people" as well as "the role of Ahianjoku, the yam deity."

Roasted yams, according to Manus, were believed to have "readily provided sustenance to the earliest [southeastern Nigerian] settlers" which "caused yam to receive a beatification of a kind that is preserved in many Igbo beliefs, legends and sacred myths."

Other highlights:
Evil forests abound and are considered the abode of dangerous spirits, of malignant deities, and of marauding ghosts of wicked persons who have recently died. Such forests have something uncanny and eerie about them, and are not cultivated for yam planting.

The stealing of yam is taboo in the entire Igboland. Digging up planted yam seedlings is an abomination against the yam deity and Ala, the Earth Goddess, on and from whose bowel the yam grows. Like digging up a buried relative, it is a crime that angers the gods.
On the community's "market day," Manus explains, "the most fattened yam tubers donated by an accomplished Di Ji (expert yam-cultivator in the community) are displayed."

He continues:

A huge cock, several kola-nuts, kegs of dry gin and jars of palm-wine, alligator peppers and other small ritual items such as nzu, (white chalk) nchara,(yellow chalk) edo (red chalk) are gathered. The ritual master cuts one new yam tuber into four pieces, at the same time praying:

Ji Ohuru nke afo a, anyi n’ egbuwa gi taa ta
New Yam of this year, we are cutting you this day
Anyi n’ awa gi nga nno,
We are slicing you into four pieces,
Anyi ahula k’ i na acha ziri ziri.
We have seen how whitish you are.
Njoku nwe ji, gbara oso bia Njoku,
the yam deity, run come
Gozie ji a, mee k’otu ji muta ano,
Bless this yam, may one tuber become four
N’oba onye obula n’ime anyi.
In the barn of every one of us.
Ndi-ichie lere nu ji ohuru, soro kwe nu rie.
Ancestors, behold the new yam, share the eating with us.
Haa! Amin!

Another verse is then delivered, while the ceremony leader spears the pieces of yam with a four-branched stick. He then "cuts the throat of the Oke Okpa, (the cockerel), smears the blood on the floor of Nwa Ala Ubi (the yam spirit) shrine."

"At this point," Manus writes, "the elders and shrine attendants retire with the immolated cock and the remaining portions of the sliced yam. Some slices are roasted and eaten hot with red palm oil. The rest are boiled with the chicken for the elders to
consume as New Yam Pepper Soup (Ira Miri Ji Awayi – drinking the pepper soup of sliced yams) as a commensal food. This is the end of the communal ritual part of the festival."

You might be tempted to assume the Iri Jo Uhuru is celebrated exclusively in rural Nigeria -- though, you'd be wrong.

"Every Igbo man or woman has a religious obligation to cultivate yams, however small and whatever the species," Manus notes. And, "In Houston, Texas, alone, where the Igbo number more than half a million, the festival is enjoyed as at any Igbo community in eastern Nigeria."
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