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Yams

Yams, being the traditional staple of many West African societies occupy an especially paramount role in Igboland, where various social and religious ceremonies, traditions, and practices have evolved in their veneration and honor. So much regard is accorded to this sole crop that the entire year is structured around its planting, cultivation, and imminent harvest. Day to day, from the crack of dawn to the setting of the sun, productivity and efficiency were—and in rural communities, still are—measured in terms of how much time one spent in his farm tending to his yam crop.


Farmers, to this day, still store their yam tubers in barns known as ‘oba ji’, which are poles arranged in neat rows of shelves to which yam heads can be tied and arranged in a vertical manner. Yam barns vary in size and are largely reflective of the wealth and prosperity of their owners: ranging from small barns owned by modest and moderately prosperous farmers to the mammoth barns of great yam farmers, such as that in photograph, which can house thousands of yam tubers.


An abundance of yam was the cornerstone of prosperity. The more yams one had, the more children they could support and feed, meaning more hands to help at the farm. Prosperous farmers often ventured into business with their crop. Beseeched by struggling farmers, or individuals plagued by poor harvests, they would loan out yam seeds for them to plant and cultivate, expecting the repayment of their loan along with interest after the harvest. Men and women without land would also volunteer themselves as indentured servants to such farmers for an agreed period of time, in exchange for a percentage of their crop or land of their own.


In many regions of Igboland, yam titles, cults and agriculturally-rooted honor ceremonies have evolved to recognize the achievement and toil of great planters. In the Igbo heartland, around the Owerri axis, titles such as ‘Duru Ji’, ‘Osu Ji’, and ‘Ude Ji’ were all conferred on individuals who were celebrated near and far for their success in yam farming. In Nnewi, in what is now Anambra, yam titles were organized into four ranks: ‘Ogbu Ji’ (a moderately prosperous farmer; the lowest rank), ‘Di Ji’ (“master of yams”; a very successful planter who owned four yam barns), ‘Di mkpa’ (“master of barn rows”; a man who owned numerous yam barns and hundreds of yams tubers), and finally ‘Dunu Ji’ or ‘Eze Ji’ (“Lord of the yam profession”; a man whose yams were so numerous that they were sold only by the barnful).

#igbohistory


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