Yam is of great significance and importance to the Igbo people in general; it is known as the king of all crops. It is given so much respect and recognition that there is an entire festival dedicated to it. The festival is called Iri Ji.
In commemoration, the Igbo people gather to offer sacrifices and appraisal to the gods for blessing the land with such a great crop. It is followed by celebration, eating, dancing and merriment. The Iri Ji festival is cultural display at its finest.
There are several sexual nuances associated with yam. It is a symbol of strength and power which due to the patriarchal nature of Igbo culture is associated with the male gender. Yam is seen as a male crop and a male thing and thus a symbol of authority. There is nearly no significant occasion in Igbo land that doesn’t include the display or eating of yam.
Marriage in some parts of Igbo land, for instance, cannot occur without Ji (yam) as a symbol of male power. There would be other variants such as cocoyam or water yam but they are only perceived as a supportive crop-kin of yam just as a woman is expected to be a helpmeet and a support system for the man.
Having a full yam barn is a great feat and, as such, only men are allowed to cultivate yam. While things are starting to change in some parts of Igbo land and there has been a lot of positive push back for parts of our culture that conveniently excludes women, yam cultivation is still an art reserved for men in some parts of Igbo land.
Women are allowed to plant and harvest cocoyam, water yam, cassava, and so on―any other brand of yam except the king crop itself. Many cases have been made to cater to this exclusion or provide some sort of justification for it, one of which is a story of a woman and a fairy told in a small village in southeastern Nigeria.
This woman, Mbula, saw a fairy with two pieces of yam, one in each hand. The mere sight terrified her so she went to a goddess to inquire the fluidity of what she saw because she had never seen a thing like that before. The goddess known as long-Juju or Esim told her to kill and bury her first child on the farm. She could not bear to harm her child so she killed and buried her slave instead. The goddess told her to wait eight days and her farm will begin to produce the same yam she saw in the fairies hand.
After waiting for eight days she went to her farm to cultivate the yams, but she was surprised to see something different growing from the ground. It looked like the yam she had seen with the fairy but it wasn’t. For a sacrifice as huge as someone’s life, she expected specific results. So she went back to Esim who told her that what she saw was water yam and it was a product of her disobedience. She sacrificed a slave instead of her child.
When the villagers heard her ordeal, they decided to name the water yam after her. It was called “Mbula” just like her, to this day. Since then, water yam and some other yam variants have been associated with femininity. They are known as female crops. It was also believed that a man had paid the ultimate prize and the goddess blessed him with the real yams, the king crop. Many of these stories exist in similar or diverse versions and some Igbo people have come to see it as part of their history.
In Nigeria, yam is a well-known crop and is consumed all over the country. Yam consumption by the Yoruba people is believed to be a reason for the increase of twin births in Yoruba land. Yam is generally very symbolic and in this case a symbol of fertility. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest producers of yam, so it is little wonder it holds diverse cultural connotations.
There is not a lot of conversation going on about the sexualisation of yam in Igbo land. The planting and cultivation of yam is not exactly an easy task. So not many women are fighting to be allowed to engage in back-breaking work.
The most important takeaway from this and culture generally is that we must know the parts of culture that we are willing to accept or abhor. A lot of Igbo women own barns and cultivate yams today; some do not. Our practices are constantly evolving and even the celebration of Iri Ji is not as fetish as it used to be.
Renowned Nigerian writer and Feminist icon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was right when she said, “Culture does not make people, people make culture.”