Editor's note: It's the middle of the rainy season when the harvesting of new yam tubers is celebrated. Legit.ng's contributor Ifeyinwa Nzeka tells us 10 interesting facts about yam, including traditional practices attached with the fleshy tuber.
As the new yam comes into season and various Nigerian ethnic groups at home and in diaspora herald the harvest with New Yam festivals, here are ten fun facts about yam and its harvest in Nigeria!
1. Nigeria is by far the world’s largest producer of yam accounting for over 70% of the world’s production, making Nigeria the "Yam Lord" of the world. Nigeria, with its over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages and despite its diverse culture share similarities especially when it comes to food.
2. Yam should in truth be Nigeria’s national food; as in, it should be served at state banquets in the Presidential Villa, Abuja. Why? Because yam is grown all over Nigeria, from Abuja to Benue to Bayelsa to Onitsha to Ondo to name a few. Yam is indeed the universal food language all of us Nigerians understand. The importance and popularity of yam in our diet cannot be over emphasized.
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3. The New Yam Festival (also called Ijesu, Iwaji, Iri ji, Ima Ji, Obiora, Ofala, Leboku or Orureshi) is celebrated almost all over Nigeria in various ways. The festival is celebrated at different times within the various ethnic groups and communities both at home in Nigeria and in diaspora from August until October every year. The New Yam Festival is a celebration of the harvest, the thanksgiving, the culmination of a year and the start of another.
4. Die hard traditionalists will not touch new yam until after the New Yam Festival. Once the new yam is out, food vendors can often be seen labeling dishes containing new yam “new yam and beans” or “yamarita with new yam” “asaro with new yam” for example so that customers who are waiting till after the New Yam Festival in their various ethnic groups can just walk on by and eat something else. This is particularly common among chiefs and titled men and women. So remember that when next you are entertaining at a time when the new yam is just coming out, ask your guest if he or she has started eating the new yam.
5. In some parts of the country, during the period of the New Yam festival, some events including burials cannot be held until after the period of celebrations which could be as little as one day and up to two months.
6. With the arrival of new yam, just as with any food that comes into season, yam prices crash to rock bottom. This means that for many Nigerians today, asking that the “rituals” of the New Yam festival be observed before they begin to buy and eat new yam is like story for the gods! This however doesn’t take away from the importance and significance of the festival.
7. Yam is a very extravagant vegetable to grow. Yes, yam is a tuberous root vegetable! Each tuber requires a full square yard of land, which is a huge demand. So biko, when next you pick up that tuber of yam, remember how much of a “king” crop it is because that yam in your hand, has had a full square yard of space for itself for almost a year.
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8. In the olden days, in some parts on Nigeria, wealth was primarily determined by the size of one’s yam barn and the number of yams in the barn. In the pre-colonial Igbo land, yam was so much respected that a special title of king of yams (Ezeji) signifies an elevation to a special status in the community. To qualify for the title at the time, one must be a very energetic farmer with outstanding barns of yam.
A common question asked by a bride's father when a young man signifies his intention to marry his daughter is “how big is your yam barn?” In those days, the bigger the yam barn, the better for the suitor, as it means that he is prosperous and can take adequate care of the bride.
9. Before the advent of cocoa, yam was the major cash crop of the people Yam still plays a major role in our lives both as cash crop and staple food.
10. Professor Chinua Achebe of blessed memory in the novel “Things Fall Apart” has a hilarious description of the hype that surrounds the New Yam Festival.
He says: "Men and women, young and old, looked forward to the New Yam Festival because it began the season of plenty- the New Year. Furthermore, “The pounded yam dish placed in front of the partakers of the festival was as big as a mountain. People had to eat their way through it all night and it was only during the following day when the pounded yam “mountain” had gone down that people on one side recognized and greeted their family members on the other side of the dish for the first time."
Ifeyinwa Nzeka is a Cordon Bleu trained chef, hospitality practitioner and blogger who is passionate about Nigerian food and cuisine.