Report and Photos By Chris Ezeh
A grandiose new yam festival was celebrated recently in Hamburg Germany by the Orlu Senatorial Development Union and their well wishers. The occasion was marked with lots of cultural festivities, rites and abundant African menu. The special highlights of the occasion were: The award of the best African dressed ladies and Gentlemen, The presentation of the Okonko cultural Dance and the Afro-Brazilian Show.
For the Igbos, the occasion of Iri-ji (eating of the new yam) is a cultural festival of great significance. In each of the individual farm-communities, this special occasion is used to mark the eating of the new yam. In Igboland, this day of feasting ushers in not only the yam harvest season and bids farewell to the cultivation period, but is also a thanksgiving day. Mr Oguike the President of the Igbo community in France, the star guest at the occasion, described “the new yam festival, in our tradition, as the culmination of a work cycle and the beginning of another.”
During the festival people in the community use the occasion to thank God for the arrival of the new harvest of yams (a time of plenty: a contrast to the farming season) and perform traditional special rites to declare the new yam fit for general consumption. It presents the right conditions for all and sundry, family and friends to come together and demonstrate their commitment and solidarity to the local institutions.
In Igbo communities the solemn role of eating the first yam is performed by the oldest man in the community or the king, as the case may be. The belief is that their position bestows on them the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. The rituals that attend the new yam eating are meant to express the community’s appreciation to the gods for making the harvest-yields possible.
The intrusion of Christianity notwithstanding, customarily, Igbo traditionalists and title holders are not expected to taste the new yam until the new yam festival is celebrated. At the new yam festival, dishes of yam are served along with other African dishes since the festival is symbolic for abundance and the onset of a new life circle.
What are yams?
Yams are vegetable root crops (tubers) native to Africa grown in tropical regions around the world, Though many think they closely resemble sweet potatoes, yams are not related in anyway to the sweet potatoes.
Classification of Yams:
Yams belong to the family Dioscoreacea, and are tubers most often grown on a tropical vine. The word “yam” is African for the phrase, “to eat.” hence the derivative: “yom-yom”
There are 150 different varieties of yams, including the air-potato, the only true yam cultivated in the United States and in some southern countries of Europe .
A large, esculent, farinaceous tuber of various climbing plants of the genus Dioscorea; also, the plants themselves. Mostly natives of warm climates. The plants have netted-veined, petioled leaves, and pods with three broad wings. The commonest species is D.sativa, but several others are cultivated.
Chinese yam: This is a plant (Dioscorea Batatas) with a long and slender tuber, harder than most of the other species.
Wild yam: (a) A common plant (Dioscorea villosa) of the Eastern United States , having a hard and knotty rootstock. (b) An orchidaceous plant (Gastrodia sesamoides) of Australia and Tasmania .
The Igbo Culture in Finnland: Watch Video
Yam plants bear thick tubers, with an alternating climbing stems with leaves, and sometimes flowers. The greater majority of yam plants are grown in warm regions of the tropics. In Africa and New Guinea , the yam is the primary agricultural commodity. In the United States , sweet potatoes outnumber yam plants and consumption.
Yams vary in size, shape and flavour by species. The flesh of the yam can be white, yellow, pink or purple. Some yams are sweet, some are tasteless, and others are bitter. Some varieties of yams grow up to 7 feet in length, and can weigh up to 150 pounds.
Versatile, edible, Vegetable crop:
Yams are a versatile vegetable, which is easy to prepare and cook. All varieties of yams can be boiled, grilled, fried, roasted or baked.
Imported Yam tubers from Africa are available and sold today worldwide in most Afro shops especially in the USA and Europe . Because most varieties of yams are large in size, it is rare to find whole yams in any produce section in North America . Look for yams which are free of blemishes and bruises, and have tight, unwrinkled skins. The flesh of the yam should feel firm.
Yams should be stored in a cool, dark, dry area. They can be safely kept for up to two weeks. Uncooked yams should never be refrigerated. Cooked yams can be refrigerated for 3 days.
The following information outlines several differences between sweetpotatoes and yams.
Tropical America ( Peru , Ecuador )
West Africa, Asia
Edible storage organ
4 to 10
1 to 5
Smooth, with thin skin
Short, blocky, tapered end
Long, cylindrical, some with “toes”
22 to 28%
20 to 35%
Beta carotene (Vit. A)
High (orange vars.)*
90 to 150 days (120= Jewel)
180 to 360 days
(12.2 to 24o C)
(20.6 to 30o C)
Tropical and temperate
In Tropical and temperate countries
Imported from African countries / Caribbean
Recent Research Findings:
War, civil strife and natural disasters such as fire, flood or drought take their toll not only on human and material wealth of a nation but also on natural resources, especially in agriculture. Before the prolonged civil war in Sudan and drought in Ethiopia, farmers in those countries were planting white yams Dioscorea rotundata. But now yam has almost completely disappeared from their countries because the planting portion of the crop happens also to be the edible portion. A farmer is expected to set aside at least one quarter of his or her annual harvest for replanting. But during emergencies they eat up everything.
It is almost impossible to re-create germplasm because yam poorly responds to conventional plant breeding techniques. Unlike in some other crops where the male and female flowers are on the same plant, yam flowers are borne on separate plants. Flowering of male and female plants is difficult to synchronize. Flower thrips, the insects that pollinate most yam flowers, usually do a poor job resulting in the abortion of yam female flowers. These factors restrict yam hybridization using conventional breeding techniques. In essence, whenever farmers for one reason or another consume all yams they have, the crop’s genetic base is eroded. This is what happened in Sudan, Ethiopia and other crisis-ridden African countries where yam culture flourished years ago.
“After more than two decades of research work we are now in a position to combine different genes from different genotypes and come up with completely new materials with the required acceptable attributes,” says Dr. Robert Asiedu, head of the Root and Tuber Improvement Program at IITA. This is a considerable achievement for IITA which is located in the geographical centre of the genetic diversity of yam and has a global mandate for the improvement of the crop.
Of the 600 known species of yams, only six are food yams. Out of these, the most, popular white yams, Dioscorea rotundata, originated in West Africa which accounts for 90 percent of world production of about 25 million tonnes. Nigeria alone produces 70 percent or 17 million tonnes of the world output.
The yam zone of West Africa is restricted peripherally to the forest and savannah areas of Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Benin and Togo.
In Nigeria, as well as in Ghana, the lives of communities in yam growing areas revolve around the yam cycle. In Nigeria, chiefs and traditional title holders do not touch yam until the gods have been appeased. To get married in such communities, the bridegroom’s wealth is measured by the amount of yams he can produce. Till today, the tradition is that the groom must present not less than 200 big tubers of yams to the in-laws as evidence that he can provide for the wife and the future family.
The yams harvest is a traditional festivity with masquerade dancing in the villages and prayers to thank the ancestral gods for the blessings of the land and the women’s fertility. In some parts of the Ibo land in Nigeria, yam is a male totem. Women are not allowed to walk in yam farms until the yam is ready for harvesting, which is the exclusive duty of the women. To the people yam is the king of all food crops. In Ghana, yam is prepared to welcome important visitors while in Nigeria pounded yam is a national menu.