Yam Barns: the ultimate measure of wealth n’ala igbo

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I want to say “in ancient times the measure of a man’s financial capacity was directly equal to the number of yams he had in his barns” but the truth is, it was not such an ancient practice. Barely 70 years ago, this practice was very much in existence. N’ala igbo, yams were and still remain a very big deal. There is no celebration or traditional payment without yams.

The major source of livelihood in the olden days was farming. Every family had a piece of land no matter how small and the more lands you had, the wealthier you were expected to be. Everybody was a farmer. From the moment a child was born, he would be tied to his mother’s back as the family embarked on the journey to their farmlands. Yams are edible tubers, very rich in starch and found all over Nigeria.

The honor in farming

Farmers were highly respected in the olden days and farming was considered one of the most lucrative works to do at the time. Unfortunately, almost everybody had a farmland and so labor was not very easy to come by. As such, it was typical for farmers to marry early and marry multiple wives too. The larger your family size, the larger your labor force too.

Yam and its planting season

Yams are not a very difficult crop to plant but they do not come cheap. To start yam farming, you need to have the yam seedlings readily available. These seedlings can be purchased in the market or can be saved from previous planting seasons. They are significantly smaller in size compared to a fully mature yam tuber, barely a handful.

Alternatively, you can begin your yam planting using a cut out portion of your fully mature yam tuber. The cutout portion has to contain the head of the yam, else, the plant may never grow.

Planting season: yams can be planted all year round but it is typical for most farmers to begin planting just after the rainy season when the ground has not fully hardened.

Mounds are first made on the farmland and the yam seedlings are strategically placed in them. You have to take note of the spaces between mounds so as to make sure each seedling has enough space to grow properly.

As the yam begins to grow and the stalks shoot out, stakes are placed into the mounds for the yam stalks to climb. The stakes are long pieces of bamboo sticks placed straight up from the mound or bent at an angle to join the stakes of two adjacent mounds at their tips. This method of tying two stakes to each other makes it harder for the stakes to fall or break under harsh weather conditions and heavy winds.

The farmer would occasionally visit the yams to make sure they are growing well and have not been attacked by any pests. Weeding will be done on the farmland prior to planting season and will also be done during planting season too.

Harvesting season for yams

The average life cycle of the yam plant is 5 months. This life cycle may vary depending on the specie of yam cultivated, but by the 5th month, the yam is mature enough to be harvested and consumed. For some species, leaving it longer may allow it grow more in size and for some other species, the yam may begin to deteriorate.

To begin the harvest, the farmers typically use a hoe and long pointed iron rod. The stakes that were placed in the mounds to hold up the stalk will first be carefully removed from the mounds. The hoe is then used to dig around the yam, carefully breaking up the mound to expose the yam tuber, while the long iron rod is used to remove the soil from the edges of the tuber.

Skills are required to avoid breaking up the yam tubers during harvesting and the farmers have to be careful while doing it. Some yam tubers may break with part of it still in the soil and the farmers will have to keep digging to bring out the remaining part. No yam should be left behind. Any yams left behind will either be consumed by pests and rodents or it will deteriorate.

Yam Barns; the ideal storage for yams

After harvesting yams, the next step is storage. Yams are stored in barns. In the olden days, a portion of the family compound id cut out to construct yam barns for storing yams. These portions are often barricaded with a makeshift wooden fence and wooden gate to offer some sort of security from potential thieves or prevent children from going into the barns while playing.

The yam barn is constructed by using strong woods to create a sort of shelf arrangement with the wood lined up closely to each other and enough space in between them to attach the yams. For some places, the woods are lined up vertically only and the yam is tied horizontally, one on top of the other, with ropes to the wood.

The length of the wood used with determine how high the barn would be and is usually dependent on how much yams you are trying to store. It is common practice to have the barn spanning a larger length that to be tall as it is less convenient stacking up yams on very high barns.

The yams are stacked side by side in the barn and looks almost like a wall when viewed from afar. Some inches are left between the ground and the yams to prevent crawling insects and rodents from attacking the yams. Yams stored in a barn can last almost an entire year as the barns are created in an open space with access to air and light.

Yams as a measure of wealth

Considering all the hard work that goes into planting and harvesting yams, it is no surprise that the number of yams a man has in his barn or the larger his yam barn, is a direct measurement of his wealth. To have yams is to have bargaining power. You cannot have a large yam filled barn without having an equivalent portion of land from where it was harvested.

Also, the number of wives a man had was also a measure of how wealthy he is. This can easily be explained, as more wives translate to more children who translates to a larger work force for the lands and a higher crop yield too.

Farmers were prominent men. They used their produce to purchase the things they do not have in the barter system of trading. They held parties and people would leave with their bellies filled. This was a show of wealth.

The challenges of yam farming in recent times

In recent times, farming has become commercialized. Lands have been sold away from their ancestral family owners and houses have been built upon them. You may rarely ever pass by a yam farm unless you visit the rural villages and even then, it is not as common as it used to be.

Lands are now bought by commercial farmers away from developing cities, and designated for yam farming. Labor is bought and farm hands are hired to oversee the growth and maturity of the crops. Modern farming equipment have helped to some extent in tilling the land and even forming the mounds in which the yam seedling will be buried.

On the other hand, with increasing security problems, local farmers have continued to experience losses as oftentimes, their yam seedling are uprooted and stolen by thieves before they are even mature enough to be harvested.

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