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Yam festivals in West Africa and diaspora

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By Mercy Kelani

Nigeria produces two-thirds (50 million tonnes) of the global yam produce.

The Iluyanwa Yam Festival in Emure Ekiti State, Nigeria, has almost all the townspeople in the mood of celebration of the yam harvest season. Townswomen, dressed in beautiful Ankara outfits, sing praises amidst prayer chants. Yams are carefully set on the heads of children, to prevent it from falling, as they head to the King’s palace. The community and the harvest receive the blessings of the king after which they dive fully into celebration by eating the newly harvested yams either through boiling, pounding or porridge.

Across West Africa, there are usually celebrations of culture, yam festivals, community and life in different communities. The festivals are significant events that mark the passage of a season, sacrilege of religious offering and provision of a cultural focal point for convergence of a whole town. The yam festival celebration receive sponsorship and support from governments and local organizations, ensuring convergence of many dozens, hundreds and thousands of people on a yearly basis to commemorate the yam harvest.

The tuber crop is a symbol of fertility and life sustainability.

West Africa, popularly called ‘yam belt’, is accountable for 90 percent of yam production across the world. Nigeria alone produces over two-thirds of the global yam yields, with an annual production of about 50 million tonnes. Yam cultivation in West Africa began about 11,000 years ago. This was due to the cultural interaction that existed between grain-crop agriculturalists, who had no choice but to move southward due to Sahara’s continuous desiccation, and gatherers in West African forests and Savannahs who ate wild yams without cultivation.

In many ethic groups in the country, the yam is considered as a symbol of fertility and life sustainability. It often plays crucial roles as it is used in wedding, inaugural and naming ceremonies. According to Tatiana Haina, a YouTube creator of food and travel blogs and coverage of Ghanaian cultural festivals, the yam festival is usually done to appreciate the gods of the land for a good harvest season. In the Bono East region of Ghana, the Krufie yam festival is celebrated by indigenous Bredi people.

Celebration is done in the traditional open style of food festivals.

Over the past ten years, these ceremonies have significantly contributed to tourism in West Africa, catching the attraction of tourists interested in the produce. Celebrated in the traditional open style of food festivals, yam festivals usually attract thousands of Africans and visitors from Canada, United States, Netherlands and other foreign countries. Jahman Anikulapo, a cultural activist and archivist in Nigeria, the festivals involve lots of chanting, drumming, costume display, singing, dancing and others by the locals.

Judging from activities that occur during its commemoration, yam festivals are a means of encouraging and rewarding agricultural production. Among the Ewe of Ghana and Togo, there is a competition that involves presentation of yams by different farmers to earn the title “Chief farmer” or “Yam king”. In the Igbo community, Nigeria, it is believed that productivity of yam is driven by spiritual forces associated with the earth which makes it necessary to appreciate the gods for a good harvest.

Upholding tradition is the aim of foreign yam festivals.

Currently, the yam festivals are being exported across the diaspora to create unity and connection between West Africans in Europe, America and Asia. Indigenous foreign organizations such as ICSN (Igbo Cultural and Support Network) of London, Ndi-Igbo Germany of Frankfurt, Isuikwuato Community of Qatar have effectively kept the celebrations alive outside Africa. Unlike the indigenous open air celebration style, the celebration might be conducted in halls, auditoriums or ballrooms. The major aim of celebration is to uphold tradition.

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