Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The 152nd good thing about Lagos: Yams get respect

Happy Thanksgiving! I've scheduled this post to publish the day before Thanksgiving, though we'll be travelling at the time. I hope it will work -- I've never done this before -- but I wanted to give you some timely holiday greetings.

Barring changes to our trip itinerary, on Thanksgiving day we will be in Luxor, Egypt, touring the temples of Luxor and Karnak. It should be a very memorable Thanksgiving, though I'm sure we won't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the trimmings. Yams, or sweet potatoes, are an important part of my traditional dinner. My mom always candied them with marshmallows on top, and I've always enjoyed them for dinner and also for leftovers.

Yams are an important part of the Nigerian diet, though the African yam is very different from the orange ones that Americans have for Thanksgiving dinner. They are a huge, starchy tuber. We see them all over the markets, piled on wooden tables, or stacked on the ground. They are carted around in wheelbarrows and stored in storerooms.

My driver said that they are relatively expensive in Lagos because they aren't grown here and they have to be transported in. He said he never buys them in Lagos, but when he's home in his village he eats them every day because they grow them for their own use. This vegetable stores very well, which makes it a useful staple in this country where few people have access to refrigeration. My driver said that usually they have enough from their crop to last till the next crop is ready to be harvested. It's planted just before the beginning of the rainy season and harvested around now, at the end of the rainy season.

Preparing yam is a time-consuming process. They are pounded and then fried, boiled or steamed. You can buy pounded yam flour at the grocery stores here, which is labor saving, but, I'm sure, much more expensive than preparing the vegetable from scratch. I thought that there was not a lot of nutritional benefit to yam, that it was just a cheap starch, but Wikipedia set me straight. They say:
Yams are high in Vitamin C, dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese;
while being low in saturated fat and sodium. Vitamin C, dietary fiber and Vitamin B6 may all promote good health. Furthermore, a product that is high in potassium and low in sodium is likely to produce a good potassium-sodium balance in the human body, and so protect against osteoporosis and heart disease. Having a low level of saturated fat is also helpful for protection against heart disease. Yam products generally have a lower glycemic index than potato products, which means that they will provide a more sustained form of energy, and give better protection against obesity and diabetes.

Because it's such an important staple in the Nigerian diet, there are Yam festivals in this country and in some areas, the yam is worshipped. When I went to the National Museum recently for a seminar, I received a handout from the lecture the previous week which I was unable to attend. The museum staff member had been speaking about an area called Obowo in Imo State, east of the Niger River, and south of Lagos. In the traditional religion of the Obowo people, they have a god called Uhiajioko who is the god of yam. She says that "when there is a bountiful harvest of yam, the people of Obowo give reverence to Uhiajoko... by singing praises, confessing their sins or injustices, rendering supplications, pouring libation... to him," They believe that their yam god Uhiajoko plays favorites and "indicates a special interest in an individual who will serve him specially, and this individual he in turn blesses exceptionally. This individual... is called Njoku." This chosen Njoku is given special fertile land suitable for growing yams and "a special palm tree." The really interesting part of this report talks about the death of the Njoku. She says "Uhiajioko designs a way of keeping death at bay, if not for eternity, at least for reasonable number of years. According to Obowo people, especially the Njokus, as long as something of the body still exists, such a one is still alive. Therefore when Njoku dies, his head is not allowed to touch the ground. It is a sacrilege for sand to touch Njoku's head when he is dead. If it does, it is believed that all the male children in the entire family will die. Therefore, when burying Njoku, his corpse is not laid horizontally but vertically and his head must be projected above his grave or tomb to avoid sand from touching it. His grave must not be covered because someone must be appointed to be pouring water on the corpse to facilitate the speedy decay of the body while the head is mummified." Can you picture this? The head of this dead guy is above ground and no dirt can touch it, but someone is pouring water on the ground to speed the body's decay (imagine the smell...) while the head is mummified. When the head loses its connection with the corpse and falls off, "the head will be gently carried and hoisted on the roof of [the Njoko's] room. Immediately a drum is beaten and the beating of the drum heralds the emergence of the chief priest who makes incantations, pours libations to Uhiajioko and elaborate ceremony follows suit."

That is quite an interesting burial custom there -- and it's all due to the Obowo's respect for the yam! May your Thanksgiving dinner be bountiful and you have many blessings to praise God for today. And give your yams some respect!

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