FESTIVAL OF YAMS

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At this time of the year, which is between September and November, there are celebrations and carnivals that take place in most African and African-related areas because of the harvest of the new yam which is the mainstay of the people and also the main source of employment for millions of Africans. The yams can be grown in different soil strata, like clay, red, silky, and black soil. It is the main stable food of most Africans and can be eaten roasted, pounded, fried, or as porridge with vegetables and can also be eaten boiled with red pepper and red oil. It can be dried and turned into powder for preservation.

For most farmers like myself, the return on investment is about 50% and it takes between five to seven months for planting, nurturing and harvesting though with some challenges of recent due to climate change. The seeds planted after the first rains will produce big tubers, sometimes in trios and fours. The taste of the yam is sometimes different depending on the soil. The nutrients in the soil that helps the yam develop will also be determined by how the soil is managed with shifting cultivation methods. The use of fertilizers is not encouraged because it will alter in most cases the taste and the quality of the yam and is also very likely to bring about the degradation of the soil leading to erosion which is now prevalent in some states in the Eastern part of Nigeria.

Yam cultivation has been in my family for maybe thousands of years and has even earned my wife and I a state house visit when the state house was situated in Dodan barracks, Ikoyi some decades ago. In keeping with my family’s tradition, I continue to make use of our vast family land in my hometown Akwukwu Igbo known for its fertile and green lands for the cultivation of yam, cocoa, rubber, oranges, avocado pears and palm trees produce palm oil and the luscious palm wine and palm kernels.

It was a decision made without undue consideration of my family history as it relates to cultivating and having big yam farms, something that came to mark us, because our family name is not so much a name as it is a marker, highlighting my family’s prowess and fame as yam farmers.

I recall fondly an incident many years ago while toiling on the farm alongside my fellow farmers, with whom I had formed a loose co-operative in which they farmed with me and also shared in the harvest, a man passing by stopped and enquired as to the owner of the big yam farm.

“Whose farm is this?” he asked, and when they replied that it belonged to Newton Jibunoh, he said, “This is history repeating itself. This man is going to be big like his great grandfather.”

I was happy because I had not even contemplated my family’s well-known history and love for growing yams before deciding on starting a farm.

But then, unlike my grandfather and forebears before, I was not selling my yam, despite harvesting between five to six thousand heads of yam in a year.

Instead, what I did was this?Once we have harvested the yam, I would share the harvest between me and my farmers, based on a sharing formula that we had worked out, and then I would transport the rest to Lagos.

And during Christmas or big holidays, I would distribute the yams to my neighbours, though I did not know who most of them were. I simply say to my staff, “Deliver yams to six houses down the left and six houses down the right.” That was the usual way of sharing the yams.

Most of my neighbours would send a thank you message back to me through my staff immediately.

But one evening, a gentleman and lady walked into my compound in Ikoyi and introduced himself.

“I’m Ibrahim and this is Mariam. And we want to thank you for the yams you’ve been sending to us.”

That Ibrahim was Major Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, who was in command of the Armoured Brigade in Bonny Camp, Lagos state. That was how we became friends and I continued to supply yams to him until he became president and moved to Dodan Barracks – the seat of Government at that time, and then, of course, we couldn’t send the yams to him anymore.

Now, while Babangida became head of state, I had become Managing Director of Costain West Africa, a construction company. One of our many projects was building the Sokoto Teaching Hospital which we completed during Babaginda’s regime. After its completion, the governor called me to say that the President was coming to commission the hospital and they would need me to come to conduct him around.  As expected with the visit of any president, there was a lot ofprotocol to observe. There were rehearsals held to familiarize all those present on the appropriate way to receive the president. And thoroughresearch was done by security personnel on all the routes that I was to take the head of state through.

On this occasion, we had a long line of dignitaries on the ground to receive the head of state, and I think I was number 7 or number 8 in line to receive the head of state, after the governor, the perm sec, the health commissioner, the Sultan of Sokoto and so on. But the moment he alighted from the car and sighted me, the president called out:

“Newton, where is my yam?”

“Mr President, I can’t take yams to Dodan Barracks,” I said as he took my hand.

“Who said so?” He responded.

And there and then, he just turned to his ADC and said, “I’ve been missing Newton’s yam, please arrange for them to be delivered.” Then he turned back to me and said, “When are you getting back to Lagos?”

I said, “Tomorrow, Mr President.”

He said, “Why not Lunch? Bring your wife, Elizabeth,

That was my first time in Dodan Barracks. And so I took my wife, and in the usual way after lunch, my wife and Mariam went along to one side, while he and I went to another side, in the State House, where we chatted a lot; we talked about yams and many other things.

The story I have just written about was also featured in my book “Hunger for Power” and part of it was also mentioned in a previous article in this very column.

For my new yam celebration next month, I have decided to invite some historians, the likes of Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to participate in upholding those aspects of our culture that have become part of our history.

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