We can’t disgrace yams

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer
The writer

I like yams. I like everything about yams and I would eat with relish, every meal that is made from yams. I think my love affair with yams must have come from a famous grand uncle who was a farmer in Abutia when I was growing up.

It was always such a pleasure to spend time with him on his farm and watch him work, because he had something to say about every plant.

So, I understood and appreciated the process of growing yams and have been suitably impressed by yam farmers ever since.

My grand uncle grew different types of yams and I used to know the names they were called. I worked it out for myself that yams were important since the arrival of the new yam was always heralded with a festival and there was a whole ceremony that accompanied the eating of the new yam.


Indeed, back in those days, nobody was allowed to bring in a tuber of new yam into the village until the chief had performed the necessary rites. Even those from Abutia who lived in Accra would wait until the rites were performed back home in Abutia before they would eat new yam in Accra.

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As time went by, fewer and fewer people farmed yams in Abutia and the celebration of the yam festival faded away.

The Abutia people, like most of the other people around them, turned to buying from the Ho market, yams that would have been brought from around Nkwanta and we gave up the pretence of the new yam rites and festivals. (We are back to being a yam producing traditional area now with the arrival in the past 15 years of some Kokombas who are farming and producing lots of yams in Abutia.) Indeed, this past weekend, one of the Abutia towns, Abutia Agove, celebrated their yam festival.


But I never lost my love of yams and I suspect my love for Chinua Achebe also had something to do with the reverential manner in which he wrote about yams in his first novel, Things Fall Apart.

My love for yams was of course rooted in the many and varied different dishes that are made from yams and which make me remember my beloved grandmother.

I never forgot also the suffering that I used to endure during the time between the disappearance from the market of the old yams and the arrival of new yams.

Thus I remember clearly the time when the “ete yeye va tu ete xoxo”; it was something to be celebrated. Courage Quashiga was Minister of Agriculture and was he pleased with his efforts.

Okay, not everybody can read or understand Ewe, so here goes: I remember when the “bayere foforo abe tu bayere dada”, (forgive my Twi.) Or as the Kokombas, who are the leading yam growers, would put it, : “linul pual la pe linul kpol”.

The expressions are the Ewe, the Twi and Lekpakpaa, the language of the Kokombas for the “new yam has come to meet the old yam”. It used to be that only certain homes and famous yam farmers had old yams in their barns until the new ones were ready.

Now we have come to take it for granted that yams are available all round the year and it is no longer a phenomenon worth commenting on that new ones have come to meet the old yams.

In my scheme of things, yams have always meant good news and any mention of yams always brings smiles to my face and to my voice. I do not therefore know what to make of the news I keep hearing about the glut of yams on the market.


A good harvest of yams ought to be good news for farmers. I was brought up to see yams as a symbol of masculinity, power and wealth. I learnt at first hand that the cultivation of yams requires sustained effort, strength and expertise and to quote Chinua Achebe, yam was the “king of crops”.

And here we are with farmers unhappy about a bumper yam harvest, because there is a glut on the market and yam prices have crashed.

In other parts of the world, when there is a bumper harvest of any crop, or even if there isn’t a bumper harvest, and it is simply the season for that crop, diets change to take advantage of the availability of the particular crop. When mangoes are in season, people eat mangoes and don’t insist on eating guavas.

Why are we all not eating every day, fried yams, roasted yams, baked yams, yam mpotompoto, yam ampesi, yam fufu and all the other yam recipes my grandmother had?

It would be good for us consumers because yam prices are low and it would be good for the farmers because if we all started eating yams, the prices would go up to reasonable levels.

In other parts of the world, if there is a bumper harvest of any food, the newspapers and other media outlets would be full of tempting recipes for various ways of cooking the particular food item.

What happened to the education bit of what the media seek to do?

And then of course there is the long-term solution and the Nigerians have been doing this for a long time: they process the yam into yam powder and I don’t refer to the measly packets of

“yam fufu powder” that I see on our market.

Households should be buying yam powder in buckets and in bag sizes in which rice is sold. A yam processing factory should be up in Atebubu and another in Nkwanta and they should be in full production all year round.


I am not quite sure what has happened to the yam export business, which appeared to be booming some time ago. Surely this is the time to export yams, the diaspora market is enthusiastic.

I happen to know that yam from Ghana attracts the same type of premium as does Ghana cocoa on the international market.

I still remember a shopkeeper in Oakland, California, trying to sell me a very tired tuber of yam as “Ghana yam” when he had picked it from a carton clearly marked as coming from a Latin American country.

He tried to explain to me that as for “Ghana yam”, it did not matter how old it was, it still tasted good and that is why he wanted $7 for that miserable tuber of yam which was not even from Ghana.

Does anyone among us remember that the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt’s favourite food is yam? Does anyone remember that it was seriously suggested that his speed came from the yam diet? Does anyone remember that yams were tested to see if they had steroids?

I can’t believe that there aren’t some enterprising young people among us that are packaging the “power yams” of Atebubu or the “magical yams” of Nkwanta.

I am taking my own advice and for the next three months, on the menu in my household will be yam and yam and yam. Luckily for all of us, there are a hundred different dishes to be made from yams and by the time everybody gets thoroughly fed up with baked, fried, boiled, grilled, sliced, mashed, spiced, and slow-cooked yam, there won’t be any cheap yams on the market to depress farmers.

We cannot and should not disgrace the king of crops.