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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wisdom from Africa (IV): "I Yam What I Yam"

Chapter 4 of Achebe's Things Fall Apart explains the significance of yam in the Ibo society:

Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.... Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king.  For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost.

The former owner of my copy of the novel (got it from a Booksale outlet) scribbled the following marginal note across the above quote: "I Yam What I Yam."

With this in mind, one can understand how terrible it would be for an Ibo man to lose an entire crop of yams to the angry forces of nature, as dramatized in the following excerpt from the same novel:

Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consoloation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous year.  He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father's friend.  So he would make a fresh start.

[This paragraph is a good example of imagery - sms]But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before.  For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps.  Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere.  Then the rain became less violent.  But it went from day to day without a pause.  The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear.  The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.

That year the harvest was said, like a funeral, and many farmers wept  as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams.  One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.

Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life.  It always surprised him when he thought of it later that he did not sink under the load of despair.  He knew that he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.

'Since I survived that year,' he always said, 'I shall survive anything,' He put it down to his inflexible will.

His father, Unoka, who was then an ailing man, had said to him during that terrible harvest month. 'Do not despair. I know you will not despair.  You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survivie a general failure because a failure does not prick its pride.  It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.'

Such resilience in a man like Okonkwo all the more invites sympathy for this tragic hero.

- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 24-25, 33.

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