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Yams in Things Fall Apart

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

In 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe, yams are significant because they represent wealth and masculinity to the Umuofia clan. Yams are so important to the Umuofia that their daily lives and celebrations are organized around this vital crop.

The King of Crops

Okonkwo, the main character in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, gets his start at yam farming by asking the wealthy Nwakibie for help. Okonkwo has not inherited any wealth from his father Unoka, who was a drunkard and a spendthrift, but he knows that yams are vital to his success in life. Nwakibie recognizes that Okonkwo is an ambitious self-starter, so he agrees to help Okonkwo begin his farming operation.

'I have learned to be stingy with my yams. But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you. As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look,' Nwakibie says. Okonkwo had asked for four hundred seeds, but Nwakibie is so confident of Okonkwo's success that he gives him eight hundred seeds.

The erratic weather devastates Okonkwo's first crop, but he manages to recover because of his hard work and determination. Others do not fare so well that year, and one man hangs himself because his yam crop has failed. This event demonstrates that, for the Umuofia, successful yam production is crucial.

Yam farming is a venture undertaken by only the men of the Umuofia clan. 'Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cockcrow till the chickens went back to roost.' Women are only allowed to weed yams. Certain crops such as coco-yams, beans, and cassava are considered women's crops, but the king of crops is reserved for Umuofia males.

Religious Significance

Okonkwo's father Unoka cannot understand why his yam crop's yield is less than the average farmer's, so he consults the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. 'Every year,' he says sadly, 'before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Ani, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams.'

Unoka begins to describe his process for clearing, sowing, and weeding the yams, but the Oracle stops him, explaining that his crop has not suffered because he has offended the gods. Instead, the Oracle says, 'You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your machete and your hoe.' The Oracle suggests that to succeed, Unoka should 'Go home and work like a man.'

The Week of Peace

Okonkwo, despite his hardworking nature, has a violent temper. When he discovers that one of his wives has left the compound without preparing food for his children and for him, he beats her. This is a direct violation of the requirements of the Week of Peace, and Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, arrives to reprimand Okonkwo.

'You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbour,' the priest says. 'We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow.'

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