Botanical Explorations in 19th C. Central Africa: Wild Yams

Prior to the introduction of bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, cassava and beans, yams provided one of the basic daily foods in tropical areas of sub-Saharan Africa.  As Baker explains here, in  the 1860s, a variety of the ‘yam tribe’ were found in the area he describes, some of which required extensive processing so as not to be poisonous.

Mt. Mdole, Sudan-Uganda border, view to the north. Baker and his people came over a range near to this, in reaching the area of Obbo. Source: NASA World Wind

He and his group had reached the  extreme south of  the Sudan, on-near the Uganda border.  This is the furthest northwest  that I have found records of extensive , indigenous yam growth, outside of central and west Africa.

Yam domestication  originated in West Africa and was associated with a variety of festivals, such as the following:

Yam Ceremony, Asante Ashanti, ca. 1817 Thomas E. Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819)

Here is what Sir Baker has to say about indigenous yams amongst the Obbo, who lived in what is now northern Uganda.  it is a funny story -but also filled with information on local yams:

.. After a march of about twelve miles from the top of the pass, we arrived at the chief village of Obbo. The rain fell in torrents, and, soaked to the skin, we crawled into a dirty hut. This village was forty miles S.W. of Tarrangolle, my head-quarters in Latooka.

The vegetation of Obbo, and the whole of the west side of the mountain range, is different from that upon the east side; the soil is exceedingly rich, producing an abundance of Guinea grass, with which the plains are covered.

This country produces nine varieties of yams, many of which grow wild in the forests.  There is one most peculiar species, called by the natives “Collolollo,” that I had not met with in other countries. This variety produces several tubers at the root, and also upon the stalk; it does not spread upon the ground, like most of the vines that characterise the yams, but it climbs upon trees or upon any object that may tempt its tendrils.

From every bud upon the stalk of this vine springs a bulb, somewhat kidney-shaped; this increases until, when ripe, it attains the average size of a potato.

So prolific is this plant, that one vine will produce about 150 yams: they are covered with a fine skin of a greenish brown, and are in flavour nearly equal to a potato, but rather waxy.

Farmers in Unyoro, near the Obbo. Source: Baker-The Albert N'yanza, Great Source of the Nile.

… Ibrahimawa, the Bornu man whom I have already described as the amateur botanist, had become my great ally in searching for all that was curious and interesting. Proud of his knowledge of wild plants, no sooner was the march ended than he commenced a search in the jungles for something esculent.

We were in a deep gorge on a steep knoll bounded by a ravine about sixty feet of perpendicular depth, at the bottom of which flowed a torrent.  This was an excellent spot for a camp, as no guards were necessary upon the side thus protected. Bordering the ravine were a number of fine trees covered with a thorny stem creeper, with leaves much resembling  those of a species of yam. These were at once pronounced by Ibrahimawa to be a perfect god-send, and after a few minutes’ grubbing he produced a basketful of fine-looking yams.

In an instant this display of food attracted a crowd of hungry people, including those of Ibrahim and my own men, who, not being botanists, had left the search for food to Ibrahimawa, but who determined to share the tempting results. A rush was made at his basket, which was emptied on the instant…

I am sorry to confess that the black angel Saat [a young boy taken up by Baker’s wife on the journey] was one of the first to seize three or four of the largest yams, which he most unceremoniously put in a pot and deliberately cooked as though he had been the botanical discoverer.

How often the original discoverer suffers, while others benefit from his labours! Ibrahimawa, the scientific botanist, was left without a yam, after all his labour of grubbing up a basketful. Pots were boiling in all directions, and a feast in store for the hungry men who had marched twenty miles without eating since the morning.

The yams were cooked; but I did not like the look of them, and seeing that the multitude were ready, I determined to reserve a few for our own eating should they be generally pronounced good. The men ate them voraciously. Hardly ten minutes had elapsed from the commencement of the feast when first one and then another disappeared, and from a distance I heard a smothered but unmistakeable sound, that reminded me of the lurching effect of a channel steamer upon a crowd of passengers.

Presently the boy Saat showed symptoms of distress, and vanished from our presence; and all those that had dined off Ibrahimawa’s botanical specimens were suffering from a most powerful “vomi-purgatif.”

The angels that watch over scientific botanists had preserved Ibrahimawa from all evil.  He had discovered the yams, and the men had stolen them from him; they enjoyed the fruits, while he gained an experience invaluable at their expense. I was quite contented to have waited until others had tried them before I made the experiment.

Many of the yam tribe are poisonous; there is one variety much liked at Obbo, but which is deadly in its effects should it be eaten without a certain preparation. It is first scraped, and then soaked in a running stream for a fortnight. It is then cut into thin slices, and dried in the sun until quite crisp; by this means it is rendered harmless. The dried slices are stored for use; and they are generally pounded in a mortar into flour, and used as a kind of porridge.

The sickness of the people continued for about an hour, during which time all kinds of invectives were hurled against Ibrahimawa, and his botany was termed a gigantic humbug. From that day he was very mild in his botanical conversation.

Source: Sir Samuel W. Baker – The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile And Explorations of the Nile Sources. 1863

[First posted October 2010,  Revised 08 December 2011]

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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6 Responses to Botanical Explorations in 19th C. Central Africa: Wild Yams

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  5. MuLondon says:

    Great story – I love your indigenous food blog posts! I had no idea that certain types of yam were poisonous.


    • dianabuja says:

      Thanks – there are a variety of foods that must be processed in order to reduce their poisonous effects and I’ll be writing about some more of then. Glad you like the posts!


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