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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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What do yams represent in Things Fall Apart?  

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In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, yams are by far the most important crop to the traditional Igbo farmers within Umuofia. They are a sign of a man’s wealth, and a family with yams is a family that can prosper in the region. More than that, however, yams represent manliness:

“Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (33).

A man who can grow yams successfully proves his virility. Yams are very labor intensive, and are crucial crops to the traditional Igbo culture. In one key scene that demonstrates how highly Okonkwo values yams and their signification of masculine qualities, Okonkwo threatens Nwoye and Ikemefuna with physical violence based on their treatment of yams:

“Sometimes Okonkwo gave them a few yams each to prepare. But he always found fault with their effort, and he said so with much threatening. 'Do you think you are cutting up yams for cooking?' he asked Nwoye. 'If you split another yam of this size, I shall break your jaw. You think you are still a child. I began to own a farm at your age” (32-33).

Thus, yams hold a valuable position in the Igbo culture because of its association with manliness and virility.  

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How do yams contribute to the meaning of Things Fall Apart?

In the Ibo society, yams mean everything.  The amount of yams that a man can produce determines his worth.  Their entire year revolves around the planting, caring for, and harvesting of this most important crop.  The planting season starts with the "week of peace," which is to pay homage to the earth goddess Ani in order that she may bless them with fertile ground and agreeable weather.  Once the tireless work of the harvest has been completed, there is large festival to celebrate the blessings of their hard work and to, again, thank the goddess of the earth.

Everyone needs to eat.  Yams are the staple food of the Ibo diet and without them, they would surely all parish.  That's why a bad harvest is compared to a "sad funeral."

The Ibo are, initially, an isolated people that are completely self sufficient.  They produce everything that they need to live within their system of villages.  This includes yams, which are the most important thing because they sustain their very ability to live and, more importantly, defend themselves.

Therefore, yams become the currency in this society.  The more yams a man can produce, the more he is worth to the village.  Similarly, the more yams a VILLAGE can produce determines their place in the intertribal pecking order.  Clearly, Umuofia is a very successful tribe in the beginning if the novel with the ability to produce yams AND warriors.

This brings us to status.  In Ibo society, in order to advance up the tribal class system, it is necessary to throw lavish feasts for the entire village.  In order to be able to so this, a man has to have proven himself as a great farmer that...

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can produce the amount of yams necessary to be able to put on such a festival.  This shows us that in order to sustain themselves as a people, they need leaders that are able to produce the food that they need to survive.  So, such men are honored.

Okonkwo, the protagonist of the story, comes from a lazy father that never earned any status and was a careless farmer.  However, through hard work and determination, he rose to a high status in the society.  He is able to support three wives and still advance in rank.  The reason that he is successful is because of the HUGE importance of yam farming.

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