An Ashanti Folktale: The Coming of Yams

There were not always yams in Ashanti. In ancient times, it is said, they were none, and the people often found it hard to raise enough food to last them to year-round.

But one day a traveller came through the country carrying a yam among his possessions. This yam was seen by an Ashanti named Abu. It made him think. “If we had this year growing in our country, we would have something really worthwhile,” Abu told his friends. “We wouldn’t have to fear famine the way we do now.” And Abu decided to search for yams so that his people could plant them.

He took his weapons and began his journey he walked for many days. Everywhere he went, he asked people if they knew where he could find the country where the yams grew. Sometimes they told him it was this way; sometimes they told him it was the other way. It was a long journey. But at last he found it. He looked at the fields and saw yams growing everywhere. He asked people where he could find the king. He went to the King’s house and explained why he had come. “In my country there are no yams,” Abu said, “and the people are often hungry. If you could give me some yams to take back we could plant them, and there would be no more hunger.”

The king listened and considered. He said,” I will think about it.” And he had Abu put up and cared for in his guesthouse.

After several days, the king sent for Abu and said: “I would like to help your people, but when they are well fed and strong, they may think of going to war against their weaker neighbors.”

“This would not happen,” Abu said, “because my people are peaceful. And it is not true that people who are hungry may go to war to relieve their misery?”

“Still, if they are ambitious, I would be risking a great deal to help you,” The king said. “However, if you would bring me a man from your tribe to live here as a hostage, I will give you the yams.”

So, Abu returned to Ashanti, and he went to his father’s house and told him what he had learned. He said: “Father, you have many sons. Send one of them as a hostage to the king of the yam country, and then we can have yams to feed the people. “

But the father could not bring himself to send any of his sons into exile, and he refused. Abu went next to his brothers and told them of the offer of the king of the yam country. He asked them to send one of their sons as a hostage, but like their father they turned away and refused.

So, in desperation Abu journeyed again to the yam country and told the king he couldn’t find anyone to act as a hostage. The king was firm. He said, “then I am sorry, but I can’t give you the yams without security. “Abu returned home sadly, for he saw no solution. And when he came again to his village, he remembered his sister, who had only one son. He went to her and told her the story. She said to Abu, “I have only one son, and if he should go, I would have none. “Abu said: “Then we are lost. You are the last hope. In many lands there are yams. Here there are none, and the people are doomed to be hungry. “His sister listened while he told how yams would change the life of the people. At last Abu’s sister consented. Then he returned to the king of the yam country with his sister’s son and gave him as a hostage. The king took the boy into his own house, and he gave Abu yams to take home and exchange.

When Abu came back to Ashanti, he gave the people yams to plant and they were glad. The yams grew and were harvested, and there was plenty to eat. The yams became the most important of all crops grown in Ashanti.

As for Abu, he declared: “my father refused to send a son as hostage in exchange for the yams. Each of my brothers refuse to send a son. Henceforth I will have nothing further to do with my father or my brothers. It was my sister who gave us a son so that we might not go hungry. She will be honored. When I die, all of my property will be given to my nephew who lives in the yam country, for he is the one who made it possible for us to eat.”

And so it was that when Abu died, his cattle and his land passed not to his son or his brothers but to his nephew, the child of his sister. As for the people of Ashanti, they said: “Abu has done a great thing for us in bringing the yams to our country. We shall therefore do as Abu has done, in memory of his great deed. “And from that time onward, when a man died he left all that he owned to his sister’s son. In honour of Abu, the Ashanti people now called the family by the name abu-sua, meaning “borrowed from Abu.”

This is how it came about among the Ashanti people that boys inherit property not from their fathers but from their [maternal] uncles