Author Archive
Customs
Festival
Foodways

The Significance of Yams in Nigeria

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My friend grew up in Nigeria before coming to the US for college. He says yams are life in Nigeria.

Friend:“The yam is the staple food and therefore a measure of masculinity and wealth. If a family has a lot of yams, you’re rich because you can feed your family. This makes you a strong man. Yams are equated to life in Igbo culture. Nigeria is the leading producer of yams in the world, so of course they are a big deal to us.”

Me: Do you still have family who farm yams?

Friend: “My father does not farm yams, but my grandfather did, and his father before him. When my grandfather got married, he had to present his yams to my grandmother’s family to prove he could provide for her, which is a fairly typical custom in Nigeria.”

Me: Is there anything specific about how yams are farmed that makes them special?

Friend: “On some farms in Nigeria, the women aren’t allowed to go to the farm until harvest time. Then the women do all of the harvest work. It’s superstition I guess. There are many people today who still grow yams. Yams are featured at any big gathering or at any holiday meal.”

 

Analysis: Many cultures have some form of staple food. For the Irish, potatoes are an important part of sustenance, and therefore are a large part of how people live. Because of this, a simple food like a potato, or yam, can come to have symbolic meaning.  What a family produces in terms of yams, and how it relates to masculinity is extremely interesting, given that yams are an unpredictable measure of success. One year, the harvest could be plentiful and the weather perfect. The next year, however, bad luck could lead to very few yams. Another aspect of this folklore worth noting is that while the men do the initial farming, the women do the harvesting. Perhaps this relates to the hunter/gatherer trope, but a man’s worth relies on work which is half done by women.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Hot Tub Pregnancy

“Friend: When I was in middle school at a Christian private school, there was this rumor that if you kissed in a hot tub you would get pregnant. I had a hot tub at my house and I remember at my birthday party in 8th grade we started playing truth or dare in my hot tub. One of the boys dared one of the girls to kiss another guy and we all freaked out (but not visibly, because you know, eighth grade is when you’re supposed to be cool about everything). She eventually kissed the guy and then people started talking the whole next week at school about how she was pregnant and she was going to have to marry that kid.”

Me: Why do you think that was a rumor?

Friend: “I think parents didn’t want kids to be messing around in the hot tub, you know where it’s hard to see where people’s hands are. Now that I think about it, I have heard that if you have sex in water and let’s say the guy pulls out right away, there’s still a chance that you can get pregnant. Like if the sperm were to travel through the water? It seems ridiculous that just kissing can do that, but kissing leads to other things. If you’re a parent you probably don’t want your kid getting in the hot tub with someone of the opposite sex no matter what.”

Analysis: I hadn’t heard this folklore about kissing in a hot tub, but I definitely heard that you weren’t supposed to go too far when you’re in water with someone. I think the fact that she was at a private Christian school says a lot about this folklore. Chastity is a big part of the culture, and so kissing overall would be a taboo, in the hot tub or otherwise.

Legends
Tales /märchen

How the Tortoise Got Its Cracked Shell

Interviewee:

“There is a lot of animal folklore in Nigeria. I used to hear this one story all the time when I was little. It goes like this:

There was once a great drought in all the land. So the animals gathered to try and make a plan. It was decided that the tortoise, due to his charm and manner of speaking, would fly up to heaven with the birds in order to bring food down. As he flew, he told the birds that at such times it is important to change your name. So he told them his name was “all of you.” They got to heaven (and the feast) and God said the food was for “all of you.” The tortoise gorged himself. The birds got mad and left, but the tortoise begged them to tell his wife to put soft things by his house so that he could jump and fall from heaven safely. The birds told his wife the opposite and the tortoise jumped and broke his shell.

I’ve heard that one a million times. There are many Nigerian folktales about the cunning tortoise.”

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This story reminds me of many tales that revolve around how an animal or other natural phenomenon came to be. It is a way of explaining the world around us before science or other explanations came about to replace tales. The cunning tortoise is a recurring character in Nigerian folklore, representing craftiness and outsmarting others, often at his own expense.

Childhood
general

Hamburger/Hotdog Folding

My sister grew up in the United States, where most kids are introduced to arts and crafts at a very young age. As many know, there are two ways to fold a piece of paper: hamburger (narrow edge to narrow edge) or hotdog (wide edge to wide edge).

Allegra: “I was introduced to the folding pattern ‘hot dog versus hamburger style’ in first grade. We were fashioning tri-corner hats out of newspaper. The first step was to fold the newspaper down along a crease to maintain its width, rather than its length. This was referred to as “hamburger style.” If the first step had instead been to fold the newspaper vertically, longer than it was wide, the instruction would have been ‘hot dog style.'”

Me: Did you notice that other teachers referred to hamburger and hotdog folding in class?

Allegra: Oh totally. It was a commonly used instruction in art rooms and day care centers that I went to throughout my childhood. A teacher would say, ‘To make a paper fan, fold the materials hot dog style.’ or ‘To begin your fortune teller, fold the paper hamburger style.’

Analysis: If I could hazard a guess, I think the metaphor works because these sandwich fixings come out of the package with a natural crease. Buns fold along a perforation for easier separation. A hot dog bun opens but does not disintegrate, much like how many paper projects require the traces of former folds to last, so that they may be used later. Two American culinary staples, same dough, two different ways to enjoy them. Hot dogs and hamburgers are also quintessential components to the American child’s diet. Notoriously fussy eaters, the one or two lunch room items every kid likes are hot dogs and hamburgers. Its an easily relatable illustration for a strange new technique, like origami.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative
Protection

Bears and Menstruation

My mother grew up in rural California. She spent a lot of her time outside and hiking. When she was a Girl Scout, she heard that when you are on your period you should avoid going in the great outdoors.

JE:”I always heard growing up that it wasn’t safe to hike or go camping while you were on your period. Apparently bears and other predatory animals can smell it and are more likely to attack. When I was growing up, two women were killed by a bear and the rumor was that it was because one (or both) of the women were menstruating.”

Me: Who told you this?

JE: My Girl Scout Leader was the most distinct person I can remember. There were some men at my church who wouldn’t let their daughters (my friends) because they thought that women should not hike, camp or even venture into the back county during their periods because it will attract predators who will come and eat them. This cautionary advice goes for women around the world. ”

Analysis: I researched the validity of this superstition, and it holds little scientific evidence. The superstition has a strong hold on people because it’s a pretty visceral- blood, gruesome attacks, young girls, etc. To me, however, it seems like a fear of bears morphed into an unfounded belief. At one point, this was perhaps a good way to keep young girls from exerting themselves in the woods when their families believed women should be at home. The stereotype only reinforces the idea that women are not as suited to survival in the wilderness as men.

For the Yellowstone Bearman’s advice on this folk belief, see:

http://www.yellowstone-bearman.com/menstruation_data.html

Adulthood
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Legends
Narrative

Kurupi

My friend from Paraguay has a lot of folklore about the seven Guarani monsters and the legends behind them. The Kurupi was the strangest of all the seven that he told me about.

Friend: “There are several Guarani monsters I learned about growing up in Paraguay. One of them is the Kurupi, a weird gremlin-like dude with a really long penis. I think he represents the spirit of fertility or something. ”

Me: Were there any stories about him?

Friend:  “Yes. In ‘the old days’ a lot of people would say (if they had an unwanted pregnancy) that Kurupi had impregnated them without even entering their home. For example, if you were a single woman or if you had cheated on your husband and didn’t want to get into trouble, you would blame it on Kurupi. His penis is so long that he can go through windows and doors in the night. There are also a lot of stories about the Kurupi taking young women and raping them.”

Me: Did you ever believe the stories?

Friend: “No, I never really believed in the Kurupi. Mostly he’s just a funny little demon that we’d laugh about in grade school.” 

Analysis: The Kurupi is certainly the strangest looking creature I’ve ever seen. Besides the initial hilarity of his appearance, the tale of the Kurupi is creative and disturbing. In a place and time where modern medicine cannot explain pregnancies and sex, legends will replace science. This is a clear example where women would become pregnant (by someone other than their intended) and the only way to protect their virtue would be to blame it on the Kurupi. In many ways, belief in a creature like this can settle marital disputes before they even arise. Additionally, however, the Kurupi could have taken the blame for many rape incidents– when a real person was the perpetrator.

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Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Eve Soup

I asked my friend if she had any holiday traditions. She told me that on Christmas Eve, her mom prepares soup:

Me: Why soup?

Lindsey: My mom’s side of the family is Irish, so I think it’s tradition in Irish culture to have soup on Christmas. Maybe the warmth of the soup is comforting in wintertime? Also, I think soup is an easy meal to have on Christmas when people would rather be focused on their family than on cooking.

Me: What type of soup does she traditionally make?

Lindsey: It’s just a stew of different vegetables and beef. Really light. Really simple.

 

Analysis: Having soup on Christmas Eve is not a tradition I had ever heard of. I think the idea of spending time with one’s loved ones instead of cooking in the kitchen makes sense. It is more important to have Christmas with family and invest in quality time, than having an extravagant meal.

Folk speech
Foodways
general
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Dumber the Name, The Better the Food

My sister got this saying from a guy she was seeing at the time. He was extremely well traveled, and used this trick for finding close to/authentic Chinese food in America.

Allegra: “So his advice is to look for the Chinese restaurant with the weirdest name – the name that makes no sense in English. Go there and you are sure to have some authentic fare at the right price.”

Me: What do you mean by weird?

Allegra: ” Well there are names which make no sense and are a sort of enigmatic challenge for the discerning brain. Do they actually make sense and would be clear to those who were more culturally aware and cosmopolitan? Or are they purposely inscrutable so as to attract attention? Who knows, but here are some real-life examples:

I Don’t Know Chinese Restaurant

New Fook Lam Moon (was there an Old Fook Lam Moon?)

Concubine and The Shanghai

New Cultural Revolution Restaurant

Confucius Pao

The New Edinburgh Rendezvous Mandarin Kitchen

Nice Day Happy Garden

Me: Have you tried this out anywhere in New York City?

Allegra: “I haven’t yet. But now that I’m thinking about it, I fully intend to.”

Analysis: Perhaps perpetuating this rule of thumb – “The dumber the name, the better the food” is a way for people to deal with their fear of the unknown and bestow some honor on their xenophobia. Or, maybe the rule of thumb is true – at least as a self-fulfilling prophecy. People will think the food is better if they’ve found a place with a truly confusing name.

Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Holidays
Magic
Protection

Carrulim

My friend from Paraguay told me about this special drink which wards off illness.

Me: What is it?

Friend:”Carrulim is a drink that’s made from sugar cane alcohol, lemon, and some other herbs and spices. It started with the medicine men in the Guarani tribe, which is the tribe of people native to Paraguay before the Spanish arrived.”

Me: When do you drink it?

Friend:”Well I don’t drink it, I think it’s mostly old people and people who live in the country. But it’s only for the first day of August, because August is the month where the weather is worst and a lot of people get sick. There’s a saying that goes: August is the month when skinny cows die.” So yeah if you drink it, it’s only in August.”

Me: Have you ever tried it?

Friend: “Yeah. It’s a disgusting drink. I thought it sounded good but it tasted so bad. I probably will like it when I’m an old man- then again, I’ll “need” it when I’m an old man so I make it through August!”

Analysis: This custom harkens back to a time when people were worried about the harsh weather and how it would effect them. Today, we can control our living conditions with a button (at least in more modern countries) but back before this, people had to ward off illness any way they could. Today this custom serves more as a protection or good luck charm for older people. Perhaps it is psychosomatic– if you drink this, you will believe you won’t get sick, and if you don’t drink it, you will worry about being sick.

general
Material

Ñandutí

My friend from Paraguay showed me a traditional decorative cloth that he brought from home, called the nanduti.

Anthony: My mom gave me this embroidered cloth to have while I’m away at college.

Me: What does nanduti mean?

Anthony: It’s the guarani word for spiderweb, which makes sense because it kind of looks like a spiderweb. Most people just put them on tables or drape them around the house. Under a cup.

Analysis:

The Nanduti is a symbol of home for Anthony because of its beauty and its unique appearance. Like having an American flag in a foreign land, it is a reminder of where he comes from. Additionally, the Nanduti looks like a spiderweb because there is a myth about a young girl who found her dead beloved on the eve of their wedding covered in spiderwebs.

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