Yakö - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yakö are primarily agriculturists. Their main crop, except where the soil is exhausted, is the yam, and traditionally all other cultivation was subordinated to its requirements; however, subsidiary crops such as cocoyams, maize, okra, and pumpkins are also grown. Where the soil is poor, cassava, which is less demanding, may be grown instead of yams. In very wet areas, rice is a relatively recent introduction. Tree crops—bananas, plantains, kola nuts, papaws, and coconuts—are grown within the village and along farm paths. The most important tree, however, is the oil palm, which is planted in groves and is protected when found growing wild in the bush. The Yakö acquire palm wine by climbing the tree and tapping the inflorescence; they can therefore satisfy their desire for wine without destroying the tree. The traditional social and ritual activities of the Yakö did not preclude their active involvement in palm-nut collection. Indeed, it seems to have been palm oil that particularly brought traders to the Yakö areas, and trade in palm oil long supplied Yakö men with their only important cash income.

Small domestic animals have long been of some significance: cats (as catchers of vermin), dogs (as scavengers), and chickens were found in almost every household. Sheep and dwarf goats were quite common. There were a few pigs and ducks, the latter valued particularly for ritual because of their association with water and "coolness." Originally, dwarf cattle were kept primarily as status symbols by a few wealthy men, but during the colonial period some of these animals were sold to Igbo, who came to buy them for reasons that were also related to prestige. In the 1950s an attempt was made by the veterinary service to make such animals of economic significance, and, to this end, bulls of a larger breed were lent to the Yakö towns.

Industrial Arts. There were very few specialist artisans among the Yakö. Exceptions were those who carved wooden ritual and ceremonial objects and other woodworkers. Blacksmiths were itinerant non-Yakö. There was no strong tradition of pottery or basket making—pots and baskets have long been supplied by traders. On the other hand, new skills have rapidly appeared: bicycle repairer, tailor, photographer, and lorry mechanic have become quite common occupations for young men.

Trade. Most local traders operated on a very small scale. The most common form of trading was carried on by men who, usually while also pursuing farming activities, bought up small quantities of palm oil from local households and transported it to the trading depots on the Cross River. Women were also petty traders, in palm kernels. Trade at the end of the nineteenth century seems to have centered on the exportation of palm oil and the importation of cloth, gunpowder, and salt. Fom then on, and right up through to the 1950s, trade experienced a steady growth, but one that was limited by the restrictions on the availability of products for sale. Four of the five Yakö towns lack easy access by water to the Cross River, and, for that reason, although the traders from downriver were, in general, keen to buy yams (and the Yakö had plenty of them), yams did not fetch a price high enough to warrant the cost of hiring people to carry them on their heads to collection points. Thus, until the road network was substantially improved, palm oil continued to be the main export. Each Yakö town had a biweekly market, but, until the 1940s and 1950s, these remained essentially places for the exchange of household surpluses and local food specialties. Non-Yakö women brought to market dried fish and various vegetable produce, and hunters brought dried meat from the forests to the east. To some extent, non-Yakö male traders seem to have entertained exaggerated fears of Yakö headhunting and to have been discouraged from making casual expeditions into Yakö territory, although a few who had good contacts visited regularly. The building of the bridge over the Cross River and of the road linking Calabar and Enugu has obviously transformed this situation.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was a complex formula for determining who did what aspect of farm work. At its simplest, men, at the beginning of the farming year, cleared the bush from the land to be farmed in that season. This is usually heavy work, and traditionally it was done by working parties of patrikinsmen, the size of which was related to the prestige of the farmer concerned. Clearing parties did the basic work, but the fanner, either on his own or with a small group of kinsmen, had to dig out most of the smaller roots and collect and burn the rubbish. Women then hoed the yam hills, and men planted the yams. Women weeded the crop and later put in plants other than yams on the sides of the mounds; men trained the yam vines so that they grew up the supports placed between every few yam hills. Women continued to weed throughout the growing season. At harvest time, the farmer dug up his yams and, if he had a substantial farm, carefully organized women and younger men so that they washed and carried the yams to his storehouse, where they were checked and tied separately to racks in big "barns." The main point at which labor constrained farming was in the hoeing of yam mounds: the Yakö, like the Mbembe, regarded it as beneath the dignity of a mature farmer to hoe his own yam mounds. Therefore, from the 1920s onward, working parties from northeastern Igbo groups on the right bank of the Cross River have been hired to do this work, at which they are particularly skilled. They work with hoes far larger than those used by Yakö women.

Land Tenure. Government legislation has made most Nigerian land, in principle, alienable, which must be effecting great changes in Yakö society. Until this legislation was passed, Yakö land had been considered inalienable. Land was claimed by the five agro-towns, each of which had its own exclusive territory. Beneath this level, the land was divided into great blocks extending outward from the town itself, with each block claimed by one of the wards of the town. The ward head had ultimate secular responsibility for the ward land, both on ordinary occasions (e.g., choosing the day the paths from the ward to the farmland were to be cleared at the beginning of the farming season), and in the event of serious disputes. These disputes, in practice, were likely to occur between the members of different patrikin groups because each ward was divided up territorially into patrilineal kin groups, within which most rights to land were inherited. Between these groups, there was no assertion of ultimate common descent; therefore, disputes could not be settled by senior kinsmen. It was the ward head and the prominent men within the ward, recognized formally as the leaders of the ward as a spatial unit, who had to ensure that quarrels over land did not disrupt the community. The lands of the different patrikin groups within a ward were often intermingled, thus occasioning fairly frequent disputes. In general, however, the men of one such kin group would, in any one year, make their farms along the same minor farm path. A senior man of the kin group, acting as the "Farm-Path Elder," sought to resolve any problems over land between men of the kin group. A young man, when he married, was allocated some of his father's land by his father; initially his farm would almost certainly be small, restricted by the limited number of essential seed yams that he and his wife could initially amass. When his yams grew in number, so that his father could no longer be expected to provide for him directly, the father was expected to go to the Farm-Path Elder to ask for land on the son's behalf. Thus plots of land were not necessarily passed directly from father to son; most land was controlled by the patrilineage, which retained authority over the plots once they had been initially cleared from forest, even though they were normally left fallow after one season's crops had been harvested. The normal expectation was that a man could claim sufficient land to plant all his seed yams, and in the mid-1930s it was commonplace for men of the same lineage to have farms of different sizes, depending upon their resources in yams and on the skill and dedication of the work force that they were able to command. As a consequence, old men seldom had the largest farms. Until the land of the ward as a whole came to be perceived as scarce, a man who came from a lineage that for some reason was short of land found it a relatively cheap and simple matter to obtain temporary rights to land in the area of a different lineage. Matrilineal kin groups claimed certain residuary rights to particular tracts of land. By the 1930s, these rights normally had been restricted to that of matrikin to enter such tracts on the death of an elder and freely to take palm wine from any suitable tree, even one already prepared for tapping by a man with a patrilineal claim to the land. The Forestry Department then paid a royalty to the town for felling certain particularly valuable timber in these areas, and the matrikin groups immediately and successfully claimed a share. Matrikin groups have ritual associations with water; accordingly, it was the matrikin and not the patrikin who could claim the right to any groves of the valuable raffia palm, which must be planted in swamps.


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