Speaking of Yams…
Earlier this week I posted a story about the taro and yam exchange that took place a couple of months ago in Vanuatu. Throughout Melanesia yams and taro have traditionally been the major staple crops. The two have quite different methods of production as well as symbolic meanings, and a community’s focus on one or the other tends to structure social life. For example, yams are planted and harvested seasonally. The plants’ edible tubers, if unblemished and dry, keep for several months. Thus, communities that focus on yam production tend to have an annual cycle and to emphasize communal labor and common enterprise.
If you have ever wondered how the yam came to Vanuatu, then wonder no more! Here is a legend about how the yam came to Vanuatu. The story comes to us from the book Tales from the South Seas.
How the Yam Came to Vanuatu
Kaloris of Vila Island Village had been shooting flying-fox, and as he was returning to his village at midnight he walked along the quiet beach. A beautiful full moon was high in the sky, and as Kaloris walked along and looked up at the moon, the thought came to him that it would be good if he could go to the moon to see what that other world was like. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. “I know,” he said, “I shall go!” And this is what he did. Laying his arrows on the sand, he took one only, and fitted it to his bow. He pointed the arrow at the moon, and taking careful aim he drew the string right back to his shoulder, and let go. Away it whizzed, up, up, up until it reached the moon itself, and stuck there fast.
Kaloris selected another arrow, again fitted it to his bow, and again took very careful aim. This would be a difficult shot. Back he drew the string, holding the bow steadily, and then he lit go. Up flew the arrow, flying towards the moon. It was perfect shot, and the arrow went where it was bidden to go and stuck into the shaft of the first arrow that had been fired!
Pleased with this marksmanship, Kaloris shot yet another arrow, and another, each one sticking into the end of the one which had been shot before. Soon he had a long line of arrows, stretching from the moon, right down to the beach where he stood. Throwing aside his trusty bow, Kaloris took hold of the lowermost arrow, and jumped. Up and up he climbed, one hand over the other, one arrow after another, until at last he reached the moon itself. There on the floor of the moon was a large trap-door. On this he knocked, and a voice said, “Come in.” Kaloris pushed open the door and climbed inside the moon. There he saw the Man of the Moon eating his food.
“Good health to you,” said Kaloris.
“Good health,” said the Man of the Moon. “Where have come from?”
“I come from Vila,” said Kaloris and he told the Man of the Moon how he had climbed up.
“You must be hungry,” said the Man of the Moon. “Come and have something to eat.” Kaloris thanked him and sat down and joined the Man of the Moon at his meal.
Kaloris enjoyed what he was eating. He had never tasted anything like it. “What is this that we are eating, Sir?” he said.
“Do you not know what that is?” said the Man of the Moon. “That is a yam. Would you like some for your village?”
“Indeed I would, Sir,” Said Kaloris.
“Help yourself then,” said the Man of the Moon. “You can have as much as you want for I have plenty yonder,” and he pointed over to the corner where a big pile of the dark colored yams lay.
They opened the trap-door, and the Man of the Moon helped Kaloris to push the big pile of yams over to the opening. One by one they dropped them all down. They landed in the village of Pago, a mile away from the beach where Kaloris had been standing, and from where he had shot the arrows. When Kaloris had thanked the Man of the Moon he bade him “Farewell,” and climbed down his arrow ladder. On his return home he explained to the people what this food was. All the people took one yam each, and planted them in their gardens. Soon they had a bountiful harvest.
And that is how the yam came to Vanuatu.