A nourishing plant that is an integral part of Melanesian social rules, the yam and its cultivation mark out the lives of the clans in each tribe. It is cultivated secretly and jealously for the first annual yams ceremony, and the time when it is taken out of the earth marks the start of the new custom year. The traditional calendar is based on its cultivation and the population lives according to the rhythm of its planting, growth and harvest. The symbol of life, considered a human being, in Kanak belief it represents the male sex organ. Each family cultivates it in two separate fields. The harvest from the first is reserved for custom purposes and the harvest from the second serves as a larder for the clan.
In January or February, depending on the regions, women prepare the new yam plants for planting in the custom field. For three months these mother yams are stored in a special storehouse. Often a member of the clan will spend all his nights looking after them, like precious articles so that no man will come and steal them. The land is left fallow until May, when the stage begins of preparing the fields, in which it is prohibited to produce smoke and which must be cleared by hand. The first planting of the sacred fields, in June, remains the chief’s privilege. Immediately afterwards comes the stage of closing the basket, declared by the chief and which signifies permission for the clans to start planting. The women come out and then prepare the plants for the men. They put the mother yams in baskets which the men will carry to plant them in secret, away from indiscreet eyes. The head of the tuber, from which the stem emerges, is placed towards the rising sun, generator of life.
A taboo place
Around the field there is a plant fence as symbolic protection. Once the land is planted, it becomes taboo. Some go as far as putting up coconut-palm-frond fences so that no one can look, for evil eyes might put a spell on the yams. Once the planting is done, the field itself has a meaning and a direction. Its head is towards the mountain and its feet towards the sea. The first chief yams which are located at the head will be taken out of the earth first. At the foot of the field, a symbolic tree is planted (a casuarina called bois de fer or ironwood, bois tabou, a type of gentian, or gaiac). Pieces of fabric are hung from its branches. At the foot of the tree, there is a little wall about 20 centimetres in height, inside which are placed sun and rain sacred stones covered with earth. This taboo tree, surrounded by sacred plants such as cordyline and red coleus, protects the field. Until November, the men of the clan take particular care of this sacred place every day. It must remain clean, water must flow regularly and no weeds are tolerated.
The first annual yams
Then comes the time when “the yam is let go”, which means that nobody worries about it any more. It continues to grow alone, and no man goes to the field any more. In January or February, the basket holder, the person who possesses the tribe’s yam secrets, takes the first yam out of the earth and announces that the following week the first annual yams ceremony will take place, which will last two days. At this meeting, each clan brings one or more yams following its own custom paths. All together, they are the focus of multiple predictions which will give the major economic, political and meteorological trends for the year to come. Then the holder of the yam knowledge cooks them all together in a big pot. Along with these sacred tubers, the clans offer game and fish which will determine the quality of the hunting and fishing season. Once the cooking is finished, the yam, which must never be sliced with a blade, is broken by hand or with a fork into small pieces. Before eating them, the chiefs bring inside the magic herbs that protect their clan for the year, and give them longevity, wealth and spirituality. The sacred basket is then declared open. And a great market between the regions can then begin. Then the cycle of the traditional calendar resumes, marked by the life cycle of the yam…
A ceremony of exchanges
At the time of the first annual yams ceremony, the clans meet to show their cultural and symbolic values. The custom representatives of the tribal chefferies meet to share their knowledge and techniques concerning the yam life cycle. At the same time as this exchange of knowledge, a custom ceremony takes place where the clans exchange fabric and traditional shell money. Through this ceremony, family and economic alliances are renewed. The men exchange produce from the land, the sea and hunting, which remains closely linked to the yam life cycle. The clan holding the magic carries out the rituals of prediction and cooking the first annual yams brought by the various clans. Seeing the size and quality of each one, it announces the event calendar for the entire year.