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Fertility Cock and Vagina Yam

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In Mbano area of Imo State, age grade system is a powerful social institution and groom’s age mates will accompany him to bring his wife home. This offers the opportunity to storm the wife-giving family and village in an act of solidarity with a demand that they be given a number of yams—symbolized as ‘vagina yam’ (ji ikpu)—from the groom, and a healthy live cockerel—‘vagina cock’ (okuko elu ikpu)—from the bride’s family. With these items the bride and groom are ‘given ngozi’—that is, ritually blessed to succeed. The metaphor of igba ngo—literally, mixing up sexual body fluids or sleeping together and having sexual intercourse—is captured and highlighted through calculatedly positioned fertility jokes and affirmative responses chorused in unison at the instant the blessings are being bestowed. The blessing wishes include the expectation for the new couple to succeed in bringing forth a child in the next nine months (onwa ito olu) —a bouncing baby to the community of the patrilineage.

This ritual raises some obvious questions: why do the Igbo choose yams and a live-cockerel as items to represent the feminine sexual organ? Further, why is the penis silenced in comparison to the attention given to the vagina? The answers to these questions need to be unraveled in order to bring out the underlying cultural idioms, metaphors, and symbols associated with male and female sexual relations at this stage of the marriage.

The Igbo regard yam (ji) as a male crop—as opposed to cocoa yam (ede), which is considered a female crop. The Igbo yam deity is known as ahiajoku or ajoku, from which many Igbo names, such as Njoku and Nwanjoku, are derived. These names convey specific meanings to both those who call them and those who answer to the call. Many ritual ceremonies revolve around the planting, tending, and harvesting of yam—a major crop in Igbo—and key ceremonies, such as bridewealth and other forms of individual and collective events, are dignified with yam. This highly respected root crop is a symbol of prestige associated with masculine features. Using yams in the ritual of taking a bride home is deterministic because it constitutes part of the cultural scope of bestowing masculinity on a man at the moment in which he settles social debts through honourific rites. Furthermore, since the suitor, from the onset, pays out bridewealth as a show of attainment and masculinity, it follows that the yam, rather than cocoa yam, bestows honour and dignity upon the groom’s maleness. It is inferred, the Igbo marriage rites include yam and not cocoa yam. Cocoa yam enters the picture only after the payment processes are over, when a bride’s family may resettle their daughter with various farming crops that include cocoa yam. As I was explained this by Igbo elders, I realized that the yam symbolizes obtainment, holding, getting, keeping, and continuing. In that sense, using the yam in marriage rituals is entirely appropriate as the yam sows the root of obtainment and progression. That is why yam is called ji (get and hold). Various forms of yam go with this semantic appropriation of gendered crops as a cultural yardstick. Secondly, the yam resembles the penis in its shape and thus conveys an expression of the power of the husband. During the going-home blessing rite, the groom’s age grade will usually invoke the shape of the yam while referring to the groom’s sexuality and power of igba ngo (intercourse).

As food, yam is very nutritional and consumed regularly by the vast majority of people. It is also a social food that embodies respect and honour, and delight is taken in serving it. Important ceremonies are marked with yam delicacies—either cooked or uncooked. In contrast, cocoa yam (ede) is rarely involved in public ceremonies, which suggests that Igbo rites of passage such as marrying are, in a sense, the crowning of the male conqueror – of the female. Cocoa yam is associated with the female buttocks (ederi, ike), similar in shape to the low mounds of cultivated soil the crop is planted in. Yam, in contrast, is planted in high, pyramidal mounds, signifying the protruding penis of masculinity versus the coco-yam shape of femininity. Calling the yam ‘vagina yam,’ in context with the marriage-blessing ritual, suggests that masculinity focuses on penetrating femininity with the power of the sexual muscle and invokes the bone imagery of strength—man being the bone factor and woman the flesh factor. ‘Fertility cock’ or ‘vagina cock’ is another fascinating imagery of fertility in the blessing rite. It refers to the sexual appetite and the skills embodied in the cockerel (okeokpa). The Igbo leave their domestic fowl free to roam about and cater for themselves. Thus the sexual lives of these fowls are openly witnessed on frequent bases. Usually, the cock pursues a hen and displays its sexual skill before it grabs the hen and mates with it. Onlookers are excited by such demonstrations (although older women often chase the fowl away), and it offers them a chance to talk openly about the skill and insatiability of the cock’s sexual habits. Similar imageries, such as those inspired by dogs (nkita) and Billy goats (nkpi), apply in the same way. As part of regular discourse, this cockerel sexual imagery (okeokpa nchu) is also appropriated to male sexual power and skills. ‘Vagina cock,’ therefore, is used in reference to the frequent displays of sexual interest and fertility that are, for the most part, common to all men.

Both vagina cock and vagina yam are metaphoric and symbolic of male and female sexual responsibilities. The sexual advances incorporated in the cock imagery are representative of the expectations a groom places on his wife, and vice versa. When considered together, the imagery of the vagina, yam, and cock is appropriated as a reflection of gender relations and power, fertility, and birth, which conjures sensitivity to marriage and rites of empowerment. Yet, when the Igbo refer to the vagina, they speak about elu (above) rather than ime (inside). These particular binary opposites are also representative of the bride and groom’s possession of one another—both inside and outside of their marital lives and their everyday experiences. Where the use of vagina cock and vagina yam is highly pronounced, it is enjoyed relative to gender relationships through sexual jokes evoked by this custom.[i] Through this figurative rite of taking a wife home (ihe nkporo), it signifies the final take over of a bride by the groom and his people. Unique in this rite is that the bride’s family provides a ‘fertility cock’ rather than a ‘fertility hen,’ which, in a biological sense, would appear more logical. The groom, on the other hand, provides the ‘fertility yam.’ Viewed in this light, the bride assumes to be both vagina yam and vagina cock and so ties together the locus of belongingness and patrilineage for continuity and growth. The rite of ihe kporo is also marked by a significant shedding of tears as a mark of final emotional respect, ibe akwa ila ebe di. Failure, to shed this tears, of which is viewed as running to her marriage or husband – is a ridicule.

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