Posted by: Matthew Davies | December 10, 2014

Dynamics of Tiv Farming Systems

Emuobosa Akpo Orijemie

The dynamics of Tiv farming

I have just been privileged to return from a recent reconnaissance trip to Benue State where I was able to make some renewed observations on Tiv farming in preparation for the coming African Farming Network workshop in the region in January 2015. I here offer some preliminary comments.

The Tiv are linguistically regarded as a Bantoid group; this group is credited with the opening up of the forest with iron tools from Nigeria-Cameroon into central, eastern and southern Africa (Elenga et al., 1994). The Tiv currently occupy the Benue Valley, an area surrounded by hills reaching 300-500m asl; they are predominantly farmers the expression of which is reflected in one of their sayings:

Ishom woo ior itleu i been ga. The machete kills people but farming continues

The Tiv cultivate several crops chief among which is yam. At least three yam species are known to them namely Dioscorea alata, D. cayenensis and D. rotundata with many sub-varieties. During the earliest period of their occupation of the Benue Valley, it appears the Tiv predominantly cultivated yams (January-March), the preparation of which begins in October-December. Yams are usually harvested in August after which cereals (Guinea corn, maize and millet), benniseed (Sesamum indicum L.), groundnuts (Arachis hypogea), okra (Abelmoschus esculenta), soya beans (Glycine max) and garden eggs (Solanum melongena) are planted. When food is scarce usually before the harvest season i.e. in the months of May-June, wild plants and fruits such as figs are gathered. The tradition of food gathering was possibly passed on to the Tiv by their Late Stone Age (LSA) ancestors. Archaeological investigations of a rock shelter in the Tse Dura hills revealed Late Stone Age occupation dating to 4th century B.C. (Andah, 1983).

In the early 20th century, the Dutch Christian Reform Mission (DCRM) attempted to solve the problem of food scarcity and encouraged the diversification of the Tiv food-base. They introduced new food crops (beans, cassava and sweet potatoes), encouraged the production of orchards (mangoes, oranges) and propagated the use of fertilizers. Of all the recently introduced plants, cassava (Manihot esculenta) has emerged as very successful. Young cassava leaves are used as spinach/leafy vegetables; the plants are easier to cultivate because they require little tending and weeding compared to yams; their tubers can be processed into several other food types (e.g. cassava flour such as garri and elubo) and starch; they are harvested twice a year; the stems can be re-planted after harvest and used in the production of potash. No doubt the Tiv now produce a higher variety of crops but also battle with new problems—(a) low fertility of soils due to abandonment of Tiv traditional fallow systems and over-reliance on inorganic fertilizers, and (b) the nuisance of weeds in farm lands with concomitant increased number of weeding time and energy. The shift in cultivation impressed on Tiv-land by missionaries had its greatest effects on benniseed and yam, two important ancient crops of the African continent. Benniseed which constituted part of major exporting goods in the early 20th century (Dorward, 1975) is hardly cultivated in Tiv land today. Similarly, emphasis on cassava farming has led to reduced crop yield with particular reference to yam sizes.

Yams are significant in Tiv culture; they are used as marriage/dowry and funeral goods; presented as gifts to in-laws and important visitors and used in certain ritual activities. Hence presentation of small yam tubers to visitors is considered inappropriate as well as a sign of disrespect. In order to have better yam yields, farmers prepare the soils into heaps well ahead in the dry season (Figure 1), practise mulching, engage in fallowing and weed farms up to five times in the planting year. The pounded form of yam is the dominant food type of the Tiv usually served at important occasions and ceremonies. The importance of pounded yams among the Tiv is expressed in a common saying: ‘The pounding of yams sends out invitation’. In contrast, cassava is considered unfit for the purposes enumerated above; in fact it is of little cultural significance in Tiv-land, a reflection of its status as an introduced crop. Despite the change in food production brought about by differing farming systems and emphasis in Tiv-land, the cultivation and cultural significance of yams have not diminished. The Tiv have developed and employ new strategies in overcoming the challenges posed by modernisation. These efforts are not merely for food security but geared towards further maintaining the deep cultural significance of yams in Tiv, a phenomenon which clearly sits in antiquity and has stood the test of time.

References
Andah, B.W. 1983. The Bantu Homeland Project: Ethnoarchaeological investigations in parts of the Benue Valley Region. WAJA 13: 23-60

Dorward, D.C. 1975. An Unknown Nigerian Export: Tiv Benniseed Production, 1900-1960. Journal of African History, 16 (3): 431-459

Elenga, H., Schwartz, D. and Vincens, O. 1994. Pollen Evidence of Late Quaternary and Inferred Climate Change in Congo. Palaeogeo., Palaeoclim., Palaeoeco. 109: 345-356.

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