Akwa Ibom People and the love for Cassava!
By Ekemini Simon
Cutlass in hand, Akaninyene a Villager from Owut Uta in Ibesikpo Asutan local Government Area hacks his way through the overgrown cassava plot. His yellowish but fading cap shades him from the blistering equatorial sun. Selecting a plant some ten feet tall, he grabs the stem with both hands and gently pulls. Out of the ground pop the roots and tubers. He lops them off with his cutlass and puts them in a well folded flour sack with other tubers he has just uprooted. Idara, his wife, with the assistant of his husband picks up the sack, places it on her head protected with a folded wrapper called ikara, and together they set off for home.
This simple harvesting procedure is familiar to millions throughout the State and nearby region who regularly enjoy cassava. In Akwa Ibom State alone, it is estimated that about 5 million people rely on cassava for more than half of their daily calorie intake. The reliance on this tuber crop is not new. It dates back to the days of our forebears. Its popularity is far from decreasing despite the emergence of synthesized and imported food to this part of the world. Cassava does not grow in Akwa Ibom State alone. Anambra, Delta, Edo, Benue, Cross River, Imo, Oyo, Rivers and to a lesser extent Kwara and Ondo State are among States known to produce Cassava in Nigeria. Some experts say that by the year 2020, the number of people dependent on cassava may double the number of those who relied on it during the early 2000s
Have you ever eaten cassava? If you are just coming into the country, you may say no. But do not be so sure! Cassava starch is an important ingredient in sauces, gravies, baby foods, custards, tapioca products, thickening agents, confectionery, and bread. Even the meat you eat or the milk you drink may come from animals who have been fed powdered cassava as part of their diet.
In addition to its contribution to the food industry, cassava is used in making adhesives, pastes, and paints.
Growing It Is Easy
But for most Akwa Ibom indigenes, such as Akaninyene and Idara, cassava is grown to be eaten. In a typical Akwa Ibom farm, species of cassava usually found are what the locals call: Kerefere meaning the soup should be your concern, Imotor (We have planted) Ekaerong, Ewen Etinge, 555, Panya and Okpo AKADEP. Though low in protein, its bulky tubers are rich in carbohydrates. Pound for pound, cassava packs more than two and a half times as many calories as either rice or yam, Africa’s next two most important staple foods. Its young shoots and leaves though not consumed in Akwa Ibom State, experts say are good to eat—high in vitamins, minerals, and proteins.
One big factor contributing to the importance of cassava is that it is so easy to grow. The land in the State is fertile for its growth. No extensive land preparation is required, other than removing shrubs and vines and making sure that there is some sunlight. When the soil is moist, the farmer plants stem cuttings from which the cassava will grow. It doesn’t require a lot of weeding, and it needs little or no fertilizer, fungicide, or insecticide. It also can be harvested at any time of the year.
Cassava is amazingly hardy. According to a Crop Scientist, Ubong Jackson, It grows well in good soil and in poor. He adds, “It thrives from sea level up to altitudes of 6,500 feet [2,000 m]. It flourishes in areas of heavy rainfall, but it is also fruitful in climates where there is no rain for nine months of the year. Even if a fire should burn it to the ground, cassava sprouts afresh from its base!”.
Processing It Is Hard Work
So from the time it is planted until the harvest, cassava is relatively labour-free. You only have to weed the farm it is planted at most twice. Once it is out of the ground, however, the real work begins. In fact, the work involved from harvest to dinner table may equal or surpass all pre-harvest activities.
This work must begin quickly. Had he wanted to, Akaninyene could have stored the cassava tubers for up to two years by simply leaving them unattended in the ground. But this cannot be applied to all species of cassava. But once they are uprooted, the tubers must be processed within 48 hours or they will begin to rot.
Idara who had returned home has many plans for the cassava she has brought home. Among her menu from the cassava is Asa Iwa, a native food that is prepared just like Ekpangnkukwo. The major difference between the two is that cassava is the main ingredient for Asa Iwa while Cocoyam and Water yam is the main ingredient for Ekpangnkukwo. Since her plan for the cassava is numerous, she allows the preparation of Asa Iwa for her Sister, Utibe who grate the cassava and fold it with cocoyam leaves for the meal. She had however kept some for Oto iwa which is usually watery and sometimes prescribed for nursing mothers. Idara had asked her to also preserve the unpeeled cassava for edita iwa. This one is usually boiled and sliced like salad. It will be preserved again with water covering it. It is usually combined with groundnut or coconut to give scrumptious taste to the palate.
Idara’s mother In-law who stays with the family gets some quantity of the cassava for Usung Iwa (pounded cassava) which she wants to eat with efere ibaba. After peeling it, she cuts it into little pieces like yam and then boils it. When it becomes soft to a reasonable degree, she removes the rope-like root in between the cassava and pounding begins. Within minutes, the usung Iwa is ready. It is as smooth and odourless like pounded yam. You can only imagine the experience when she swallows it with the rich, aromatic and saporous efere ibaba clearing all imaginable traffic on her throat.
Idara wants to make garri, a favorite of Akwa Ibom people. First she peels the cassava with a knife; then she washes it. Idara and Akaninyene now take the peeled cassava to their friend Effiong who has a grinder. The grinder mashes the tubers into pulp. The pulp is then put in a porous sack, and the liquid is squeezed out in Effiong’s press.
But the work is not over yet! Next the cassava pulp must be dried for several days. Akaniyene then sifts it with a raffia sifter. After that, Idara fries it, turning it over with a wooden plate so that it does not burn. The cassava, having reached this stage of processing, is now called garri.
Though Idara has chosen just one of many ways to process her cassava, most cassava in Akwa Ibom State is processed into fufu. Unlike garri which will be grinded the same day it is peeled, fufu is soaked for at least two to four days for adequate fermentation before it is grinded, sifted and put in a porus sack for it to be pressed. After this is done, it is stored dry. Shortcuts are not advisable, since cassava contains small quantities of cyanide, highly poisonous to humans and animals. Thorough processing reduces the cyanide content to a safe level. Different from garri, fufu is not baked by frying, it is melted with water and stirred gradually on fire until it comes out smooth.
Now, at last, it is time to eat! Garri, sipped with coconut, makes a delicious pudding. Oh! You also have to try it with groundnut or avocado pear. The experience will always be memorably scintillating. But Idara and Akaninyene decide instead to eat eba, which is made by simply stirring the garri into hot water.
Throughout Akwa Ibom State, fufu or garri made from cassava go with all the soups in the area. Have you ever tried tasting fufu with afang soup? It marries just like the popular bread and butter. You can either gun for garri or fufu anytime you desire to have a taste of the State’s cuisine such as edikan ikong, atama, editan, efere ndek iyak among other numerous soups.
Whatever it is processed into, cassava is a big part of Akwa Ibom life. So big, in fact, that many people feel that if they have not eaten cassava, even though they have had something else, they have not really eaten at all!