Abisi are not “yam eaters” but “grain eaters” (Ibo Man in Abisi trying to sell fried yam)
Acha, Millet and Guinea-Corn are known as African Heritage Grain because that is where they originated. They are also called Lost Crops, being often replaced by imported plants like rice or maize.
They grow well on less fertile soil, their yield is good with traditional cultivation, they can be mixed with other plants. They can be transformed into bread, porridge or beer, all tasty and nutritious food and their straws are used in all kind of processes.
Acha (Fonio) or Ikan
The spiritual and economic importance of Acha ( Fonio) is recognized by Abisi who view it as the first crop of their founding fathers.
In 1973, growing Acha was not a question of survival , like it was for the Plateau people. Abisi could get along without this crop, their farms were productive enough with other crops. They kept on producing it because they were using it in many ceremonial occasions. It had remained their most important traditional crop.
Acha culture was maintained by those Abisi who recognized their strong historical and cultural ties with the Plateau people.
Acha , Digitaria exilis, is planted in the same parcels as sorghum or in the millet’s rotation cycle. The seeds of two varieties, the red (ikan) and the black-brown (iburua), are thrown on the fly on a simply returned soil without furrows or fertilizers.
Planted in May, it is harvested in October and November after one quick manual weeding. The plants are cut at the base of the stem and grouped in bundles that can hold in one hand.
The sheaves, stacked in piles by children, are carried at home by women where, after 3 days of drying, they are trampled (uche ikan, acha dance) by men. A group of 6 to 10 men can trample the full harvest in a few hours.
The grain is then winnowed by women and stored in small special granaries.
Each farmer cultivates Acha at least in one field that delivers approximately 4-6 baskets (rikurung) of 20 kilos per unit. One basket will be kept for subsequent seeding and two will be retained for ceremonial purposes: one for the annual rites of house purification and the other for the annual inter-ethnic hunting. It can be conserved a long time without deteriorating.
The rest is consumed immediately because the harvest of acha comes before that of sorghum and millet and is the main staple food for the lean season. Acha stems are used in the manufacture building materials, they are braided into carrying cushions and cook to make salt with the filtrate of stems’s ashes .
Acha was called “hungry rice” by foreigners who only observed that it was used in lean time before harvest, ignoring its highly nutritious value and good taste.
Sorghum or Guinea-Corn
Sorghum is the main current agricultural product. It is also an ancient culture.
Abisi recognizes four varieties.
White sorghum (ikandar), gray sorghum ( umↄri) and red (idar i∫ene ) are the most common types, the first being the more valued as indicated by its name making reference to Idar (Acha) ,the primordial .
The seeds (iwuzum) of these varieties are mixed together and they are grown in association of with beans and sesame. Beans are eaten boiled with salt and sesame or dried and grounded; they are also used in the manufacture of medicines and as gifts for girls.
A new variety (idar ti kwarka: Hausa sorghum) is not grown and is used for chewing.
Seeding takes place in April on parallel ridges and crops are ripe in mid-December.
They must dry for a month after which the ears (/ute/: head) are stored.
The stems are used in mud bricks for houses and small quantities are used in the production of salt.
Food processing of sorghum only takes place on the day of consumption. The grain is grounded and combined with sesame flour, chili and water.
It is the main meal (igbak) during the dry season.
Sorghum has an exchange value and is currently sold as it was in colonial and pre-colonial time.
Abisi have three types of millet crop.
The traditional variety the /ijuk /or Dauro in Hausa, is consumed or transformed into beer.
It is a late millet, planted in August and harvested in December.
A new variety preferred by Hausa, is mid size and called /umaiwa/ or maiwa in Hausa is sold but it is not common among Abisi.
The third kind (early millet or Gero in Hausa), a high-size plant matures in September is not cultivated by Abisi who believe that this culture can stop the rain.
Late millet: from intensive to extensive labor
The cultivation of millet has undergone technical changes since the occupation of the plain. Formerly, production of millet was adapted to the lack of space in Hill time by complex intensive methods that required a dozen operations.
Planting millet, /tigere ijuk/ began with the preparation of a nursery /tigatara/.
First a rapid hoeing /mekari/ builds ridges with half-buried grasses. About 1 meter large, they are fertilized with goat compost.
After fermentation for a week, the compost is mixed with soil by a second hoeing ( /irↄ∫i miɲᴈt/). These new ridges are then seeded on the fly (/ ima∫i / ) by the owner of the field.
In early August, the field is prepared for transplanting. It begins by making parallel ridges on which beans are planted. When they reached the size of about a meter high, a second hoeing builds perpendicular ridges (upↄnu) which increases and even double the surface.
This work is very difficult since the hoers have to dig further in the remaining surface of land that was first used for the other ridges, leaving only a harder earth background.
Millet is then transplanted ( /ilↄne/) on this field at 20 cm distance.
Then follows two small hoeing and in November, a weeding. The released nurseries are reused for yams and gourds.
This intensive technique was well adapted to the conditions of relative scarcity of land created by the insecurity of the bush fields in precolonial times, when Zaria raided for slaves. The need for such hard work was reduced after the colonial Pax Britannica and following World War II.
Abisi then had a peaceful access to abundant bush farmland and with the introduction of market economy, they could sell their surplus.
According to my records, intensive millet cultivation was only used by 20% of farmers. All others use extensive technique of sowing directly on parallel ridges.
These technical changes in the culture of the late millet also had an impact on the annual allocation of labor.
Indeed, the intensive preparation was made in August in conjunction with primary wedding brideservice work who could recruit up to sixty individuals for hoeing /upↄnu/ perpendicular grooves.
Riner workgroups came with many sisters and the mother of the girls to help plant the millet.
With extensive work, larger surfaces have to be hoed early in the rainy season and the work force is freed at the end of July to work on yam cultivation on a larger scale or other cultures.
Roots and other crops
Yam field notes
The yams and Cocoyam or Dasheen
The Abisi know seven varieties of yams: /umara/, white and Bristly; the /akakuda/, white and smooth; /ikant∫it/ with asperities, thr /ibomt∫it/, black and striped; the /upaga ubↄme /, black and with a cuticle yellow and white; the /upaŋga∫ene / with Red-Brown cuticle; the yellow /ut∫akarak /, which is cultivated because it takes care of the others.
Yams are planted on millet nurseries or in rich and moist soils. The ridges are approximately 75 cm high by 1 m in width, and yams are placed without interlayer plants, one meter of distance.
In August and September, the past cycle yams are exhumed. The main root (nikbane: the mother) is harvested and secondary roots (anene, the babies) are replanted in the same hole.
In November, these roots are unearthed again and replanted individually on a new site.
In December and January, a new crop is selected.
The majority of yams is harvested in August or September and only 25% in December and January.
Yam is an extra food to eat during the lean season and some less far-sighted growers only have that to eat.
At that point, they can be a subject of mockery on the part of some others because eating grain is much more valued.
Yam is predominantly a male culture.
The soil preparation is done by a collective workgroup, but only two men are necessary to plant the cuttings.
In June, women weed the plantations and the first harvest is carried out by small groups of men using digging sticks.
In December, harvesting is done with a hoe because the soil is already hard.
Cocoyam production is similar to that of the yam. They are planted in November and harvested in August after a single manual weeding.
The most common variety, /apone sapti/, is eaten boiled. Two new varieties are slightly grown: the aswolbe (“fulani cocoyam” based on an analogy with the color of the skin of the Fulani) and akubo, big black variety which smells during cooking is depreciated.
Corn is grown on house fields. It is planted on simple ridges in May, and harvested and consumed in August and September. It is either roasted or boiled and not stored. Weeding is done with a scraper when needed.
My house in Warsa with corn growing in front
Groundnut is grown in small quantities on fields of sorghum from the previous cycle. It is planted in June and harvested in November. The seeds are immediately eaten dried or boiled when used in sauces.
Abisi groundnuts are not sold at the market because they have only 2 seeds while other commercial ones have 5 seeds.
Okra, Pepper, Pumpkin and Squash
These crops are planted by women who make sauces with it. Squash is produced by men on yams lots and is used to make liquid containers.
Potatoes, cassava, sugar cane, and tobacco
These products are of recent introduction and cultivated by a minority of producers, all neighbors of Hausa farmers.
Hausa buy the cassava and pay for a whole field or for a whole ridge or Abisi sell them by packs of 3 at the market. Sugar cane cost 1 pence a piece or 3 to 6 a stick.
Lorries also carry them by bundles of 50 to 60 to Jos.
Trees belong to the owner of the field
Locus bean or Dorowa in hausa ( urun, its red fruits /milun/ and seed /eter/ are harvested in April.
Abisi Economic Potential
Abisi agriculture is productive enough to maintain and reproduce the population.
Their cereals and beans can be conserved long enough to allow the repetition of the agricultural cycle and a possible accumulation of surplus.
Changing agriculture knowledge and know-how is key to the future understanding Abisi Cultural History.
Changes in their way of life will bring new historical orientations.