The Yam and it’s Support – Gīkwa na Mūkūngūgū

The Mūkūngūgū tree, (Commiphora eminii), is a fast growing tree with very soft and light wood when dry. Its leaves are compound with usually five leaflets and sometimes seven. It grows vegetatively and a branch will take root very easily even when dropped on soil. It is the definitive marker of boundaries between family members and the only other tree allowed for subdividing an estate was the mūū, (Markhamia lutea). Subdivision and marking of boundaries between sold lands or between different families was a much more elaborate affair involving a ceremonial marking of the corners with the Crinum Lily, Gītooka, (Crinum kirkii). Other corner markers planted with ceremony were, Mwatha, (Synadenium compactum), Mūgūmo, (Ficus thonningii) or Mūringa, (Cordia Africana). The lines between the corner markers were filled with Mūkūngūgū branches. The reason for using these was that even a forest fire could not destroy these trees as they sprouted again in new life. The Mūkūngūgū has a wonderful aroma and is much favored by goats and birds. Its roots are medicinal and are used to flavor soups. The bark is chewed to relieve toothache. The other more common function of the Mūkūngūgū is as a support for the yam plant.

The yam plant, Gīkwa, (Dioscorea minutiflora) is a tuber that was in Gīkūyūland grown exclusively by men and was traditionally eaten roasted. Today it is a rare delicacy and is normally prepared as a stew with Irish potatoes and meat. To prepare the yam for this stew of stews is a test of culinary finesse and tender loving care. Because the yam contains loads of a gummy soluble fiber that greatly contributes to its super food status here in Africa, one is never supposed to wash the tuber once the rough skin is removed, worse still after chopping it into tiny pieces. The gummy stuff slows down the uptake of glucose in the small intestines and also greatly contributes to the flavor. Washing it clean is a giveaway that a woman is illiterate in Ūgīkūyū and is a dot com. The yam is grown by men. Women grow the arum tuber the Cocoyam, Ndūūma, (Colocasia antiquorum), which also follows similar rules when prepared as a stew. The young man on the very first day of his visit to his girlfriend’s home carries a yam wrapped in banana fiber and presents it to the girl, much like the young men of today present the girl with roses. The girl reciprocates by cooking Ndūūma to her boyfriend.

The yam is a perennial creeper and needs to be supported in order to thrive. The normal support for it is the Mūkūngūgū. The relationship between the Yam and the Mūkūngūgū is legendary among the Gīkūyū. The yam is a thorny creeper and twists and hangs on the Mūkūngūgū for dear life. After some time the two are so intertwined that they cannot be separated and this is the source of the saying, “they love each other like the yam and the Mūkūngūgū” – Mendanīīte ta gīkwa na mūkūngūgū. The two plants can grow together for over 30 years, the yam producing tubers for the benefit of the family and the Mūkūngūgū just being there as a support. Thus the yam is in reality feminine and is the one that gives birth and the Mūkūngūgū is the masculine shoulder that it leans on. A yam without its support will never produce any useful crop and a diligent man is always seen around his yams, guiding the tender tendrils this way or that way and removing any other creepers from climbing the Mūkūngūgū. Because of its relative permanence it becomes a favorite place for little birds to nest deep within the foliage of the two plants. The man considers it a lucky omen that a bird has nested in his yams and does not disturb it.

A yam cannot be supported by another yam and though this is an obvious truth among the Gīkūyū people the white man came with other ideas. First he claimed and taught that anybody male or female can tend yams and then a horror of horrors that the most favored among yams do not even need a Mūkūngūgū to thrive. They claimed it was something mystical they called Immaculate Conception and among these yams that were growing alone was a Yam Superior. This has today degenerated to the idea that a yam can be planted as a support for another yam. What we are getting from this new farming are very poor shriveled yam tubers if any. In Gīkūyūland the growing of real good yams the size of my thigh is a thing of the past. It can be worse. Now we hear that a Mūkūngūgū tree can be planted next to another Mūkūngūgū tree and that these two can somehow intertwine or climb each other and bear fruit. Well, the Gīkūyū say, “Ūrimū nī ta ūthūngū”, that is, “foolishness is like being a Mzungu” or to put it mildly, the very essence of stupidity is copying the Mzungu ways. A Mzungu is not necessarily a white man, but one who has abandoned his or her ways. It is one who refuses to let his or her yam tendrils be guided carefully around a sound well tested support thus letting them run wild without a fixed frame of reference. The frame of reference is a sound support, a cultural and traditional underpinning, a Mūkūngūgū that marks boundaries.

A Gīkūyū man is a man is a man who tends his yams and diligently guides them around a Mūkūngūgū. A Gikuyu woman is a woman is a woman who seeks the strong aroma of a Mūkūngūgū and wraps herself around it so that they are no more twain but one. The Mūkūngūgū has a healing and support function. The yam has a nourishing function. From the depths of the earth, she nourishes. Mugikuyu know your boundaries, know your support structure, know thyself.

Yam leaf. Most definitely feminine. (Inya cia kairitu)
Mukungugu leaf. Most definitely masculine. (Ithano cia kahii)
Healthy Relationship. They are no longer twain but One.
When the yam is unsupported and runs on the ground it yellows shrivels and eventually dries off.
Very tight relationship indeed. No one can put asunder.
Healthy yield – Yam tuber.