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Written By : KUINI WAQASAVOU Ministry of Primary Industries. Yam planting has been a tradition passed on through generations since the early Fijians settled in Fiji.
In those days, men would be known for their strength and superiority according to whatever crops they planted and yam was the most important of them all.
According to Ilaitia Jitoko Lewenilovo, 41, it is a tradition that would die out if young men today do not learn of its values and significance.
A yam competition was held during the Easter Monday holiday and was celebrated by villagers of Mabula Village of Cicia, in Lau, residing in the urban centres.
Mr Jitoko said the elders have been competing for the past 20 years or so, coinciding with the competition that is always held back in their village.
“The elders living in the urban centres saw it fitting that we as well should continue with the tradition and that is how I also joined the competition,” Mr Jitoko said.
“I was born and brought up in the island and money that I earned through copra production put me through school and I am proud to say, until I became a doctor.
“During those days, boys were taught to value the land and to provide for the family. We were taught the various traditions and values and one of them is planting yams.
“I would follow my father to the plantation and watch him nurture and look after his prized yams.
“During the annual yam competition, men who did not take part in the competition were considered to be weak and were often told off by the elders to wear skirts.
“Those were the good old days where men, women and children would gather on the village green to weigh the heaviest and measure the longest yam.
“During those annual events I decided that I would carry the tradition of yam planting wherever I went.”
After graduating as a doctor, Mr Jitoko settled down and started his own family.
He lives on his own farm in Lautoka and has about three acres of yams, kumala and kawai.
“I am now into my fourth year of planting these traditional root crops, with cassava and dalo included.
“To date we have about 1200 short yams or uvi leka, about 100 plus long yams or uvi balavu and 100 plus as well of the Philippine varieties of yam,” he said.
This venture began with two baskets of yams that were sent from the village.
“We did not eat them but had them cut into pieces and used as planting material,” he explained.
“I have to admit that I was surprised at the way it grew during the first year and slowly I started adding my own touches to it so that it could grow bigger and heavier.”
All the secret techniques that he used on his prized yams proved worthwhile when he returned to Lautoka with first prizes for all the categories.
For the longest yam category or uvi balavu category, Mr Jitoko’s yam measured 51 centimetres. The same yam won him the next category as it weighed 24.2 kilograms.
In the short yam or uvi leka category, he scooped the first prize as well when his yam weighed a 19kg. As for the Philippine category, he scooped first prize when it weighed a smashing 53 kilos.
“It came as a surprise to me when my name was announced as winner of all categories, but it has instilled a lot of pride. I am proud to say that I am continuing the journey that my forefathers started.”
District representative for the Mabula urban dwellers, Patiliai Leqa said the annual event has been an eye-opener for the younger generation.
“Our young people are really taking it seriously. We are indeed grateful because we know that they will be able to carry this tradition to the generations to come,” Mr Leqa said.
“The yam competition is a significant event for the i-Taukei and in a sense it is sacred because it is the duty of every i-Taukei to have a yam plantation.
“Unfortunately for us who moved to the urban centres. The land issue is a problem so whatever little land we have, we kept encouraging our people to plant yams.
“Also its part of imparting the knowledge to our children so that the tradition is kept alive.
“The elders were impressed with the achievements of Mr Jitoko and believed that he had set the platform for the young men.
This year’s competition was a little different because the Permanent Secretary for Fisheries and Forests, Commander Viliame Naupoto, hosted the event and the chief guest was the Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Colonel Mason Smith.
There were prize donations from the Agriculture and Forestry Departments and cash prizes.
Mr Jitoko said his profession also taught him many things, but most important was taking care of your health.
“What better way to work out than gardening because you are killing two birds with one stone. You are staying fit, planting food for the family and ensuring food security.
“It is also a great income earner and my wife can vouch for me when I say this because we have been selling our yams and believe me, money earned from the farm is much more than money earned every two weeks.”
Mr Jitoko plans to start his own vegetable farm this year and is currently working with the Agriculture Department.
He is being assisted by his uncle, Mataiasi Domodole on the daily affairs of the farm.
“It’s about starting small and when the momentum is there, move ahead at full speed and never look back.”
He said the tradition was still alive in the islands but more awareness needs to be done among the youths and younger generations so that this age-old tradition does not die out.
“Now that I am living in the city, I still have that tradition with me and I believe that it is my roots and it is upto me to uphold it because it is my identity,” said the proud Jitoko.
Jitoko will also be competing for the category of Yam Farmer of the year during this year’s Agriculture Show in July.