A CoCoYaM Lesson


I had seen my mother peel cocoyam several times.
It looked very simple watching her do it:
Cut the head off; peel in straight lines from one tip to the other; peel the skin at the end tip; Scrape the peeled tuber as you rotate it in your other hand
And you’re done!

I remember my dad wanted to prepare mpotompoto that morning. But he definitely couldn’t sit and do all the peeling himself. So I was called to the job. That Sunday was the first time I peeled any tuber and I was pretty excited.
I sat in the kitchen on a wooden stool and got to work-with a spread out sachet water bag on the floor before me to peel onto and a bowl of water to my right.
My mother happened to be in the kitchen as well and, I assure you, she reacted like she had eyes at the back of her head.
Don’t do it that way. You’re doing it wrong,” she said out of the blue in our local dialect Twi.
‘I am?’ I wondered.
Don’t point the head downwards. The yam will die,” she said again in Twi.
My abdominal muscles reacted on reflex sending an undertone ‘mm!’ up my throat that was damped from getting vocal. ‘The yam will die?’ I repeated in my mind in Twi.
Turn it,” she instructed. I did as I was told and placed the rounder base in my left palm so my right hand can get to work. I cut the head in a neat slash and began peeling from the head in a straight line down to the base. But as I was peeling, the knife cut deeply at some points making the intended smooth peeling process a rather inordinate one. ‘This isn’t how it should go,’ I thought to myself.
If you do it that way, you are going to cut all the cocoyam away,” came another interjection from my mother. I raised my head to see her walking towards me and bending over to take the cocoyam and knife from my hands. “This is how it is done,” she said as I watched her flawlessly peel the cocoyam.
‘Isn’t that what I am doing with my hand as well?’ I wondered. ‘Why doesn’t the knife move accordingly?’
She handed the naked cocoyam and knife to me. “Scrape it and put it in the water,” she said.
I did as I was told and put it in the water.

I picked the next cocoyam.
I pointed the head upwards, placed the base in my left hand and in a neat cut, the head came off. I began peeling again. When I finished and was about scraping, another utterance came from my mother.
You didn’t peel it well. The skin is still on some parts,” she said.
‘Really? Where?’ I thought to myself turning the cocoyam in my hands.
Don’t you see it?” she asked walking to me and taking the cocoyam and knife from my hands again. “Look! If you eat this, your throat is just going to itch,” she said pointing at the parts she was talking about. When I looked closely, I saw portions of brown hatches. She was right. I watched her take them off and scrape the cocoyam. She dropped the cocoyam in the water and gave the knife to me.

I picked the next cocoyam.
I did everything properly.
I began to scrape and just after I passed the knife on the first stroke, my mother spoke again.
How are you rotating the cocoyam? Are you left-handed?”
“No,” I replied in English.
Then turn it this way,” she instructed, directing with her hand that I rotate it clockwise.
I took a deep breath with my eyes closed, opened them and did as I was told. I put the cocoyam in the water and went on to pick the next cocoyam.
I did everything properly once again. I scraped clockwise as she wanted. When I was about dropping the cocoyam into the water, my mother interrupted again.
Wait. Wait. This cocoyam, agyene*”
Agyene*?’ I repeated in thought. ‘What is that one too?’ I asked myself.
“It has done what?” I asked in English. I struggled to supress the frustration that was threatening to manifest in my tone.
Do you see the parts that look yellowish?” she asked, bending over and pointing to them. “You have to cut them off. You will see that when you boil this, these parts will stay hard as if they haven’t been boiled.” She took the cocoyam and knife and cut them off before dropping it into the water.

Alas, I finished peeling everything and washed the cocoyam till the water used to wash them wasn’t cloudy. My dad came into the kitchen and sat to cut the cocoyam into pieces for the mpotompoto. As he cut the cocoyam, he said to me, “You took long peeling them.”
I said nothing for a minute and spoke up.
“Yes,” he answered not looking up.
“You see, when Mama is doing anything, she doesn’t say anything unless you ask her. She doesn’t say head must always point up. She doesn’t say she is cutting parts that have…” I paused for a while trying to recollect the word she used. “Agyene. She said some has agyene or what what. What I see her do is what I copied today. Yet when I was doing exactly that, she was now mentioning the yam will die; the cocoyam, agyene.” I felt inexplicably upset as if I was cheated. My dad let out a gush of air through his nose in a muffled chuckle and with a smile he placed the pan on the gas stove without turning it on. As I stood there, I felt my hands beginning to itch. As I was watching my dad, I began to lightly scratch my hands to relieve the discomfort. My mother walked in on us and caught me scratching.
Your hands are itching?”, she asked. I said nothing. “Go and take your bath erh,” she told me, taking off one of the black polythene bags tied to the burglar-proof barring behind the kitchen door.

My bathroom. Most things occur to me when I am in there. And as I was there, a very important realization came to me:

A lot of things are easy to pass judgement on and from afar a lot of things look easy. But it turns out if you were in that position, the outcome would be the definition of disaster.
People are very quick to speak about everything without musing or contemplation. People are very quick to pass comments when they do not know the whole story.
‘You just do it like this and like this. It’s that simple,’ we say.
‘You should have done it this way and that way,’ we say.
 But if we are given the cocoyam and knife to peel, we’d miserably cut away all the cocoyam to waste. We would serve itchy, raw cocoyam. Many challenges come with the varying situations of life. And sometimes we assume certain things people do are fully rosy and without thorns and thus downplay them. My mother never once complained to my hearing that her hands itched after peeling. Yet I discovered this hidden discomfort later when the job was handed to me. There were details that from afar were never revealed. But from practical experience, I found there were rudiments to take note of. Never judge a situation you have never been in. And that morning it dawned on me that it doesn’t have to be in just peeling cocoyam. There are greater tasks people are tackling. And until such an experience is in my portfolio, it’s not my place to downplay or talk down anything anyone does by just looking.

*agyene: According to my parents, this word is used to describe the state of tubers that were missed during the first harvest and, because of that, stayed in the soil and had rainwater fall on them for a while till they finally got harvested.

60 thoughts on “A CoCoYaM Lesson

  1. It’s a beautiful piece. Applying lessons from everyday seemingly uneventful activities to life as a whole.

  2. This is a very wonderful piece…. I must say if I had no knowledge yiu have taught me….. Hihi… Thanks dear

  3. “…it’s not my place to downplay or talk down anything anyone does by just looking.”

    Who knew a simple cocoyam experience in the kitchen could unearth such valuable lesson as succinctly rendered in this piece? I have learnt a great deal from this alone. Keep it up, Justina!

  4. Great inspiration for the day. God bless you abundantly Amoakoa and keep up the great work.

  5. Justina!❤..This is very nice wow.
    ‘Never judge a situation you have never been in’

    Thank you❤

  6. Very amazing how you were able to use the cocoyam scenario to draw the line between people’s sense of perceiving things and then the Reality. Keep it up. Bless you Justina

  7. This is creativity and raw talents at it’s best..polidh it up and even the sky will not be your limit

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