Cassava

(Manihot esculenta) Widely cultivated throughout the whole of tropical America as a food plant. It is the tubers that are used, and they are an important carbohydrate source. Tapioca is made from them by peeling, expressing the juice, grating and soaking the pulp, then heating it. This causes the starch to form the small lumps characteristic of tapioca (Kingsbury. 1964). There are two kinds of M esculenta, the "sweet" (often described as a separate species, M dulcis) and "bitter", differentiated by the hydrocyanic acid content, which is low in the "sweet" kind, so that they can be eaten raw if necessary. Varieties that have higher amounts of the acid are "bitter", and the toxin must be eliminated. It can be lethal, but rendered innocuous simply by peeling the roots and heating them (Kingsbury. 1964).

The Spanish adopted it as a staple, and a substitute for wheat bread. From very early in the colonial period, Jamaica was the important centre for its production and export (Sturtevant). It still is, but there is a ritual use of the poisonous properties of cassava there. It is a valuable food plant, but in spite of that some small farmers will not grow it, simply because they may be suspected, or even accused, of poisoning by obeaj practice. The juice of the bitter cassava caught under the finger nail is said there to be sufficient to cause death, and the record shows all sorts of unlikely practices were believed in, like introducing maggots bred in bitter cassava, or soaking a victim's underclothes in it (Beckwith. 1929).

Cassava has some ritual significance, too, in parts of Africa. In his account of Ndembu symbolism, V W Turner quotes one of his informants: "Cassava is used instead of powdered white clay to purify. Indeed, if people have no white clay to invoke with, they should use cassava meal ... Cassava is important at birth and death. When a child is born it is given thin porridge, made from cassava meal. If a sick person is nearly dead, before he dies he asks for thin cassava porridge. He drinks it and dies . Again, when women pass a grave they throw down cassava roots for the dead. They are food for the dead ...".

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