Yam cult begins with a ceremony called “blowing on the yams” and finishes with the ceremonial exchange of yams. Yam exchange partners from other villages symbolically “breathe life” into the planting yams to ensure a successful harvest. After this ceremony, the men observe a series of taboos such as taboos against certain food. They also refrain from sexual relations in order not to compromise yams’ growth. Symbolically, growing long yams is viewed as child procreation done by men. If a yam is straight, it is considered to be male, and if it has protuberances, it is considered to be female.
During the 5-month growing season, a man spends all his time in the gardens taking care of yams and performing special rituals to encourage the yams’ growth, out of sight of women and uninitiated boys. It is believed that yams require tranquillity and possess a spirit that could sense any strong emotions. As such, conflicts, fighting and hunting are prohibited during the yam growing season.
Long yams are not intended for personal consumption but for ceremonial yam exchanges. Abelam men grow long yams in strong competition with their long-term partners from neighbouring villages. At the yam ceremony, they give their longest yams to their exchange partners who strive to grow longer yams next time. Although yam exchanges are very competitive, often leading to confrontations, they foster strong ties between villages and facilitate the proliferation of best breeding yams throughout the Abelam land.
The Abelam are renowned for their spectacular spirit houses for men use only known as korambo. Korambo are elaborate, triangular framed, forward-leaning houses 30 metres high, with brightly painted facades with big faces associated with Ngwalndu spirits. Korambo and ceremonial grounds (amei) are used for special gatherings, village meetings and ceremonies such as yam cult and male initiation ceremony. During the male initiation, village elders called “Gual” prepare young boys to become strong men, and teach them magic and skills to grow long yams.
The marriage payments (bride price) also take place in front of the korambo. The Abelam give freedom of choice to women for marriage unless the families arranged intermarriage of their children. As part of the bride price, very big shell rings, now together with money, are given to the woman’s family. The payment can be substituted by giving at least one child to the wife’s tribe. In bride price absence, a man with his family goes to live on his father-in-law’s land to assist him in daily tasks.