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Iriji Mbaise: Celebrating a dying tradition

IRIJI MBAISE, one of the very rooted festivals for which Igbos in general and the Mbaise clans in particular are known is celebrated annually on August 15. Celebrated during the harvest season, this festival is set aside as a thanksgiving to God for a good harvest and offering of prayers for better ones in the seasons ahead.

Of all crops in Igboland, yam is king and most revered. Over the years, Iriji Mbaise has become an international event witnessed by sons and daughters of Mbaise and their friends at home and abroad.

However, in recent times, it has taken more of the status of a political event, thus relegating its essence – socio-culture, economy, spirituality, morality and tradition – to the background.

One of the highlights of this event is the presentation of kola nut and subsequent visit (to the extent that time permits) to all clans, towns/villages and even to kindreds in order of seniority. This can be likened to the ceremony of carrying the Olympic Torch through various cities or countries that have hosted or will be participating in the event. Since this tradition predates the Olympic Games, will the International Olympic Committee, IOC, ever acknowledge borrowing this practice from Mbaiseland?

There is no other activity that sets the mood for this celebration except the inspection of yam barns of Ndi Eze Ji. One has often wondered why miniature barns of Ndi Eze Ji cannot be erected at the event venue to avail spectators the opportunity of appreciating the art, wisdom, intricacy, innovation and style involved in cultivation, harvesting, preserving and or preparing this revered food item. What has happened to “Ji odu” cultural game children and youths played back in the days which promoted mental alertness, self-consciousness and concentration, among other things? More interesting is even the art of eating the roasted hot yam by the contender who catches his/her opponent off guard.

One is of the view that as much as Western education is desirable, knowledge acquired therefrom should also be applied towards the promotion, progress and deeper appreciation of our culture and tradition. Apart from our brothers and sisters who are making us proud in their different endeavours outside our shores, many who have made us proud through their writings wrote about our life, the beauty of our language, cultures and traditions. These attributes must not be replaced by pop culture or the current chronic crave for all things Western and therefore be allowed to die as it continuously suffers neglect.  Why should we allow the veritable means of teaching and learning (action/talk on one hand and watching/listening and practicing on the other) which produced so many orators and wise men vast in the use of proverbs and idioms in communication and strong, industrious craftsmen and artists who express the meaning and Igbo world view through colours, paintings, artworks and the like to fade away? Are these not what tourists seek where and when they embark on journeys, things that expose deeper meanings of life and nature while enriching their individual lives? But sadly, we neither crave for the former nor care about the latter due to our pathetic fixation on living a “better life”.

Who said that the Oyibo orthopaedic bed is better than the traditional bed, a by-product of raffia palm tree or that the sound of Oyibo guitar is more soothing to the ear and mind than the one produced by our local akwara also made from the raffia palm?

One therefore thinks it is necessary that parents engage their children (students) productively through activities that will not only teach or arouse their interests but hone their creative instincts concerning their cultural environment.Competing in Igbo essay writing focusing on the festival is one way. Another way is to task them on gaining more knowledge in their language and tradition by exploring their villages and towns. Interviewing old people during such trips will ensure the transfer of native wisdom, custom, stories and knowledge in agriculture and of its produce to the next generation.

Imagine the pleasure and applause from the audience on one hand and a sense of fulfilment and achievement of the students debating in their mother tongue on the other. These activities which will attract laurels can serve as prelude to the celebration culminating in the events of each year’s Iriji Festival. In this way, Umu Mbaise are not only carried along but are groomed to preserve the rich legacies bequeathed to them by their forebears.

To the organisers one must warn that the elder who does not teach or instruct a child on how not to let nchekele oku (coals of fire) die before it reaches the fire place and more importantly stoking it to life for either cooking or body warming, is preparing for an old age of hunger and cold.

How much involved are tomorrow’s custodians of this event? The failure of imbibing the culture and mores of old by today’s generation must be laid squarely at the footstep of their parents for not carrying on with simple traditions such as taking their children to meetings, be it town, village, kindred and even unashamedly that of the family. But they are quick to take their grown-up boys as bodyguards to political gatherings. So, why won’t they miss the mark?

Aside from the fleeting recognition and pecuniary gains that this festival offers, what enduring legacy can the Mbaise person boast of if not a wider polarized society at the end of each year’s celebration? We must at this point retrace our steps and come together, each with a will of responsibility, selflessness and ability to leave our footprints on the sands of Mbaise land or put more succinctly create a lasting impression in the minds of Mbaise people.

The culture of politics as is practised in our clime today is at variance with the lofty ideals that our culture holds so we must not allow in Mbaise or anywhere in Nigeria, the former which is ephemeral to sing the requiem of the latter which is the soul of our identity and existence.

Mr.  CHUKWUEMEKA ONWUBIKO, a cultural traditionalist, wrote from Abuja.



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