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New Yam: A phenomenal festival in Igboland

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By Vincent Ujumadu, Chidi Nkwopara, Nwabueze Okonkwo &Dennis Agbo

IGBO land is now agog with celebration of the age-long new yam (Iri ji) or Onwa Asaa (seventh month) festival. The festival is, however, known by several names including Iri ji, Onwa Asaa, Iwa Ji or Orurueshi, among others, in various communities across Igbo land.

Dr Anakwenze performing the traditional cutting of the yam ceremony, while the traditional ruler of Abagana, Igwe Patrick Okeke and others watch.

Although little documentary evidence exists about  the origin of the festival, it has since remained the people’s custom and tradition. The impressive glamour attached to new yam ceremonies attracts indigenes of various communities, including those in the Diaspora, their friends and well-wishers.

There is no specific date for the celebration of this Igbo festival but most communities hold the festival at the beginning of each harvest season to thank the gods for bountiful harvests, especially yam. In some Igbo communities, yam is regarded as the queen or chief crop, hence it is a taboo for anyone to sit on it.

The dates differ from one area to the other. In some agricultural communities, new yam festivals are held to herald the formal eating of new yams, hence it is called new yam festival. Some Igbo elders do not eat new yam except after the formal yearly iri ji  festivals. Those who celebrate Onwa Asaa do so to thank the god of their forefathers for keeping them alive to eat another new yam.

In places like Enugu Ezike and other parts of Nsukka in Enugu State, gaily dressed married daughters in various communities “return to their roots,” with yams, goats, fowls or even cows to celebrate the event with their brothers and sisters who they had not seen over a period of time.

In such communities, the three-day event starts with Igo Nne (celebration of dead mothers). The celebration rolls into the second day with Igo Nna (celebration of dead fathers or great grandfathers), while the third day is reserved for quaffing of palm wine, consumption of leftover meat and other unfinished items and rounded off with meetings to resolve family disputes as well as departure of visitors and family friends to their various homes.

New yam symbolic in Imo

IMO—In Obinugwu autonomous community in Orlu Local Council Area of Imo State, which has become a household name of sorts in the country and particularly the South East geo-political zone because of the raging rift between the influential traditional ruler, Eze Cletus Ilomuanya and Governor Rochas Okorocha, this year’s Iri ji festival was very symbolic. It marked the commencement of the harvest season, in the largely agrarian community.

One peculiar thing about new yam festival in Obinugwu is that the date, August 14, is fixed and sacrosanct. This yearly ritual is also called “Obinugwu Day”!

Iri ji ceremony can rightly be said to be the most prominent traditional festival of the royal kingdom. People hold this ceremony so close to their hearts, especially as it signals the beginning of harvest and consumption of “the chief crop” in Obinugwu.

During the festival, cultural dancers adorn rich cultural costumes to the admiration of the aclaim. The array of masquerade performances, create a strong feeling of awe among visitors, especially as masquerades in Igbo land are believed to have supernatural powers!

South East Voice gathered that it is a taboo for any indigene of Obinugwu community to eat new yam before the traditional “Iwa ji or Iri Ji” ceremony is performed by the royal father. Big tubers of roasted yam are brought to public glare, before the traditional ruler, along with a bowl of oil bean salad, known in local parlance as Ugba. The Ugba is generously garnished with palm oil, pepper and other delicious condiments that ultimately make the eating of the new yam pleasurable and memorable.

It must also be said that the yams used for this festival, are planted and harvested from Obinugwu farms. For the people of this autonomous community, it is sacrilegious to use imported yams and those bought from the open market or other doubtful sources for this festival.

After the presentation of the roasted yams, Eze Ilomuanya, accompanied by his wife, palace chiefs, Nze traditional title holders, visiting traditional rulers and other distinguished guests, walked majestically to where the roasted yams were placed.

New yam being celebrated

Prayers of thanksgiving

The royal father then offered prayers of thanksgiving to God for a fruitful harvest, blessed the people and later cut a piece of the roasted yam, dipped it into the ugba delicacy and ate it.

This royal act is spontaneously followed by the shouting of the traditional ruler’s traditional title by the crowd. Others thereafter, took their turns to savour the new yam even as a jubilant mood immediately enveloped the arena.

The reason is that every other indigene can now proceed to harvest and consume new yams, either planted in the community or bought from the open market.

One recurring issue, surrounding iri ji ceremonies in Igbo land is that some people rightly or wrongly, associate this yearly ritual with fetish connotations.

Responding, Eze Ilomuanya said: “It is purely a tradition of Obinugwu people and has nothing to do with fetishes. As part of the events lined up for the 2017 festivities, we began with a concelebrated Pontifical mass at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Obinugwu.”

According to Eze Ilomuanya, yam is the king of all the crops in any farmland across Igbo land.

“This is because of its dynamic nature. It can be used for several purposes. The significance of new yam festival is that it ushers in orderliness in the community and sustains the beautiful bond between the people and their ancestors. It has nothing whatsoever to do with any devilish ritual or fetish conduct.

“When culture is lost, every other thing is lost. Besides, we cannot perpetually tie ourselves to the apron strings of Western lifestyles. To do this will sadly amount to neo-colonialism,” Ilomuanya said, while insisting that the festival was their way of life. He further stressed that culture is a symbol of identity of any people.

In Igbo worldview, when a tradition survives a series of tests, misinterpretations and misrepresentations, like the new yam festival, it becomes a way of life. Abagana uses New Yam festival to end 30 –year communal feud in Anambra

Anambra—Prominent son of Abagana, in Njikoka local government area of Anambra State, Dr. Nwachukwu Anakwenze, who was crowned the Onowu Abagana (the traditional prime minister) earlier this year, has used his first New Yam festival to reconcile the various sections of the community that had been at loggerheads for the past 30 years. Dr. Anakwenze, an American-based physician and former president of Anambra State Association in the USA, ASA-USA,

Indeed, it was during the New Yam festival that all the chiefs in the town, including the traditional ruler, Igwe Patrick Mbamalu Okeke, sat together for the first time in 30 years and enjoyed the roasted yam from their farms.The outcome was, therefore, one of the significant roles yam plays in Igbo land.  The New Yam festival is a period used in making peace in troubled communities.

Anakwenze, who for many years, was leading Anambra professionals in the Diaspora on a free health care programme for several communities in the state, said though he left the country as a young man, he has always cherished the Igbo tradition.

CherishedIgbo tradition

He told South East Voice: “We are keeping with the tradition of our people. When our fore fathers planted yam, they celebrated  the wake of harvesting. That is what we are replicating, concurently thanking God for giving us good harvest. New Yam festival is part of Igbo culture, which our ancestors were celebrating hundreds of years ago.

“My grandfather was a chief and my uncles were also big chiefs. I watched them when I was young and I don’t want to forget those memories or allow that tradition to go into oblivion. We have to maintain our culture so that our ancestors won’t feel ashamed in their resting places. We will also pass it on to the younger ones so that the torch would not extinguish on my hands. I will make sure it continues to shine brighter in this community and in Igbo land in general.”

Expressing delight at what he used the New Yam festival to achieve, Anakwenze added: “For the past 30 years, our people have been quarrelling and creating factions and enmity. But since they made me the traditional prime minister, I have succeeded in bringing all the parties together. So today in my house, all the feuding parties hugged each other and put behind the differences of over 30 years, thanks to yam, the king of crops. They have sheathed their swords and have accepted one traditional ruler in Abagana, who is Igwe Patrick Okeke.

“I had to make my people understand that there would be only one Igwe at a time and he should be allowed to reign and after him, there would be elections for another Igwe in Abagana.

Peaceful coexistence

“I also made them understand that while they are busy fighting each other, our neighbours are busy stealing our land. I made them realize that there is no need fighting over nothing because the best thing that can happen to a community is peaceful coexistence.”

He said that even in America where he lives and regards as his second home, the culture and tradition of Igbos were revered because Igbos were among the four groups that founded America and had made useful contributions towards the growth and development of that country.

According to him, in Virginia State, the Igbos are honoured at a museum in Virginia because of their contributions towards the development of USA during the slave trade.

Igwe Okeke, who was elated that Dr. Anakwenze had brought peace to Abagana, told the chiefs that it was due to his efforts at restoring peace that he was rewarded with the prestigious position of traditional prime minister of the town. “For a long time Abagana knew no peace and when this Onowu was identified, it united everybody and peace returned. In doing what my ancestors did, which is the celebration of New Yam; we need to sustain the peace because that is the only way to achieve our objectives.

“To me, peace has returned… Let us forget what happened in the past and forgive each other. We will set up committees that will take decisions on issues concerning Abagana henceforth,” the monarch said.

Elusive peace

One after the other, the chiefs prayed for the long reign of the traditional prime minister, saying that, “Since you want peace in Abagana, peace will also reign in your home. Abagana was feared in the past, but things changed and our small neighbours took advantage of that to foment trouble in our community. They observed that though Dr. Anakwenze is not the richest in Abagana, he is so much interested in ensuring that peace returns in the community

Also in Uke Community in Idemili Local Government of Anambra State, the elusive peace which had previously hindered development initiatives in the area, appeared to have returned with the ascension to the throne of His Royal Highness, HRH, Igwe Charles Chuma Agbala (Igwe Oranyelu III) who ascended the throne in 2016. This resulted in the peaceful and joyous celebration of this year’s Iwaji (new yam) annual cultural festival at Igwe Agbala’s palace, Uke.

Earlier, the traditional 21 canon gun shots were fired to herald the ceremony, followed by a Holy Mass and then the traditional breaking of kola nuts before the cutting of roasted new yams to symbolize the official declaration that the indigenous people of Uke can now eat new yams.

In his goodwill message to the people, Igwe Agbala said the uniqueness of this year’s Iwaji ceremony was that peace and unification were being celebrated in the community many years after it was enmeshed in crisis which in turn, retarded progress and development in the area.

“I am very happy that this is happening at a time I assumed the position of chief servant of the people,” he said. Igwe Agbala, a quantity surveyor said, attributing the return of peace in the area to the handiwork of God.

“I am a peaceful man and peace returned during my reign, but I won’t give myself the credit for the return of peace, but rather to God who made it possible. Peace comes and flows from God and since I came on board, God has been on my side and people on the fence are joining us in droves with dancing and happiness,” he added.

Yam, the king of crops:

ENUGU- Though there are other food crops such as cassava, maize, beans and cocoyam among others, the Igbo give utmost reverence to yam, to the extent that anyone caught in the criminal act of stealing yam is visited with the extreme penalty of banishment or even death in the olden days.

Even with the coming of the whiteman in Igbo land and its subsequent imposition of the western laws, harsh penalties for stealing of yams are still applied in some remote communities.  In old Igbo societies, a man’s wealth was measured by the size and numbers of his yam barns as such attracted respect, chieftaincy titles and many wives to a prominent yam farmer.

In some cases, yams are planted solely, without any other crop in the mount or ridge beside it. It is strictly a man’s farm but women weed the grasses and help convey sticks for the staking of the yams. The man made sure that his sons were tutored in the art of yam cultivation for generational successive cultivation.

Traditional dances

Ikem-Asokwa, a community in Isi-Uzo local government area of Enugu state celebrated its new yam (orurueshi)  festival. It was a period of home coming for the sons and daughters of the community. Neighbouring communities, friends and well-wishers were also in attendance as usual.

Significantly, Ikem’s brother community in diaspora, Asokwa-Nwosi, in Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State were also in attendance. They would come with traditional dances, masquerades and goodwill messages for their brothers and sisters.

The celebration included, free medical outreach, Christian and traditional worships, visitations, merry-making, traditional wrestling competitions with neighbouring Eha-Amufu community and developmental meetings.

Orurueshi  or recovery from famine, the traditional ruler of Ikem-Asokwa community, HRH Igwe Francis Okwor, said the community usually take the lead in celebrating new yam festivals every July because the community is made of great yam farmers.

According to Igwe Okwor, orurueshi marked the beginning of eating and harvesting of the first set of yams planted between December and January and harvested July.

He said that iri ji festivals in Igboland because it was time of revival and rejuvenation of the people. “That is the time we begin to eat the new yams of the year. Once we eat the new yam, it signals the end of famine and food shortage each year as hunger reduces. So the New Yam festival is very significant in lgbo land.

“The festival marks the beginning of the year in Igbo calendar. During the festival, we perform many rites like the Ufejioku rite, there is also wrestling by young men, we choose strong boys from different age groups for wrestling. .. It is also a celebration of food security.”

On the origin of New Yam festivals, Igwe Okwo said “it started from time immemorial. Orurueshi is the day that what we call Uyaa (famine) starts to disappear because we started having new crops particularly new yams and other crops and we began to feed very well because scarcity of food starts in our place when the new cropping season or cultivation starts.

New cropping season

“Famine ends the day we celebrate the new yam festival, and begin to harvest the first yams that matured in the farms. Nobody harvests yams until New Yam festival is celebrated and if anyone does that  a heavy penalty follows.

“We regard it as the beginning of the year because as from that day we enter a new year. Anything that happened a day before the New yam festival, happened the previous year like December in western calendar.

“It actually takes a whole three days. The yams are harvested on Eke market day, on Orie market day, we go to the market with the harvested yams to sell them and compete for the best yam farmer. Other produce like goats, fowls and others will equally be sold in the market with neighbouring communities in attendance but cassava will not be sold in Orie market that day, it will be taken outside the market.

“On the second day, which is Afor market day, the traditional worshipers go to their shrines with the new yams; those called Ndi ji will go to Ufejioku deity and offer it with Okuko (chickens) and other items. On that day, the old men will also offer sacrifices to their dead fathers.

“Then on Nkwo day, which is the third day, young men will compete in wrestling and that is the day that those who practice traditional religion will offer sacrifices to their dead mothers, called Igoonne.

Traditional religion

“The Eke day is actually the day that the yams are harvested, taken home, and brought to the market on the Orie day.”

But the monarch lamented, saying there are no more young men in the villages to cultivate yams. “The cultivation of yam in Ikem land is dying because many young men who are potential farmers have left the community and are living in urban areas of Lagos, Abuja and Enugu. It is only the old men that are found in the villages of Igbo land and so you can’t even boast of a yam farm that can feed you and your family let alone the one for sale these days.

“Though the ones in the village still plant yam with support from money being sent by those in the townships to help in yam cultivating, our people have a saying that money does not go on errands by itself and so you still require manpower even if money is provided. The remaining young men are now engaged in Okada (commercial motorcycle transportation).

If it were in the olden days, as I am the elder, my family and extended family will first cultivate my own farm before they start their own but things are no longer the same,” he stated.

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