N.I.G is a socio-cultural and the umbrella organisation of all Igbo associations in Germany

NEW YAM FESTIVAL IN IGBO LAND (IKE/IRI/IWA JI N’ALA IGBO)

By Rev. Fr. Dr. George Nnaemeka Oranekwu, Honorary Member Igbo Union Freibug

Introduction

The New Yam Festival is an annual occasion of offering and celebrating immense thanks to the gods (or God) for making the farm yields possible as well as offering for even a better harvest in the subsequent planting season. Although this major festival is not an exclusively Igbo event, owing to the fact that it stretches well over much of West African (even all the way from Cameroun to Ivory Coast), the Igbo people differ from many of the communities of the West African coastline that celebrate the New Yam Festival. The Igbos are egalitarian and democratic, unlike the Yorubas or the Bini, or the Ashanti and the Fante in Ghana, whose political organisation is rather aristocratic or hierarchical in their traditions. However, our brief inquiry into the New Yam Festival in this work shall be bordered specially on the tradition of Igbos.
The New Yam festival of the Igbos are noted with names such as Emume Iri Ji Ohuru, Iwa Ji, Ife ji Oku, Ike ji, Ahajioku, etc. (depending on the community’s dialect). It is annually held at the end of every rainy season, between August and October. As varied as the communities that celebrate this event, so the origin and procedure of the ceremony in the various Igbo communities. Nonetheless, all border on the significance and prime position of the staple crop, yam, among all other crops in the land. So, before we go further, we shall briefly look into the reason why it is yam and not any other crop.

Significance of Yam

Yam is a very vital food crop in Igbo land. The traditional Igbo society is mainly agrarian. Emphasis is placed on farming and the cultivation of sufficient food to last until the next food harvest. More still, greater emphasis is especially placed on yam cultivation. The traditional Igbo man takes huge pride in showing off his yarn barn neatly stacked with yam tubers from top to bottom. It signifies wealth and success. In the past, a common question asked by a bride’s father when a young man signifies his intention to marry his daughter is: ‘how big is your yam barn’? - A big yam barn implies that the young man is industrious and can take care of one’s daughter.

Yam is a very uneconomical crop to cultivate. For one thing, there is only one harvest a year. For another, cultivatingyams is truly a man’s job - oru okorobia. Only the able-bodied and persevering can successfully do it . Moreover, unlike cassava, yam depends on its own tubers for propagation. This means that a substantial part of each harvest is earmarked for the following year’s planting - a rather literal wastage of both capital and profit. In consequence, yam has become a very precious plant, indeed. Thus, if, for any reason, its harvest failed, the community was doomed, as it were, to starvation.

Origin of the New Yam Festival

There are numerous accounts as there are numerous traditional communities in respect of the origins of both the yam and the New Yam Festival in Igbo land. One account has it that yam was the reincarnation of the first son of an Afikpo woman sacrificed on the orders of the oracle, Ibu Ukpabi. According to the tale, the woman first sacrificed a slave and the community, quite appropriately, got a bastard yam, Ji bana. When, however, she sacrificed her own son, an Amadi Ji, a man’s yam, sprouted up - a gift of the god to its starving people. There are nonetheless, variations on this story, and they all remind us of similar stories told about some staple crops in other civilizations. For instance, wheat, among the Romans, was believed to be an incarnation of Ceres, the supposed goddess agriculture.
Perhaps, the most familiar of the stories about the Origin of the New Yam ceremony is the one that tells how, when it was first brought into our communities, yam was an untested food item. In fear of the entire community dying from possible food poisoning, domestic animals, slaves and bonded men (in that order) were forced to eat of the yam first. Not until it was then established as a safe food item did the leaders of the community allow the generality of the public to partake of it. Even then, according some accounts, the new yam was eaten in a fixed sequence, beginning with youngest of the most junior lineages. 

Procedures for the Festival

The exalted role of first eating the new yam is, in many cases, the privilege of the oldest man in the community or the traditional ruler (referred to as Igwe, Obi, Eze etc., depending on the particular community). The ceremony holds at the traditional ruler’s palace, or at any other venue. Blessing & Cutting of Yam seedsThe pomp and pageantry that often accompanies it ranges from royal parade, acrobatic displays, cultural dances, masquerade displays, to even wrestling in some communities. Whereas in some towns and communities, the occasion is often announced some weeks to the ceremonial day, some others do have fixed dates for it that it no longer requires any necessary announcement or sensitisation.
Atthefestival,onlydishesofyamareserved. The head of the community is normally the first person to eat the new yam after the spiritual head of the community had already offered prayers of thanksgivings and blessings. Then comes the allowance for every other person to eat the yam. Two species of yam delicacies are usually prepared for the event. The first is the boiled white yam, while the second kind is yam porridge. The former involves cutting the tubers into segments and then boiling them unpeeled. The sauce is usually a red oil that could be prepared with salt, oil bean seed (ukpaka), Ogiri-Igbo, Utazi, pepper, onions, crayfish, etc. This delicacy is usually called Ji Mmanu among the Igbos. The yam porridge, on its own part, involves peeling the cut tubers of yam and then cooking them along with their ingredients which could include: water, palm oil, salt, pepper, onions, crayfish, etc.
In the ancient Igbo tradition, no family has the right to eat a newly harvested tuber of yam from their farm unless the new yam festival had been officially celebrated by the traditional head of the town orcommunity.However,today,theenthronement ofmodernism had displaced this laws and traditions in most communities.

Relevance of Festival

The yearly ceremony is very significant in the lives of the Igbo people and their community. First, it is a great honour paid to the god of the land or the god of the yam (as the case may be) for the fruitful planting season that year as well as the recognition of his absolute importance in their life sustenance. It also affords the people an ample opportunity to gather and have a communion as a united people. The maidens also enjoy the occasion as a good medium to be seen by the village bachelors who could get attracted to them for marriage. More still, it offers both the young and the old something to entertain and refresh themselves with.

Conclusion

The new yam festival is one of the greatest Igbo festivals (if not even the greatest). In it one can relish the beauty and magnificence of Igbo culture. In spite of the superimposition of modernism in the land, yet the Igbos must make every effort to preserve core traditional rituals and rites (excluding the fetish ones), and the number one of such rites should be the New Yam Festival, which is recently being Christianized (or modernized) to make it more generally acceptable, especially to teeming Christian majority in Igbo land today.
References

  1. Agbogun, J. , ‘’Iriji: New Yam Festival in Igbo Land’’, sourced from http://www.the-nigeria.com/2011/11/iriji-new-yam-festival-in- igboland.html?=1,june 2, 2014
  2. Agbogun, J., ‘’Significance of Yam and New Yam Festival in Igbo Land’’, sourced from http://www.the-nigeria.com/2012/02/ significance-of-yam-and-new-yam. html?=1,june 2, 2014
  3. Nzebuchi, U., ‘’New Yam Festival Procedures in Igbo Land, Nigeria ‘’, sourced from http://zyrnolink.blogspot.com/2013/10/ new-yam-festival-procedures-in-igbo. html?=1,june 2, 2014
  4. Ugo, D. , ‘’Iwa ji Ofu (New Yam Festival) in Igboland’’, in ‘’New Yam Festival of the Igbo’’, sourced from http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ New_yam_Festival_of_the_Igbo, June 2, 2014
  5. ‘’Iri ji Festival or Iwaji/Ili Ji yam Fest’’ http://www.oraifite.com/ cerebrations/iri-ji-festival-igbo-new-yam-festival.php, June 2, 2014.

 

Rev. Fr. Dr. George Nnaemeka Oranekwu

 

 

 

Rev. Fr. Dr. George Nnaemeka Oranekwu, was ordained in 1995. He studied Philosophy at Bigard, now St. Joseph’s Major Seminary, Ikot-Ekpene, and Theology at the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. He had Licentiate in Theology at PTHV, Germany, MBA in Leadership and Ethics in Luxembourg as well as Doctorate in Theology at the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg, Germany. Fr. George measured in Catechesis and Religious Pedagogy, as well as in New Testament Theology for his post doctorate studies. He specializes in inculturation theology.