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Editorial

New Yam Festival, Importance and Cultural Implications.

  • According to the late father of African literature (Prof. Chinua Achebe), of the blessed memory. He said; “The Yam is the KING OF ALL CROPS”.

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. It is a time to appreciate the God of harvest for his benevolence.

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  that celebrate the New Yam Festival.

The Igbos are egalitarian and republican in nature . Hence, 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).

In my town (Awhum in UDI local government of Enugu state), we call it “iri ji owhii”

It is a culture that trascends beyond status and power. In other words, both the young, and old participate fully with cultural regalia accompanied with pump and pageantry

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.

It is an occasion that brings people from all works of life together in harmony to celebrate a cultural heritage handed down by our ancestors?

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, cultivating yams 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 an animal and the community, quite appropriately, got a bastard yam, Ji bana. When, however, she sacrificed a bigger animal, 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).

However, the igwe can delegate these powers, if he sees the need to do so.

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.

At the  festival, only yam dishes are served.

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 roasted white yam, while the second kind is yam porridge, in some cases boils white yam is included.

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. Less I forget, the yam is always accompanied by a good palm wine used to send  the August visitor down through the Osipaghost to its destination (the belly).

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. It is a taboo to do so. Inftact in the olden days doing so could attract a fine.However, today, the enthronement of modernism had displaced this laws and traditions in most communities.

Relevance of the  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.

Saddly,recently, some  communities have turned new yam festival into a display of affluent and power.  Recognizing and celebrating politicians. This is an absolute aberration and must be condemned in all ramifications. The festival is just an act of Thanksgiving, ablution and supplication for a better life.

IMAGE SOURCE-Igbo Amaka

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