Okey Sampson, Aba
In the time of yore, a man’s wealth in Igbo land was measured by how rich his yam barn was. Of course, that he married many wives with the corresponding number of children was to help him turn out more tubers of yam, from his farms. It was the only crop men cultivated with vigour; it was a valued crop.
Little wonder it is revered in Igbo land till date and modernity has not tampered with the traditional trappings associated with the annual heralding of new yam by the Igbo.
It was in this wise that the people of Ibeku in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State on Sunday, August 25, trooped out in their numbers to celebrate this year’s New Yam festival. For those who do not know, Ibeku clan with seven closely knitted villages hosts the metropolis of Umuahia, the Abia State capital, no wonder it is called Umuahia-Ibeku.
The history of Iri ji in Ibeku, as it is called in most parts of Igboland, is as rich and old as Umuahia itself. Prior to the commencement of this year’s public celebrations at Egwu Ibeku, the traditional ground of all Ibeku people, there was traditional cutting of new yam by midnight.
One of the custodians of Umuajiji, Isieke, Ibeku, explained that the cutting was preceded by traditional gunshots, which informed the whole of Ibeku of the commencement of the New Yam festival. An indigene of the community, Prince Benjamin Benedict Apugo, also known as B.B, is the Ochiagha/Oparaukwu Ibeku (War Commander/First Son of Ibeku), said the new yam rituals in Ibeku date back to over 1500 years.
Although, he alluded to the fact that modernity had made them do away with few fetish things that were done during the new yam festival, but was quick to admit that it did not actually change anything. To buttress his point, the Ochiagha who has a commanding control over the Egwu Ibeku traditional ground stated:
“During the new yam festival, we have to perform the rituals, the traditional rites before bringing in new yam in your compound, not to talk of eating it. You cannot bring in new yam in your compound without performing the traditional rites.
“I do the traditional rites for Ibeku because I inherited it. From what my parents told me, in the olden days before our people went to war, they always came to our compound to take the blessing and they would go and conquer and come back. My name is Ochiagha Ibeku because of the rites that I perform which is also inherited.
“I am also the Oparaukwu Ibeku, it is not a title, it is not from any traditional ruler; it is inheritance. I have to perform all these rites for the New Yam festival and other things; no other family does it in Ibeku land.”
Apugo decried the trend of Igbo leaders travelling to foreign lands to celebrate new yam festival. In properly locating the premium placed on yam by the Igbo, he said: “Yam is the king of crops in Igbo and, we value it and that is why we celebrate it. We can go to the market, buy rice and eat, but you cannot go to the market and buy yam that will be used for this type of celebration, it must be from your farm.
“It follows therefore, that anybody who travels outside the country to celebrate new yam, is not doing the right thing. They should go to their villages to celebrate it with their people, do the traditional rites and the masquerades will come to entertain the people and these things will bring your memory back to when your fathers were still alive. Somebody who goes to Europe to celebrate new yam, it is laughable.”
Also, a native of Umuajiji Isieke, Ibeku, Chief Emmanuel Uwaezuoke, explained that after the traditional cutting of the new yam, the various communities that make up Ibeku clan would then choose any particular days to do their celebration: “New yam would not be eaten in any part of Ibeku land until after the festival.”
On why the traditional cutting of the new yam must be done at that odd hour, Uwaezuoke said: “It is the hour that births the day for the New Yam festival and we don’t allow it to cross even by a minute.”
To the heir apparent of the Apugo dynasty, Ikechukwu Apugo and former President of Ibeku Egwuasa Development Association, Chief Onwunaruwa Onuoha, who took part in the celebrations, the Ibeku New Yam festival, a very important component of the people’s culture and tradition, has come to stay and no amount of intrusion of modernity will diminish it.