Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
The Ikwo people in the central part of Ebonyi State have several cultural festivals but Aji has survived the crucible of time. It has remained the unbreakable cord that unites them in spite of politics and diverse religions.
Aji, a festival of love and purity, binds the people of the five communities of Ikwo clan in Ikwo Local Government Area together. Celebrated at different times of the year, mainly in Ndufu Echara and Ndufu Alike, Aji is an annual feast that offers great opportunity for reunion, conflict resolution and peace-making among the people of Ikwo.
One striking feature of the festival is the Etengara masquerade dances where everybody, young and old, male and female, visitors and residents and passers-by are compelled to pull off their shirts or tops in reverence to the Etengara. The masquerade is seen as the physical representation of the Etengara deity. As soon as the masquerade steps out, everybody within the vicinity of the festival takes off his shirt or top, irrespective of his faith or social status. Not even members of the security agencies are spared, as they would take off the tops of their uniforms in obeisance to the Etengara.
Tuesday, February 25, 2020, was yet another great outing as it marked the grand finale of the 2020 Ndufu Echara Ikwo Aji festival. It was a beehive of activities, attracting friends and well-wishers of Ndufu Echara to the community.
The House of Representatives member for Ezza South/Ikwo Federal Constituency, Chief Chinedu Ogah, noted that the Aji festival has been one of the features that have kept Ikwo people together and urged them not to allow it die. He promised to sponsor and harmonise the Aji festival in such way that the five communities in Ikwo would choose a particular time of the year to celebrate it together as a clan, adding that it would go a long way in strengthening the unity, love and peace of the area.
He said his target was to return Ikwo to the path of peace and development: “This is not time for politics. My interest is to ensure that our people enjoy peace, unity and progress.
“One of the ways of curbing insecurity, communal clashes, social and economic challenges plaguing the country is through reviving our rich cultural activities such as the Aji Echara Festival. Culture is a means of promoting peace, unity and order in our society. It enhances our communalism and common heritage.
“We are going to ensure that the Aji festival and other traditional festivals celebrated by our people in the five communities that make up Ikwo are unified, promoted and projected to the national scene. We will create Ikwo cultural carnival that will promote tourism; bring our culture to national limelight and protect our culture from becoming extinct,” he said.
Chief priest of the community, Chief Nte Onele, explained that the event was not idol worship but a celebration of the unique culture of Echara people as it marked the end of their cultural year and heralded the beginning of another fruitful year in Echara community: “Aji festival is the bond that unites our people, both those at home and those in the Diaspora. The festival is usually a great opportunity to meet and dine with your brothers and sisters and to know and meet those you have not met before.
“Our people living in different cities usually return home every end of January for the celebration of the festival. The benefit of participating in the Aji festival is that, if you are sick or have any challenge, even health-wise and you participate in the festival, chances are that, after the festival, you will experience a miraculous turnaround.”
Another stakeholder of the community, Chief Idah Nkem Idah, noted that Aji was a culture passed on to them by their forefathers, which they have been practicing from time immemorial.
He said plans were under way to fine-tune the festival so as to remove the aspects that were no longer in tune with the times, “so that everybody can participate in the festival without fear of any negative repercussions.
He said, “It is done to lighten people’s burden in terms of relaxation, to forge unity of purpose and even unity in diversity. With the help of stakeholders, we are trying to prune this festival to remove some features of it that are no longer in tune with the times we live in today, so that people of all beliefs will share in it, so that it will not be for only some people.
“We don’t want it to look like a sort of idol worshipping or idolatry. Every community in Ikwo has this kind of festival though done in different ways but, with the help of the honourable member, we are going to harmonise them and observe them at the same time. It will help to unite our people more and foster love and brotherhood among our people.”
On the reason behind the pulling off of clothes, he explained that it was purely a way of showing respect to the big masquerade, Etengara: “In fact, as we move to the playground everybody, including you (reporter) and myself will remove our clothes to show respect to the big masquerade. It is usually the climax of the event both men and women, young and old must remove their shirts or tops upon sighting the masquerade.
“You will start hearing the song saying ‘remove your clothes, remove your clothes.’ You will be forced to do so if you are reluctant because it is a mark of disrespect for you to see the masquerade without pulling off your shirts. The people will not even allow you; they will pull it off by force.”
Chief Iruka Nwakpu said Aji was a way of showing gratitude to their ancestors, building bonds of unity and a show of purity. There were exchange of gifts, dance and appearance of various masquerades, including Etengara.