From Jude Chinedu, Enugu
Igbo language, culture, tradition and ordinances have continued to dwindle, sparking fears of extinction of the language, the major driver of the people’s way of life, in 2050 as predicted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
However, the wind of cultural revival now sweeping across several Igbo communities, including schools and institutions, gives some hope that the prediction would not be.
In fact, what happened at Ugbo community, in Awgu Local Government Area, on Saturday, August 7, 2021, was a clear case of cultural celebration and preservation. The community, in one of the hallmarks of their heritage, successfully organised the initiation of no fewer than 400 youths into manhood during this year’s Aju Festival.
The once-in-a-lifetime festival, also known as Iwa Akwa, is for every male Ugbo indigene and is celebrated every three years. To qualify for the initiation, a male child must have attained 18 years from date of the last celebration. Ugbo indigenes home and abroad gathered at the village square in their numbers to see their relatives perform the rites of passage into manhood, described as one of the most important cultural institutions of the community.
It was a spectacular event as the youths, dressed in colourful attire and wearing beautiful, unusual hairdos, marched round the community before converging on the village square, where they were welcomed with loud ovation by a crowd of friends and family members.
Not even the rain that started almost immediately they entered the square, could deter them, as the youths continued to sing and dance for close to three hours. One could perceive a sense of fulfillment in the tone with which they sang and by the energy they exhibited.
From boys to men
Traditional prime minister of Ngeneugbo, one of the three villages that make up Ugbo community, Chief Francis Okafor, who gave details of the initiation process, disclosed that no fetish practice was associated with it. According to him, the major criteria for participation was that the person in question must have Ugbo blood in him.
He said: “If you are a son of Ugbo, at the age when it is your turn, between 18 and 21 years, your age-mates will come to the stage to show that they are mature men. So, when men are called, they can come out, when levies are shared, they can be involved, then you join them.
“Then they group themselves in a space of three years. They come out in the third year to show themselves to the community. So, what qualifies you is that you are an Ugbo indigene and then you join your age-mates when they are doing theirs.”
He further explained that the process starts with each initiate hosting the Umuada (married female relatives) in his family to a feast. At the banquet, he officially informs them that he has come of age and would want to participate in the Iwa Akwa.
Okafor said that the initiates, having satisfied the Umuada, would go on to register in their various wards. They also register in their village before they declare their intention to the entire Ugbo community.
On an Orie market day, three days to the Aju Festival, the initiates converge on their various village squares to display themselves and to also entertain the Umuada, who, at that point, shower them with gifts, ranging from cloths, Igho (a local delicacy), native fowl and cash.
The community leader, who disclosed that his last child participated in the festival 15 years ago, explained that “on the second day, which is Afor market day, each of the communities, Ugbo-Okpara, Ugbonabo and Ngeneugbo, will meet and agree on the time when the participants will move round the villages.
“The initiates from Ugbonabo will move to Ugbo-Okpara, Ugbo-Okpara will move to Ngeneugbo while Ngeneugbo moves to Ugbonabo. Once they are done showing themselves and familiarizing with the village, they move to another village, while the other participants move to another village in that order.
“This is for the entire community to see them and know that they have come of age. After this, they now wait for the grand finale, which comes up the next Orie market day.
“There is no ritual at all. On the main Aju day, the participants will dance into the arena, according to their villages, starting with Ugbo-Okpara, which is the eldest in the community, followed by Ugbonabo and then Ngeneugbo.”
He said, in the preceding Sunday, the initiates assemble at their various churches for thanksgiving.
“But those who are not Christians can go to whatever they worship to give thanks, though 99 per cent are Christians. So, they go to church to give thanks to God,” he added.
On the relevance of the festival, an indigene of the community, Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Toby Okechukwu, revealed that the tradition dates back to the 1800. Okechukwu, who recalled that he participated in the same ritual several years ago, said it was a time of severance between adolescence and the age of maturity, as one so initiated takes up certain important responsibilities in the community.
He said: “For purposes of industry, when you become a man, when you celebrate your age grade, it is expected you begin to contribute to the commonwealth by way of paying dues. You are now authorized to marry, you are now permitted to do what men do. It is a severance between adolescence and the age of maturity.
“Criminality comes within the context of peer pressure, when you have a good number of people who are your mates achieving, you will be under pressure to achieve.
“In the past, when you do your age grade, it is expected you leave your community, go and fend for yourself, go and find work to do; it is expected that you begin to be very responsible because then you are expected to contribute to the community.
“So, it is an opportunity for peer review, an opportunity to aggregate our youths; it is an opportunity for all of them to come together and have some mentoring. It is meant for industry, to motivate the youths. It is meant to censor deviant behaviour.
“Security-wise, our expectation is that those who are behaving well will mentor the others. We will counsel them, make sure they don’t go into anything that is anti-social.”
On his part, former Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, who represents Enugu West Senatorial District, stated that the age-long tradition had seen thousands of Ugbo men initiated into manhood. He noted that the community had used the ceremony to achieve great landmarks in terms of development.
Ekweremadu said: “I know this is a period in Ugbo when illustrious sons and daughters come together, both within and outside Nigeria, to celebrate their sons who have attained adulthood.
“For 18 years, every three years, I have celebrated the Aju festival with Ugbo people and I participate in every ceremony the Ugbo people are doing.
“We thank God for the land of Ugbo today. Ugbo was not like this in the past 20 years but, today, Ugbo has electricity, good roads, water, schools and other things.
“I urge you all to hold firm your strength and zeal, so that when you go back to your base, you can tell people about your tradition and be proud of it anywhere, anytime.
“Despite the modernization in Ugbo today, I am so happy that, in Ugbo, we still remember the culture and tradition, and I pray that our culture and tradition will never die.”
In an interview, chairman of the organising committee of the festival and national publicity secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Alex Ogbonnia, said the event had remained a very important factor in the life of the community.
He said: “It is a process of transformation from adolescence to manhood. It comes ones every three years. So, Ugbo, from time immemorial, has been observing it like this every three years. It is also a way of grading people as age grade. If you see them, you see that they are all about 20 or 21 years old. It is a way of initiating one into Ugbo cosmology.
“It also involves other processes when one is expected to go round the community and understand the pathways, cross the rivers, climb the hills, descend the valleys so that, by the time you are doing, it you will be reminded that your great-grandfathers did it, your grandfather did it, your father did and you are doing it. So, that is what Aju is all about.”
For those who may perceive the Aju festival as fetish, Ogbonnia stated that it was only a classificatory process devoid of any form of diabolism.
“We, the ambassadors of Christ, with priests, came together 10 years ago to convince others that there was nothing fetish in it. It is only a classificatory process; also, it helps one to know his senior. Gerontocracy is a factor in Igboland. I did my own in 1976. If you ask any Ugbo when he did his own Aju, add 21 years to it; that is the person’s age,” Ogbonnia explained.
One of the participants, Okechukwu Udeh, expressed excitement over the remarkable feat, pledging on behalf of his colleagues to contribute their quota to the development of the community.
“I am happy to come into a new era with my age-mates. We are entering into manhood and it’s so exciting. We will contribute positively to this community. We have seen what our fathers have done for this community and we hope to do better.
“For me and my colleagues, it is a time to take up responsibilities. It is a time for us to stand up and be counted. We will also ensure that our culture doesn’t die. We will sustain it and pass it to our own children,” he pledged.
For Nnamdi Eze, the event provided the opportunity to fraternize with his age-mates, some of whom where neither born nor raised in Ugbo community. He said he had already made friends and exchanged contacts with many of them whom he hopes to reunite with in the nearest future.
“I met so many of my age-mates who I never saw before. So many people who were born outside our community came back and we got acquainted. Of course, we will henceforth be meeting but it feels good to make new friends. “I am happy that, from today going forward, I will be respected in the community as a full-fledged man. Although it comes with a lot of responsibilities, I am sure that we will not fail our people,” Eze said.