The season of New Yam festivals is here with us again! It is that singular annual observance that unites all Igbo people across the globe. This is the season when various communities gather from far and near to mark the harvest of the new yam.
Describing it in terms of Christian observances, some renaissance Igbo scholars have termed the New Yam festival as the Igbo Easter, Christmas and New Year celebrations all in one.
The New Yam festival is the Igbo Easter as it marks the resurrection of yam, the king of crops, the oldest sustainer of the Igboman/woman, the staple food that has endured throughout Igbo history and philosophy. It is the Igbo Christmas celebration, as it marks the birth of the son of the Earth goddess in Igbo mythology. It is also the Igbo New Year, as Igbo people have always seen the harvest of the new yam as the beginning of a new cycle in their calendar.
Various communities in Igboland mark the festival in various ways. Yet there are common features: the insistence on the traditional ruler eating the new yam first before anyone else, rewarding farmers with the most impressive yield, invocation of prayers to God(s) using kolanut offered by the traditional ruler, and merriment.
Given variations in dialect among Igbo-speaking communities, the New Yam festival goes by various names such as Iri-ji, Iwa-ji, Ife-ji-oku, to mention but a few.
The New Yam festival is the root of Igbo culture. Even though one cannot say for certain when the first of such festivals was held, it is obvious that the New Yam festival has remained an integral part of Igbo culture. Little wonder the popular Igbo Nollywood artiste, Nkem Owo, was once reported as saying that “anybody who wants to have a first-hand information on the foundation of Igbo culture must recognise the New Yam festival.”
Igbo scholars have observed that the idea of celebrating the festival has always been part of Igbo culture. It was the custodian of Igbo culture in Umuona, Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State, HRH Igwe Humphrey Olunna Ejesieme, who said that the reason all Igbo celebrate the harvest of yam tubers was because yam was regarded as the king of all crops and was used to count times and seasons. He said that the celebration of yam has been as old as Igbo history, adding that the practice was one Igbo tradition that has not been swallowed up by westernisation.
“The yam has always been regarded with awe because of its unique characteristics. It is regarded as the king of crops in Igboland and is used to keep count of times and seasons from the time of planting to the time of harvesting.
“So, the yam is regarded as the king of crops by our people because you may plant a small yam and you will harvest a big yam. Also, in a bid to preserve it in the olden days, the yam tubers were usually tied in rows and columns in the barn after harvest to create an aesthetic wonder and it was used to identify the wealthiest individuals in society back in the day,” he said.
The traditional ruler noted that the harvest of yam tubers usually commences from the beginning of August and continues till September, “depending on when one planted his or her own yam seedlings.”
Usually, a day within August and September is usually predetermined for the celebration of the festival. Members of the public are informed of the chosen date. While some Igbo communities celebrate theirs in the palace of the traditional ruler, others mark the day in their town hall. Yet, there are some who celebrate their iri-ji first at the Igwe’s palace and then in their town halls or village squares.
On D-Day, the venue of the celebration is swept clean. The community, their friends and well-wishes as well as vendors and various dance troupes converge on the square. The new yam, which is usually roasted, is placed on a platter alongside palm oil sauce garnished with pepper, oil bean pudding and several other condiments, and this is presented to the traditional ruler.
The traditional ruler prays over a native kolanut, thanking the god(s) of the land for a bountiful harvest and invoking the protection of heaven on members of the community. He then prays over the roasted yam and dips it into the sauce and after presenting a piece to the god(s) of the land, he takes a bite.
Then, the wardens pass the yam round to the distinguished visitors and then to members of the community. It is after this that the people are traditionally free to eat of the yam, even in their households. After a short break during which the people eat from the provided yam tubers cooked as porridge or roasted and eaten with palm oil sauce, the traditional ruler goes round to take a look at samples of tubers harvested by some farmers, and the farmer with the biggest yam tubers is rewarded.
The dance troupes and masquerades continue with their dance presentations till the end of the event, which is usually late in the evening.
In these times, when a new state of consciousness has enveloped the Igbo race, there are steps by stakeholders in Igboland to unite Ndigbo in the bid to preserve their culture.
For instance, Igwe Umuona disclosed that the council of traditional rulers in Anambra South Senatorial zone has concluded plans to institute a particular day in September when all Igbo communities in the zone would hold their new yam festival. Before now, various communities held their new yam festival on varying dates.
In line with this initiative, all Igbo leaders have been urged to take a cue from what Anambra South traditional rulers are doing in order to get all Igbo to be united in purpose. The New Yam festival has come to stay and the best thing for the Igbo is to embrace it, make the most of it and re-invent it, if need be.
Ndigbo, as we embark on trips from far and near to mark the New Yam festival this year, 2019, I pray that the gods of Igboland grant you safe trip to and from your base.