Magnus Eze, Enugu
The wind of cultural renaissance sweeping across Igbo land has hit Okposi, a community in Ebonyi State known for its large salt deposits in a beautiful lake called Mmahi.
Last Friday, people of the area witnessed the revival of the age long feast of Iri Ji Ovu (New Yam) which was practically in moribund for over two decades. It was not that Okposi people did not observe the necessary obeisance to Iri Ji during the period but it was done in a manner that even residents of the area might not know when it took place.
Therefore, they were not only stunned by the resurgence but also the emergence of the Knight of St. John International, Chief John Chukwuemeka Agwu, as the new Eze Ji (custodian). Agwu belongs to the Onuta Nnawo family in Amaovuru-Amaodida of Amaechi village traditionally charged with the responsibility of performing the new yam rituals.
To signal this year’s celebrations, the Eze Ji paid an early morning visit to the Amagu kindred in Ameke, where history has it, is the ancestral home of mother of an Amaechi son, allegedly sacrificed for the god of yam by their forefathers.
Agwu explained that during the visit, he publicly announced to them that it was time to harvest the new yam; from there, he headed to the farm and harvested some tubers of yam. He also said that the homage to Ameke people was significant because the village is landlord of the Eke Okpoidu; Okposi’s oldest market and place where very crucial decisions and pronouncements concerning the community are made.
By the time the Eze Ji returned from the farm with his harvest; a delegation of their uncles from Ameke had stormed his Amaechi home to have a glimpse of the new yam and thereafter went home to announce to their people what they saw. All these happened before the Eze Ji in company with a large number of people from Amaechi village trooped triumphantly to Eke market, dancing and singing praises to God for another season of bountiful harvest.
The train eventually ended at the country home of the Eze Ji where there was so much to eat and drink including meals from the new yam. Agwu said the 2019 event was different from the rest because he got the approval of the Onuta Nnawo family to reform it.
He gave God all the glory for the enablement to scale through the processes that preceded the grand finale. He told Daily Sun: “It is this way because we are reforming it so that both Christians, traditionalists and everybody will be part of it. That is why you see that there is joy everywhere. The reformation means that everything that should be done is done.
“Every ritual is performed except making sacrifice to any deity. Whatever our forefathers had done regarding this festival, they did it believing that they were doing it for God. And now that we have known the true God, we will still continue everything and give God the glory.
“That is why we came out en mass to tell people that culture should not die; our tradition should not die. We will remove such things that are repugnant to culture. What they call in law the repugnancy test; this means things that do not make something to be of international standard and accepted universally by the people.
“Culture is dynamic. This is just the beginning of what our ancestral family call ‘new testament of Iri Ji Ovu Okposi’. It is a new beginning that would herald peace, development, love of God, love of neighbour, prosperity in Okposi and also in my family.”
Asked how he became the Eze ji, he said his family unanimously appointed him to perform the traditional duty: “Going by the constitution of Okposi autonomous community, it is the duty of the traditional ruler, Enechi Ekuma IV, to announce the new yam festival. In this case, the three traditional rulers in Okposi Ezinsato were duly notified of the celebrations.”
He expressed the optimism that they will continue to tweak and repackage the festival until it becomes a major activity in the nation’s tourism calendar: “I know that the beginning of a thing is always a little bit tougher. I am sure that by the next year’s edition, all the Is will be dotted and the Ts crossed. We will have a more publicised, better organised and well-articulated Iri Ji festival that would later become a tourist attraction; not only for Ebonyi State but for Nigeria as a whole.”
President of Amaechi village, Reuben Okorie (Owelle) told Daily Sun that the eldest person at any particular time in Onuta Nnawo takes charge of the festival but could be delegated: “The festival is not transferable to any other person that is not a member of the ancestral family that is responsible for performing the ritual. Reason is because of the blood covenant the family entered with ‘God’ long ago.”
A culture enthusiast from Mgbom N’Achara autonomous community of Okposi, Sir Agwu Christopher Agwu, said: “Traditionally, it is believed that any person who harvests his or her New Yam when the Eze Ji has not announced the beginning of the Iri Ji will be visited by the god of Okposi Ezinasato. The renaissance of Iri ji in Okposi marks the beginning of understanding themselves as people alienated from their root by adherence to foreign culture, Christian religion.”
He said the effort of the new Eze Ji has challenged those who viewed culture negatively and hence condemned it as mundane, uncivilized and devilish: “Personally, I feel that my son J C ambushed my thought by commencing Iri ji before my efforts to make Aju festival acceptable to both Christians and non-Christians.”
The senior citizen lamented that the new yam and other festivities lacked fanfare that follow similar events in many other Igbo communities because, according to him, the traditional leaders did not know their role as custodians of culture.
In addition, those that tried to uphold the traditional norms were despised and rebuked by their relations that took up foreign religion, adding that “those that insist on cultural revival are seen as lazy, useless, the uncivilized and never do wells.” He appealed to Okposi people at home and in the Diaspora to embrace the revival because culture is the bedrock of all societal developments throughout the world.