For the past four years, the famous new yam festival celebrated yearly in Egiland, in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers was not marked.
Tony John, Port Harcourt
New yam festival, for communities that observe and celebrate it, is a period of joy and thanksgiving to God, for making the natives see a new harvest season. It is usually celebrated with fanfare. In some communities, new yam celebration might take a week-long celebration, with different activities lined up. Within this period, pounded yam with native soup is majorly the food served, even to non-natives. In fact, natives always look forward to celebrating their yearly new yam festival. And they prepare for it.
However, for the past four years, the famous new yam festival celebrated yearly in Egiland, in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area (ONELGA) of Rivers State, was not marked. What led to the ‘unfortunate’ and unintentional abandonment was the upsurge in cult activities and killings, which bedevilled ONELGA. No week passed without a report of one or two persons killed, and, at times, beheaded.
The spate of cult violence and gangsterism made ONELGA in particular, and the state a no-go area for foreigners. The then rich cultural festival of Egi people and other neighbouring communities, which used to attract tourists, multinational companies, visitors and prominent sons and daughters, became history.
Precisely, between 2013 and 2017, many towns and communities in ONELGA, where ghost places. Violent crimes reigned supreme. Agriculture, which is the mainstay of the people’s source of livelihood, was grounded. Socio-cultural life of the people was moribund.
But, early 2018, the state government rose to the task and dislodged the hydraheaded gang leader and members. There is now fragile peace, which the people pray and believe, would be sustained.
The exit of the terror group, undoubtedly, made this year’s festival unique and heartwarming. The flag off of this year’s celebration called “Egwu Ogba”, a sacred festival, marked the commencement of the harvest season.
The monarch, Prof. Uzondu Wokoma, Eze Egi III of Ogbaland, chiefs, Egi citizens, Rivers State government, management of Total Exploration and Production Nigeria Limited (TEPENG), and other well meaning Nigerians, were in the area to show solidarity and value for culture. The traditional ruler described the festival as remarkable. He said it symbolised restoration of peace and love in Egiland. He noted that the presence of the state government, council of traditional rulers, investors and many others, was an attestation to the fact that peace has actually been restored.
He prayed and cried to God to restore farm crops in the land. He also blamed lack of agricultural produce on oil exploration.
“Our cash crops have gone extinct as a result of oil exploration. Because of oil exploration, our food crops have gone, we go hungry because of oil exploration. We pray to God Almighty to restore our land with food items. We have peace now; so, we want multiplication in our food item.
“We do not have good harvest this year; but, we hope it will be multiplied next year because we believe as God sanctifies our land, restoration and multiplication would follow,” Prof. Wokoma expressed.
Former president of Egi Peoples Assembly, Chief Oris Onyiri, similarly expressed thanks to God for the return of peace in Egiland and making the celebration a successful one.
“I’m thankful to God for what I have seen today in Egiland. The huge success of this celebration shows that peace has returned to the kingdom and this would confirm to others that are still watching to see that peace has, indeed, returned. Therefore, people should come back home, forgive one another and join hands to take Egiland to greater height”.
One of the personalities that was in attendance, Managing Director of TEPENG, Nicolas Terraz, described the festival as unique. He said he was excited sharing the great moment of joy of Egi people.
Terraz, who was represented by the Executive General Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility and Medical Services, Mr. Vincent Amadi, said the success of the event showed the resilience of Egi people and their ability to overcome adversities.
He regretted the socio-economic and agricultural setbacks the crisis has caused in the area, but expressed joy over the restoration of peace.
Terraz said: “The past one year had been very challenging for you and also for our operations in your kingdom. The security challenge within the field and associated social and environmental concerns that followed in the area, negatively impacted on our operations. These challenges, notwithstanding, like yourselves, we are gradually recovering, even though its effects are still visible and remain a major concern for the company today”
Speaking further, TEPENG managing director said, in line with the firm’s core value of respect for cultures of its host communities, the company would continue to support the kingdom and ensure sustainable development of the people.
He added that it would also draw from the rich cultural identities showcased at the festival in order to enrich its own cultural diversities, which are a major quest for social integration in a multicultural work environment. “Total will continue to partner with you and the good people of Egi kingdom to ensure continuous industrial peace and harmony as well as sustainable rapid development of our communities and people. It is our collective responsibility to continue to forge common ground in ensuring that our business and communities develop and thrive side by side”, he noted.
On her part, the President, Egi Women Welfare Association, Mrs. Okwudiri Okummadu, expressed joy over the festival. She noted that the crisis situation forced a lot of women out of farming. She said that, if women are empowered with seedlings and farm crops, the agricultural produce in the coming year would be massive.
Also, former president of the Union, Mrs. Ngozi Agoh-Jacob, said, women were the custodian of culture. According to her, “whatever that touches the land, touches the women”.
“The crisis, which affected our land, affected the women most. When we were growing up, we did not buy food items in the market. From our farming business, our families were well fed. We even sold some crops out; but, we hope that the festival this year and the restoration of peace in Egiland, will usher women back to farm and we will again, begin to witness bomber harvest”, she hoped. She further called on the Federal Government to extend the clean up exercise to Egiland to pave way for adequate farming. She stressed that the entire Niger Delta region deserves to be cleaned from oil devastation.
Queen of Egi, Grace Wokoma, said the prayers of the kingdom to God Almighty and the whole process of the festival, showed that the festival was not fetish, as against the thought of some members of the public.
She expressed optimism that next year’s harvest would be great, following the restoration of peace and the willingness of the women to return to their core cultural heritage, which is farming.
Speaking too, Eze Abraham Nwogbohu, noted that peace is sustained, harvest would increase tremendously in the future.