Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki and Eziomume Solomon, Nnewi
In Igbo land, yam is considered as the king of all crops and therefore revered. But the penetration of Christian religion and by extension the incursion of civilization into many communities across Igbo land has reduced the fervency that hitherto accompanied and defined the celebration.
Regardless, the story is different in Nguzu Edda, a mountainous community in Afikpo South Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. Nguzu Edda is proudly one of the few communities in Igbo land that still celebrate new yam festival with passion, gusto and great excitement.
The community shares boundary with Ohafia in Abia State. Every year these unique people map out four days of intense activities to welcome the new yam season. Said to have begun about 174 years ago, precisely in 1846, the festival, each year, provides an ample opportunity for the sons and daughters of Edda, both at home and in the Diaspora, to come together and celebrate.
This year’s event lasted for three days. Watching the day three of the events called Afo Nzu, one would run with the impression that the community felt starved while waiting for the time of the festival to come.
A community leader, Chief Ibiam Orji, told our reporter that the festival officially commenced after the traditional ruler of the community in consultation with his cabinet members had met and announced a timetable for the events. He stated that the four-day event named after the four Igbo market days climaxes with Afo Nzu: “Afo Nzu is the climax of the new yam festivities in Nguzu Edda.”
On Afo Nzu day, all the sons of the community, young and old, rich and poor, came out on the road bare-chested with marks of white chalks called Nzu all over their bodies. They sang and danced round the community, visiting different homes and compounds in the community.
Our reporter, who visited Nguzu on the Afo Nzu day, spotted two members of the State Assembly, Chidi Ejem and Nkemka Okoro Onuma, singing and dancing bare-chested and with marks of Nzu on their bodies. They looked fearsome and might give a visitor the impression that the event was fetish and diabolical. But that was their highly revered culture.
A youth, Okpani, said although participation in the Afo Nzu is not compulsory but no youth would like to be left out of the celebration: “Christianity is not against it because there is nothing fetish about it. We all grew up participating in it. It is fun and every Edda son always looks up to a day like this. So, how will you not participate; don’t you see the atmosphere?”
Asked if women were allowed to participate in the Igba Nzu part of the festival, Okpani said no: “Women have their own called Eyiriya dance.”
The traditional ruler of the community, Eze Ugwuocha Obasi, described the festival as the biggest cultural and traditional event in Edda land: “Nzu is used to announce the arrival of the new yam just the way Nzu is used to announce the arrival of a new baby in the house.
“This year’s event was unique because God showed us mercy and favour by keeping us alive and kicking despite the severe hunger occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.
“New yam festival means a lot to us in Nguzu Edda. It signifies the end of the hardship of the farming season and heralds the beginning of a new period of enjoyment that comes with the new yam.
“It is also an opportunity to thank God for allowing us to see New Year in our traditional calendar. It equally offers us opportunity to come together and celebrate together as a people in love and in unity.
“There is nothing fetish and diabolical about the Igba Nzu part of the new yam festival. It is just like what you do when a new baby is born. So, a new yam is dear to us so we celebrate the way new born baby is celebrated by using white chalk to mark our bodies. We don’t kill or sacrifice human being or anything diabolical to mark the festival.”
The women were not left out in the celebration. They dressed in best traditional attires and danced round singing praising to God for keeping the community together. One of the women leaders, Mrs Joy Eku Abel, told Daily Sun: “The event has been sustained for over a decade through the philanthropy of one of their sons, Chief Ama Orji.”