Yam is grown in most West African countries including Nigeria, today is linked with a beautiful Igbo cultural identity and heritage known as the new yam festival. DAPHNE UDUNEJE of our Lagos bureau writes.
A yam is a tuber that is cultivated annually in most West African countries, for the Igbos in the Eastern part of Nigeria, it is a very important food crop which is cultivated between Mid-January to late March and harvested between Mid-August to late November depending on the farmers preference.
In Igbo land much cultural significance is attached to yam, a specific festival tagged ‘the new yam festival’ known as iwa ji and iri ji ohuru in local parlance has popularize the tuber.
History revealed that varieties of the yam tubers were introduced to Igbo land in the late 19th century by the Portuguese traders and explorers of farm produce. Also along the West African coastal belt, yam cultivation and celebration is popular.
New yam festival is also celebrated in other West African regions such as in some Ghanaian communities where the feast is dubbed “Homowo” or “To Hoot at Hunger” Festival. Here the people ritually mock against famine and apparently hope for a good harvest so no famine will hit the people in the coming year.
In the traditional Igbo society which is mainly Agrarian, so much emphasis is placed on the cultivation of yam, it signifies wealth, in ancient times a man’s wealth is measured by the number of his yam barn and the size.
According to tradition the iriji (new yam) festival is a time of thanksgiving to the gods for making the farm yields possible and a time to pray for good yields for the next planting season. The solemn role of eating the first yam is performed by the oldest man the Igwe or Eze, the traditional ruler.
It is believed that within the traditional communities Ezes’ position bestows on them the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. In fact, many traditionalists and title-holders in Igbo land will not taste the new yam until the day that is traditionally set aside for that purpose.
The new Yam festival in ancient times was reputed to be fetish new yam and is not eaten until due rite is accorded to the god of yam called Ahiajoku, ifejioku and ajoku.
Igbo people answer names rooted to the deity of yam such as Njoku, Nwanjoku. Also titles are taken after the deity for distinguished farmers such as Eze-Ji, Owa-ji and Mma-ji.
Stories held that catastrophes and strange things happen in the locality at any time the rule and taboos around ji aro tradition are violated or ignored.
The New Yam festival is such a highly appealing event to the extent that dominant religions such as Christianity, in particular, Catholic Dioceses and Parishes have enculturated iwa ji and iri ji ohuru in Christian worship and celebration (cf. Chris Manus 2007).
Information gathered revealed that there were cases where Iri Ji Festival is called Ji Maria, That is Mary’s Yam, Ji Madonna and Ji Jose; that is Mary and Joseph’s yam.
The Iriji is celebrated at different times in various Igbo communities, the most popular of the months or season is August, but this can be adjusted to fit various communities’ convenience, however, it is believed that the new yam is celebrated between August till December of every year in all Igbo community .
Ahead of this festival, youths of the host community will organise clearing and beautification of the ceremonial arena, after this, chairs, canopies, and other equipment needed for ease in communication will be properly arranged.
At the festival there is also a spectacular display of Masquerades of all shapes and Sizes. They appear in all corners with the highest intensity of dance and display in the market square.
At the Iriji festival, only dishes of yam are served. The oldest man or the traditional ruler is normally the first person to eat the new yam and thereafter every other person can eat.
Celebration of the new yam entails heavy cooking which is mainly yam dishes spiced with local spices. Palm oil is the major oil used in all the cooking and eating.
In serving the yam meals which comes in varieties: Boiled unpeeled tubers, Yam porridge and roasted yam. The boiled yam and roasted yam is usually eaten with palm oil prepared with oil bean seed and other local ingredients.
At the beginning of the festival an alligator pepper (Ose Ọji) will be used for an opening Prayer led by the Igwe who will be assisted by his cabinet and council of traditional rulers.
A New Yam Festival ceremony usually starts in the morning and lingers up till evening. After the prayers the Igwe and Lolo,( Igwe’s wife) who will be dressed in colourful traditional dress, decorated with beads and bracelets seats at the centre while the other indigenous royalties dressed in uniform usually white or red and decorated with assorted beads and bracelets to suit the occasion, takes strategic position at the celebration ground. And the occasion is declared open for merriment and jubilation.
This, according to history is a way the Igbos say thank you to the gods who they believe have granted them good harvest.