- To the Igbos, celebrating the new yam is thanksgiving to God for good yields and a successful farming season and not idol worshipping, writes correspondent, Simplicius Ubah
Some call it Iwa ji, Iri ji or Ike ji, depending on the dialect; it is an annual new yam harvest festival by the Igbo people that is held between August and September. The celebration is a cultural- based occasion, binding individual Igbo communities together as essentially farmers and dependants on yam.
Iwa ji or new yam festival is a cultural feast with deep significance. In some communities, it is always marked with spectacle and pageantry. To the Igbo, the day is symbolic of family reunion and the enjoyment of a bountiful harvest after a tedious season of cultivation.
The new yam festival is as old as tradition in Igbo Land. This festival has its unique purpose and aim. It is theofficial presentation of a newly cultivated tuber of yam to God Almighty, the ancestors of the land and also thanking God for protection, and also for sustaining the life of the farmers, the indigenes of the land and the farm product (the yam) through a successful season in agriculture.
Yams are the first crop to be harvested and are the most important crop of the Igbos. In some parts of Igbo land, the evening prior to the day of the festival, all old yams from the previous year’s crop are consumed or discarded. The next day, only dishes of yam are served as the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce.
Traditionally, the role of eating the first yam is performed by the oldest man in the community or the king (Igwe). Roasted yams, coupled with red oily sauce may be used in a New Yam Festival ceremony. This is because it is an ancient way of eating a tuber of yam among the Igbos. Prior to the celebration or what may be referred to as the D-day, any new yam harvested must not be eaten. On the day of the celebration, an offering is made on behalf of the people as they pray for renewed life as they eat the new yam.
Iwa ji also shares some similarities with the Asian Mid-Autumn Festival, as both are based on the cycles of the moon and are essentially community harvest festivals.
In the olden days, this man also offers the yams to gods, deities and ancestors. It is believed that their position bestows the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. The rituals are meant to express the gratitude of the community to the gods for making the harvest possible, and they are widely followed in some communities despite the influence of Christianity in the area.
A variety of festivities mark the eating of new yam celebration, some of them include but not limited to Royal Dance, Igba-Eze Dance, Cultural Dance, and Masquerade Parade. The colourful festival is a spectacle of exhibited joy, thanks, and community display.
One can ask, why is it that despite the fact that Igbo nation plant and harvest varieties of crops, why are they given so much priority in celebrating only yam? Providing an answer to this, a titled man, who was the former governor of Anambra state, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezife, said that the yam is given such priority because it is regarded as the main crop of the farmland. “Yam is the king of the farm land that is why it is being celebrated. Have you seen us celebrating cocoyam or maize, no, yam is the king of all crops in the farm”.
Furthermore, history has it that in olden times there was nothing to eat, so Eze Nri (King of Nri) considered what should be done to remedy the situation. He later took the drastic course of killing his eldest son, cutting the body into small pieces and burying them. Strange to say, five months later, yam tendrils were observed to be growing at the very places where the dismembered parts of the body had been buried. After six months, the Eze Nri dug up fine large yams from his son’s grave. He cooked it and found it sweet. Yam does to him as potato does to the typical Irishman. A shortage of yam supply is a case of genuine distress. For no substitute gives the same sense of satisfaction. This preference for yam and the time and labour necessary for its production are some reasons why yam is a very important Igbo food. It was the most serious occupation for the Igbos.
It is very important to note that this festival has an important impact in the lives and culture of the Igbo people. Elaborating on the significant, an elder from Mbaise in Imo state, who also attended their new yam festival in Abuja, Dr. Chijioke Ekechukwu, said that the festival is very important as it help to harness the culture of the Igbos.
“It is very significant because it is a celebration that takes place before an Mbaise person eats yam. It is very important for us to harness our culture, so that our children that are coming up can appreciate the culture that we have, the culture we learnt from our forefathers and tradition of the Igbos”.
The important significance of the special day is to preserve old cultures and traditions that have to do with the ancient practices and to offer the new generation an insight into such practices, so that the culture lives on with the next generation.
However, some believe that this new yam festival is evil. It is seen as another form of worshipping idol. Clearing the air, Dr. Chijioke Ekechukwu, continued, that the new yam festival is a way of thanking God Almighty and has nothing to do with worshipping gods or any deity.
“Iri ji festival is only a thanksgiving to God, I also want to use this opportunity to say that it has nothing to do with traditional or devilish thing, it only has to do with thanksgiving, in other word, I can say that it is a thanksgiving day for our people, we are thanking God for giving us the opportunity to cultivate enough yams this year and you know yam is very important food in Igbo land. So we keep thanking God for what he has been doing and asking him to do more for our people”.
He said ‘even till today, it is a capital offence to steal yam in Igbo land whether they were new or the old tuber.
However until the last few years, it might be legitimately affirmed that the life of the people was bound up with the supply of yams. It is the staple food of the Igbos.
The new yam festival is celebrated by the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria as a cultural festival that brings together people of that region during harvesting of the new crops as a way to unite them. The festival is rich with culture- traditions, local menus, acrobatic masquerades, brilliant parades, fun, dance and ethnic music.
The new yam festival is not limited to the different villages and ethnic groups but can be celebrated in far away countries even in Europe or America. So, as long as there is a high chief to bless the yam and the Igbo residents bring yam samples including rich cultural dances and masquerades, the event is accepted.
When a New Yam Festival had been officially celebrated in any community, each village, kingdom, kindred and family can now hold their respective New Yam Festival.