IKEJI FESTIVAL IN MGBOWO
Ikeji or New Yam Festival in Mgbowo is as old as Mgbowo Community. Today, the 16th of July 2017 marks this year's Ikeji or New Yam Festival that heralds the harvesting of new yam in my community. Many families are gathered today in their various ancestral places of meeting called NKORO to deliberate on serious issues that agitate the mind of each family member and to share EKA OKUKU (the wing of fowls) killed to commemorate the festival.
To add impetus to the celebration this year, I dug through my library to share with all my friends and Mgbowo people wherever they may be what IKEJI or New Yam Festival raelly means to the Mgbowo Man as eruditely presented by one of the celebrated Wordsmith of our time in Mgbowo MR. EGBUNA AKPA. Please enjoy.
TEXT OF A LECTURE DELIVERED BY MR. EGBUNA AKPA AT A SYMPOSIUM ORGANIZED AS PART OF EVENTS MARKING THE 2012 IKEJI FESTIVAL IN MGBOWO, THURSDAY, 19TH JULY, 2012.
1.0 Introduction: Man and His Culture
History and Religion testify to the origin and existence of human beings. However, while history subscribes to the Theory of Evolution to prove the emergence of homo sapiens; that is, human beings as we see and know them today, religion attributes it to the act of creation by God.
Whichever way we may choose to look at it, the incontrovertible fact is that the world is peopled by human elements who are rational creatures. The rationality of man imbues him with the ability, not only to reason and judge, but also to speak, think, act, discover, invent, and use the materials around him to his own advantage. Also, man is endowed with the innate ability to learn from personal experience, from what happens around him and from what he inherits from his forebears.
Thus, over the years, human beings have, in tandem with their immediate physical and social environments, evolved systems of beliefs, ideas, behaviour, custom and even artifacts, which they accept and share, as peoples of particular societies. These commonly accepted and shared ways of life are collectively called culture.
Therefore, we may define culture as the aggregate or totality of a people’s way of life. It includes their language, beliefs and custom, as inherited from their ancestors. Indisputably, a people's culture is their special identity; in the same way as a person's name and habits are his or her identity.
As a society of homo sapiens, Mgbowo Community has her own beliefs, ideas, dialect and custom, which constitute our cultural identity. One aspect of this culture is the custom of revering and celebrating yam as the king of all crops; otherwise called Ikeji, our New Yam Festival. It is in deference to our collective belief in this age-long traditional practice of our people that we are gathered here today to discuss this extant custom.
It is expected that, at the end of our discourse, those of us who belong to the outgoing generation will have refreshed our memories of what it used to be in our distant past, while the younger elements will appreciate the wisdom of our forefathers, cling to it and protect our harmless traditional practices from imminent suffocation and death.
2.0 The Ikeji Festival
As we observed in our introduction above, Ikeji Mgbowo is an aspect of our people's culture. This custom dates back to the earliest days in our history when yam was treated as being sacrosanct, served as a status symbol, an index of wealth and as an object of title-taking. No other crop, wild or domestic, enjoyed such reverence or recognition among our ancestors.
It is, therefore, not surprising that they had to translate their regard and respect for this king crop into reality by mapping out a programme of events to celebrate the yam at appropriate periods of the year; namely, during the planting and harvesting of yam.
The celebration of the new yam at its maiden harvest is called Ikeji, while the veneration of the crop just before it returns to the soil is known as Enwu. We shall examine the relationship between these twin festivals in the course of this lecture. Suffice it to say that both occasions are also used to pray to the gods and ancestors for long life, productive farming, abundant harvest, communal peace, and unity, as well as for individual family favours and needs.
2.1 Announcement of Ikeji Festival
Generally speaking, Ikeji Festival, which is the greatest of its kind in our community, takes place in the 9th moon of our local calendar; otherwise known as Onwa Tonnu. In recent times, however, the authority and custodians of the festival have had cause to add or subtract a moon to or from the normal Onwa Tonnu, to bring forward or postpone, by one moon, the usual time or period of the festival. This practice is said to be justified when the weather adversely or favourably affects the growth of the planted yam.
The custodians of Ikeji Festival have always been the Chief Priests of two of the major deities in Mgbowo, representing Ndi Ali Mgbowo and a representative of Uhuokwe family - Umu Olukaaji in Eziobodo Alechara Village who actually does the announcement. They are:
a) The Chief Priest of Ali Ihiriho (from Ameta Village);
b) The Chief Priest of Ali Dulaho (from Imeama Village), and
c) The Umu Olukaaji Family (in Alechara Village).
At the emergence of Onwa Tonnu, the three wise men decide when the festival will hold. It is their collective responsibility to announce the Ikeji Day. The announcement is made usually 8 days (or izulambo) into the 9th moon of Mgbowo Calendar year. The Ikeji Day proper falls on the 20th day of the 9th moon or 12 days (izulalo) after the formal announcement. Invariably, it is made to fall on Orio Market day.
2.2 Phases of Ikeji Festival
The Ikeji Festival is celebrated in five (5) phases, namely: Itu Nvula, Igbuji Ji, Eka Okuku, Oku Obodo and Ifu Ahia.
2.2.1 Itu Nvula
This expression suggests that Nvula (water yam) might be the oldest specie of yam known to, and planted by, our people. Be that as it may, Ilu Nvula is the opening phase of Ikeji, and takes place on the eve of the festival. Since Ikeji is invariably celebrated on Orio Market day, it means that Ilu Nvula takes place on Eke Market day; the day preceding Ikeji Day.
The main activity of the day is the visit of married men to their fathers in-law. While going on the visit, the married men take with them tubers of yam, cocks, wine, tobacco etc, as presents. Where the father in-law is late, a man can visit and make such presents to his mother in-law. The idea is to share the joy of the coming celebration and further cement the existing bond of unity between both families.
2.2.2 Igbuji Ji
This happens on Orio day, the day after the Itu Nvula ceremony. It is the Ikeji Day proper. Activities of the day include men going to their farms to harvest the new yams, cutting the yam, breaking kolanuts and killing cocks, all at the entrance of their compounds.
Also, the men otter oblation and pour libation on the same spot, while praying to God and the ancestors for good health, peace and progress, and to thank them for favours received, especially the good harvest expected in the year.
Generally, families stay in their homes to celebrate on Ikeji Day, except the younger male children who may move from compound to compound scrambling for broken kolanut lobes often sprinkled with the blood of fowls.
2.2.3 Eka Okuku
This takes place on the third day of the festival; that is, on Aho Market day; hence, Aho Eka Okuku. It is a very important phase of Ikeji Festival because it offers opportunity for male members of each clan in the community to assemble and discuss the state of their clan. Those of them living outside are expected to return for the festival and be present at the assembly.
Usually, activities of the day begin simultaneously throughout Mgbowo, after palmwine producers have returned from their morning rounds. The wine they bring home is used for prayers and libation.
Members of each clan assemble in their ancestral hut or house called Nkoro, which is often located in the premises of the eldest surviving member of the clan. To open the meeting, the clan Head, on behalf of all members present and those unavoidably absent, prays to God and the ancestors for being alive to see another Ikeji. He breaks a kolanut, offers oblation and pours libation to conclude the prayers.
After that, kolanuts are shared, chicken meat (i.e. the eka okuku) is exchanged and drinks are also shared. Then follows the examination of the state of the clan. Reports and complaints are received from those who have them. It could be on disputes between or among members, the inability of a son or daughter of the clan to return to school or to marry due to indigence, or the decline of the business fortunes of a member of the clan, among other matters.
The issues are discussed and solutions provided, as much as possible. The occasion demands that the truth is told and justice upheld, so that peace and harmony are restored where they have been truncated. Those who need or seek advice or counselling are obliged and, at the end of the session, everyone returns to his home at peace with himself and his kinsmen.
Apart from the clan assembly, Eka Okuku Day approximates to Boxing Day in the Christian Calendar. It is a day of exchange of visits and presents among relatives and friends. Married women prepare and take to their fathers and other deserving male relations, rich food, the thighs of the cocks, killed by their husbands the previous day and, indeed, other edibles they can afford. Recipients of such generous gestures reciprocate by loading their daughters or sisters with presents in cash and kind, with new yams as part of the gift items.
Eka Okuku day is generally observed as one of visits, feasting and merriment; it is a day when pounded yam is eaten, often with isasa soup or egusisoup interspersed with okpulekwa.
2.2.4 Oku Obodo
This phase of the Ikeji Festival comes up 4 days following the Igbuji Ji ceremony; that is to say, on the izu after Ikeji Day proper. The event of the day involves mostly the younger male members of the community and takes place in the evening at a place called obodo, the village square or playground.
Earlier in the day, the children gather and stockpile firewood at a convenient corner of the village square. In the evening, they assemble on the square, carrying raw new yams, kitchen knives and bowls or plates of red palm oil often mixed with akpaka (sliced oil bean seeds).
At the appropriate time, the huge heap of firewood is ignited, resulting in a huge bonfire. The excited children now push their yams into the blazing fire to roast and each guards his own jealously until it is done and ready for consumption. As the blaze declines in intensity and the yams are fully roasted, the children withdraw them, scrape them neatly and retire to their corners to enjoy the meal. After that each child returns to his home, full of joy and tales of what transpired during the oku obodo.
This is to say that Ikeji Festival takes care of every segment of the population in Mgbowo; males, females, adults and children. It is our community's most universal cultural festival.
2.2.5 Ifu Ahia Ikeji
Traditionally, Onwa Tonnu ends 8 days (izulambo) after Ikeji Day. It is the day Ikeji Festival comes to a close with the spectacular outing of the populace in the community market place; hence, the phrase, Ifu Ahia.
However, with the adjustment of Mgbowo market day from Orio to Eke in the late 1950s, Ikeji Festival now lasts for seven, instead of eight days and ends on Eke market day; a day earlier than used to be the case.
Activities of this grand finale include the display of masquerades in the market place. Every village adorns and leads its own masquerades to the venue to entertain the jubilant audience with dances and acrobatic skills. The people cheer and pelt the dancers with cash presents. Everyone going to the market for this special event turns out in his or her best attire.
At the end of the day, the Ikeji Festival is formally over and everybody returns home to wait, nostalgically, for that of the next year.
3.0 Significance of Ikeji Festival
Our elders believe that yam is indigenous to our community. This is unlike cassava, which is known to have been brought in from outside through Imeama Village; hence, the expression, "Sam bia gbaa Imeama I'ish;, which you would hear a woman say when she wants to eat cassava foo-foo.
Today, both yam and cassava are cultivated as cash and subsistence crops throughout Igbo land and beyond but nowhere is the cassava revered or celebrated as the yam. Indeed, apart from the human being and land, yam is arguably the next most revered terrestrial object among our people; and, therefore, must be seen as having great significance, which is why it is celebrated in Ikeji Festival. Thus, we can safely assert that the significance of Ikeji is inextricably intertwined with that of yam as the king of all our local crops.
* Ikeji is, by far, the most important common festival in Mgbowo and its month (Onwa Tonnu) the most significant month in our local calendar. In those days of Irosh; in Onwa Esaa, a family that could not perform the ritual during the month was free to do so in Onwa Tonnu.
* Yam is regarded as sacrosanct in Mgbowo cosmogony or tradition.
Consequently, it is an abomination for any Mgbowo person to steal yam and, if one deliberately uproots a newly-sown yam seedling, one has grievously offended the gods. In addition, a menstruating woman is forbidden from entering yam barn, and two persons don't hold a yam when it is being cut.
* Yam confers on the "big yam farmer" social esteem, recognition and wealth.
* It is used in all important ceremonies secular and spiritual; such as marriage, birth, death, and presented as gifts to beloved and important persons.
Aside from these values attached to yam, its significance is also felt in the impact it has in our people's way of life. For example,
* Ikeji marks the end of the planting of yam in the course of Mgbowo calendar year. However, if for any reason a man must sow yam anytime between Ikeji and Enwu, he must do so with a knife; not with a hoe.
* Ikeji authorizes every Mgbowo person to eat new yams for the year, wherever he is. This is to say that no indigene of Mgbowo would eat new yam until our community has celebrated Ikeji Festival.
4.0 The Ogbu Ebele Ji Title
We have observed that a great yam farmer is regarded with awe and very high esteem. He is easily a man of means and is most disposed to dine with priests and elders. To further enhance his status in the community, he could decide to take the yam title of Ogbu Ebele Ji, with the additional compliment of Onyiri Umuejonni (conqueror of gluttons).
The taking of Ogbu Ebele Ji title is a lengthy and expensive business. It lasts for eight days (izulambo) during which rams (ebele), fowls and some other animals are slaughtered in the man's compound. Since he is supposed to have more than enough yams to feed the entire community for the period, nothing is cooked or eaten in his compound except yam and its by-products.
On the final day of the ceremony, the title -taker's compound is a beehive of activities. People who come from far and near throng the premises and more animals are slaughtered and used for preparing soup and yam porridge to feed the people. Cultural dancers perform but prominent among them is the Ogeji music group, which provides the music for the title holder to dance.
Finally, the yam deity, (Joku JI) is installed in the man's barn in the form of an earthen bowl (oshiri) and sacrifices made to it with a ram and fowls. From then, the barn becomes a sacred and restricted area, out of bounds for thieves, menstruating women and dishonest men.
The celebrant has become an Ogbu Ebele Ji, and can join others before him to adjudicate in all cases involving the abuse of yam in Mgbowo. Also, in conjunction with Ndi AIi, they are first to plant new yams after Enwu Festival.
5.0 Relationship Between Ikeji and Enwu Festivals
Without delving into the nitty-gritty of Enwu as one of our traditional festivals, I consider it necessary, for a better understanding of our subject, to discuss the relationship between it and Ikeji. In a sense, both festivals have something to do with yam; though, while Ikeji is totally a yam festival, Enwu only serves as a whistle for yam farmers to take off in the race. This is to say that Ikeji marks the beginning of yam harvests but Enwu heralds the planting of seed yams.
As we observed earlier in his lecture, the sowing of seed yams terminates with the harvest of new yams on Ikeji Day. The ban, as it were, is lifted on Enwu Day and fresh planting can begin the immediate next day; that is, the day after Enwu.
Another semblance between Ikeji and Enwu is the occurrence of Eka Okuku in both festivals, during which male members of every clan in the community meet to share prayers and victuals, and to discuss issues of common interest.
The practice, significance and rules that govern Enwu festival should be reserved for another lecture of this nature.
6.0 Summary and Conclusion
In this lecture, we have been discussing Ikeji Festival, which we have described as an aspect of Mgbowo traditional culture. I must appreciate the patriotism and foresight of the organizers of this occasion for the opportunity they have given us to recreate our remote and proximate past through this lecture. Coming at a time most of our once-cherished traditional practices have gone extinct, it is incumbent on us to use the opportunity to reflect on the consequences of presiding over the regrettable demise of our own culture and heritage.
Agreed that Christianity and civilization have dealt stunning blows on most of our local deities and rendered them impotent and anachronistic, why should we sit back and watch while our non¬idolatrous practices are casketed and buried? Agreed that we should not return to the era of killing fowls in order to cure fevers or to the days of idol worship, why have our women stopped the child¬outing ceremony (ifuta I'omugwo) all in the name of Christianity?
As far as I know, there is nothing fetish or idolatrous about ifuta I l’omugwo and there is no reason why it should be banned. As far as I am concerned, nothing stops us from recovering and restoring our stolen cultural heritage, no matter whose ox we may gore in the process of doing so.
Our culture is our identity; so, to lose that culture is to lose our very identity and essence. In the good old days, what we may call the golden era of Mgbowo, our people were synonymous with humility, positive pride and ambition, hard work, honesty, truthfulness, reliability and fortitude, among other enviable attributes. They traversed the length and breadth of this country and beyond without let or hindrance; hence, they were known as ogaluzo atu utu. These qualities provided the ladder with which most prominent Mgbowo people climbed to the lofty points of success and progress.
Today, the reverse is largely the case and we have been paying dearly for our indiscretion in the form of youth restiveness and youth mortality. It seems to me that the solution to this problem lies in turning round and returning to our roots by placing premium on those traditional values that once made Mgbowo Community and her citizens the doyen of humanity on this side of the globe.
Zonal Director (Rtd.)
National Broadcasting Commission
South East Zone.