New yam festival is a colourful cultural ritual especially in the eastern parts of Nigeria and Ghana and other African countries and beyond, symbolizing the conclusion of a harvest and the beginning of the next cycle. The celebration is a very culturally based occasion, tying Igbo communities together as essentially agrarian and dependent on yam.
New yam festival of the Igbo (Iwa ji, Iri ji or Ike ji, depending on the dialect) is an annual harvest festival by the Igbo held in early August. In the ancient Igbo tradition, no family has the right to eat a newly harvested yam, unless a traditional new yam festival had been officially celebrated by the Igwe and his cabinet of elders. But today, the invasion of technology and modern lifestyle had displaced this law and tradition.
The iriji (new yam) festival is a time of thanksgiving to the gods for making the farm yield bountifully and praying for good yields in the next planting season.
The Iriji festival is celebrated at different times within the Igbo communities, from August until October every year.
“Iwa ji” is observed as a public function on certain appointed days of the year. It is the feast of new yam; the breaking of the yam is followed by thanksgiving. An offering is given and the people pray for renewed life as they eat the new yam. An offering is made to the spirits of the field with special reference to the presiding deity of the yam crop. In the olden days, fowls offered as sacrifice must be carried to the farm and slain there, with the blood sprinkled on the farm. When the ceremony is completed, everything is taken home; the yam tubers are laid up before the “Alụsị” (deity) together with all the farming implements, while the fowls are eaten at the subsequent feast. The whole community share in this harvest and thanksgiving called “Afịa-ji Ọkụ”. The meaning and significance of the name is worth explaining. The idea behind “Afịa-ji Ọkụ” seems to indicate exertion, industry, to strive, hence to trade; “ji”, to lay hold of and “Ọkụ” riches. Thus, the full meaning is: “Industry or trade brings wealth.” In those days, yam largely constituted wealth.
The feast is held once a year and is observed at a sacred spot. It is held in the sixth month after planting and in some parts is observed on an Nkwọ market day only. It is held when the first new tubers of yam are available, the seed of which were planted in the first month of the year, in order to be ready in time for the ceremony, whereas the main crop is planted in the second month.
Days before this festival are accompanied with clearing and beautification of the ceremony arena by the youths of the community, of which the cabinet members have this information disseminated via a communicable medium that well suits the respective communities. The end of clearing of grasses and beautification of the ceremony arena is preceded by the arrangement of chairs, canopies, and other communication media have to be set up at the arena, two days before the new yam festival. The next approach to this new yam festival is what we call “Market Survey”. The Igwe and his cabinet of elders would hold a crucial meeting at his palace ahead of this festival. The essence of this meeting is to map out a way for market survey on the cost of condiments and tubers of yam that will be used. The condiments that will be used for this festival are usually tubers of yam, fresh palm oil, kegs of palm wine (nkwụ elu & ngwọ), alligator pepper (ose ọji), groundnut sauce (ọkwu ose), igbo kola nuts (ọji igbo), oil bean seed (ụkpaka), ogiri-igbo, ụtazi, pepper, onions (yọbasị), crayfish, e.t.c.
In the ceremony, blessing is sought of the yam spirit. Kola nut is produced and standing in front of the “Alụsị” the petitioner appeals: “Eat this kola and help the yam in the small farms that, if the rain be too much, they may not drown , and if the rain be too strong, it may not cause them to whither.”
The sacrificial offering varies in different localities. The gift may consist of kola nuts and a fowl, together with “ogilisi” and new tubers of yam, the last being boiled. Sometimes, kola nuts and young palm leaves are offered. The petitioner says, “See this fowl which I have brought to you!” Afịa-ji Ọkụ na ọkụkụ m’wetalụ kam’nye i.” The throat of the fowl is slit and the blood sprinkled. The carcass is given to the children wherewith to make soup. He, the petitioner goes on to say, “If I plant yam as small as this, when I dig it up, may it be so long as this, indicating with his hands and arms the sizes he has in mind. He prays that fever may not trouble him or his people and that all things may prosper in his hand.
That night, a feast is held of which men only partake, as they are responsible for the growing of the yam. In any case, women do not eat food that has been offered to a spirit. A month after, the people begin to dig up their yams
Two species of delicacies are usually prepared on that day, i.e. a boiled white yam coupled with its red oil sauce, and a yam porridge (Ji-awayị).
- BOILED TUBERS OF YAM: The tubers of yam are to be cut into pieces and boiled unpeeled, which goes with a red oil sauce. The ingredients that are to be used to prepare the red oily sauce for this new yam festival include fresh palm oil, salt, oil bean seed (ụkpaka), ogiri-igbo, ụtazi, pepper, onions, crayfish, etc of which are to be pounded in a mortar and mixed with a fresh palm oil, and this will serve as sauce for the already boiled yam. this delicacy is usually called “ji mmanụ” among the Igbo people.
- YAM PORRIDGE: These tubers of yam will be peeled and cooked along with its ingredients. The ingredients that are to be used in cooking this yam porridge (ji-awayi) include palm oil, salt, ụda, pepper, onions, crayfish, e.t.c. of which are to be used in the preparation of this delicacy.
The main reason for the preparation of these two delicacies is that some special guests at the high table may request the former, while some, the latter. An alligator pepper (ose ọji) will be used during the opening prayer by the Igwe, his cabinet elders, other traditional rulers, Ndi Ichie, Ndi Nze na Ọzọ, e.t.c. at the festival.
Few days to this festival is accompanied with sending of invitation cards or messages to the traditional rulers of neighbouring communities. In the ancient times, this is usually done via palace messengers, but with advancement in technology and modern lifestyle, it is usually done in form of an invitation card, usually accompanied with a wine, either English made or locally tapped. On the day this festival will hold, there will be a royal setting. This royal setting will have the royal seats of which will sit the Igwe and his Lolo (wife) placed at a more elevated ground of which will be flanked by other royal seats. These royal seats placed at the centre of other seats, coupled with a well decorated table or tables in front of the Igwe’s seat. Personalities that will sit at these table or tables are usually those at the high table, just like it is usually done in a traditional marriage or wedding reception.
At the commencement of this festival usually the Igwe with his Lolo are dressed in colourful traditional robies, with beads and bracelets, and royal staff and Ofor in his hand whereas his Lolo (wife) will have a traditionally made hand fan, of animal skin. The royalties will dress in a uniform, usually white or red with beads and bracelets, with an Ofor, opi or traditionally made hand fan, in their hands. The arrangement of chairs will be in such a way that guests will be facing the high table, so that all attention will be focused on the high table. When the royalties are seated, this is the time the yam porridge (ji-awayi) and the boiled yam with its red oil sauce will be presented on a table placed a few inches away from the royal high table in a white basin. After all these, the new yam festival will kick off with an opening prayer by the igwe of that community.
This opening prayer is aimed at thanking God Almighty for His Infinite Mercies towards mankind, and also to thank Him for an increased output in farm produce from that season, and a plea will also be made to Him to guide and sustain the traditions of the community at large, and also for the sustenance of serial percentage increase in agricultural outputs in the community. After this opening prayer, is the introduction of royal guests and cabinet members, and this is usually done by a master of ceremony “MC”.
The introduction is preceded by an official presentation of the boiled white yam, prepared red oil sauce and the yam porridge (Ji-awayi) to the Igwe and the special guests at the high table. The Igwe will taste the delicacy. Once the Igwe had tasted this delicacy, its usually a “head-nod” which signifies that a newly cultivated yam had been tasted in the community. This yam will be shared among the special guests, cabinet members and the community. As this refreshment lingers, pleasantries follow it up. This pleasantries include royal dance, igba-eze dance, cultural dance, masquerade parade and dance, e.t.c. the ceremony arena.
Taking a look at these pleasantries, the royal parade is usually a process whereby the Igwe, his royal cabinet members, invited kings and lolos, including other title holders will come out for a dance. Preceding this royal dance will be ịgba-eze dance. This ịgba-eze dance will feature only the indigenous igwe, his cabinet of elders and title holders of the community. The exit of ịgba-eze dance will enthrone the cultural dance. This cultural dance will feature dancers from all the villages in the community. All the villages in the community will present their dancers on that day at the arena. When the cultural dances had exited, the next programme would be acrobatic displays which is voluntary. Both the indigenes and other guests are all welcome to this section.
Today, the uniqueness of the new yam festival has assumed a more elaborate and transcendental dimension. Now, many see it as an avenue to show case their cultural potentials. That is why events like masquerade display, traditional wrestling, cultural dances and title-taking, are usually held in most communities to mark the occasion.
Besides, the festival has provided a strong platform for fund raising and other development-oriented projects. In some areas, for instance, launchings are held for the building of town halls renovation and rehabilitation of collapsed public places, health centres, roads, markets, provision and maintenance of community security and vigilant groups. This is because that is the time many return from the urban areas and beyond for the festival in large numbers.
The new yam festival is a historic event and epochal moment of get-together, happiness, enjoyment and overall reflection on family performance, challenges and prospects. Many people, especially the titled men and avowed defenders and protagonists of cultural norms and values, do not eat the new yam until the new yam festival. This is borne out of the belief that the new yam is sacrosanct and should not be profaned by premature consumption.