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Iriji festival: Preserving Okposi culture, unity

In Ebonyi State, it has been new yam celebrations by different clans in the state. The festival was different in Okposi, Ohaozara Local Government Area of the state as it was the first time in the history of the clan the people came together to mark the annual ritual to preserve their culture, UCHENNA INYA reports from Abakaliki

All over Igboland, the months from July to September every year is usually besieged with feasts of New Yam. Dates for the celebrations are always indicated in the lunar calendar charts, especially adopted by every clan and determined by nature of soil, fertility, weather facilitating early yam plantation and duration ripe for harvest. Yam culture is momentous with hoe-knife life to manage the planting and tending of tuberous requirements. It 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; and harvest is followed by thanksgiving. An offering is put forward and the people pray for renewed life as they eat the new yam. An offering is usually made to the spirits of the field with special reference to the presiding deity of the yam crop.

In days pass, fowls offered as sacrifice must be carried to the farm and slain there, with the blood being sprinkled on the farm. For the past one month, different clans in Ebonyi State have been celebrating the new yam festivals to preserve their cultural heritage. It was the Ezza clan, the eldest clan in the state that first celebrated her own which is called Okeaku. Ezzas as the eldest in the state must celebrate their new yam festival before every other clan in the state. They have celebrated the Okeaku yam festival.

Ikwo and Izzi clans in the state have also celebrated their own new yam festivals known as Nnesweoha and Ojiji. Last week, the people of Okposi Ezinasato, Ohaozara Local Government Area of the state rolled out their drums and celebrated their own. They call their own new yam festival Iriji.

The Okposi Iriji day is a day characterized by unity of purpose and love among the three autonomous communities that make up the community. This year’s festival is the first time in history of the three communities that make up Okposi clan came together to celebrate Iriji. The coming together of the people to celebrate the festival was made possible by traditional rulers of the communities.

In Okposi Ezinasato during their lecture months of the year May-August when crops are planted and few farming activities remain; men and women engage in some social activities like sports, and games, wrestling archery, hunting of games and masquerading. The people are predominately farmers. They revere yam as the king of crops and give it special recognition.

Traditionally, during the month of Amuoha in the clan, farmers perform some sacrifices to the deities like ‘Njoku Ji’ that is believed to be responsible for bumper harvest and protection of the farmlands. That period is characterized by scarcity of food and the only food that was readily available was Echicha made of cooked and dried cocoyam. During that period in the clan, a lot of vices were likely to be committed by hungry men and women who could not afford at least a meal per day. But the stigma attached to committing crimes prevents such vices.

The new yam breaks the belt-tightening and everybody especially children would be happy as they sang praising God for the gift of new yams. According to history and tradition the Okposi clan, in the olden days, it was the family or linage of Nwonuta and Agwu Nwaobuna of Amechi village in the clan that performs the sacrifices before everyone in Okposi could harvest new yam on his/her farm. Any contravention of the law was tabooed.

This sacrifices and oracle consultations made the activities of the new yam festival in the community fetish and prevent Christians from active participation, hence the eclipse of the culture of new yam festival in Okposi Ezinasato. The new yam cultural festival almost went into comatose but for a stakeholder in the community, Pharmacist John Agwu is known as Ezeji in the community who in collaboration with his kinsmen accepted to reawaken and transform the method of celebration. Instead of consulting the oracles and performing sacrifices to deities, he invited men of God especially the Catholic priests to celebrate the Holy Mass in the place of the unwholesome sacrifice to deities.

After the mass, the Ezeji would announce that new yam should be harvested. A Senior Member, Mgbom Na Achara Elders Council, Chief Agwu C. Agwu said the innovation will serve as trailblazer for other bad customs and traditions in the three autonomous communities to be changed, harmonize other festivals in Okposi Ezinasato; Aju festival which is two months away from Ovuru to avoid the devilish sacrifices and tow the new method as modernly introduced by the Ezeji of the clan. He described Iriji as one of the bonds that hold the community together, promote peace, unity and love that had always existed in the clan.

“It is on this premise that the traditional institution and the people of Mgbom Achara autonomous community are highly in support of any effort geared towards the re-vitalization of our near comatose culture,” he said. Chairman of Ohaozara Local Government Area, Mrs. Nkechinyere Iyioku, in her remarks at the occasion, commended Governor Dave Umahi for restoring peace to the local government. She disclosed that she met with the traditional rulers of Okposi last year and had a fruitful discussion with them that the Iriji festival will now be made annual festival.

“I told the traditional rulers that will be doing the Iriji festival every year that the Okposi Ezinasato need to come together and organise this year’s new yam festival and it is happing today in our communities. “Ohaozara people are one and this is the first time Okposi man is seeing an Uburu man as one person, this is the first time Uburu man is seeing an Okposi man as one person because peace is existing in Ohaozara Local Government and I pray that this peace will continue to exist. “I want to promise Ohaozara people that we will organise Ohaozara traditional festival, Ohaozara day in my tenure, I will do it this year.

I have consulted the traditional rulers of Ohaozara and they gave me approval that I should organise Ohaozara day to show our culture, to show that Ohaozara is in peace, to show that we are one people,” she said. On her part, the state’s Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Mrs. Elizabeth Ogbaga described new yam festival as the highest festival in Igbo land and called on the people to uphold the festival and save Igbo culture from extinction. She said the new yam festival is a festival the people of the state Igbo in general welcome the New Year and that the New Year has started in Okposi after the festival.

“If you look carefully, you will discover that Igbo culture is dying seriously. We appeal that this Iriji festival if it is going to be celebrated next year, should be celebrated like Igbo culture. We don’t want when a new yam festival is celebrated people will appear in English attires. We should use our dialect while speaking in next year’s Iriji,” she said.

Governor Umahi who was represented by his Deputy, Dr. Kelechi Igwe, said his administration since it came on board in 2015, has been keeping the norms and values of the state. He commended the people for waking up to save their culture from extinction by organising the Iriji festival.

“If Okposi should come here and eschew all bitterness and rancour and come together to do what they have done today, this is remarkable and commendable. My job is to go and report and I will report effectively what I saw with Okposi today. “Feast and cultural carnival are one of the necessary enablers of peacebuilding and you can see how everybody is excited from all the communities that comprised Okposi, they are very happy today,” he said.

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