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In Honour of New Yam


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The pomp and pageantry that attended the recent Igbo Day/new yam festival spoke eloquently of the people's rich cultural heritage. The occasion which held at the main exhibition hall of the National Theater, Lagos, was packaged jointly by the Igbo Council of Chiefs, Lagos chapter, and the All Igbo Speaking States in Lagos.

The latter is a nascent umbrella body for all Igbo indigenes, both east and west of the river Niger, resident in Lagos. According to Raph Uwazuruike, the chairman of Igbo Council of Chiefs, Lagos, it aims "to strengthen the bond of relationship that existed between (the Igbos) before the civil war."

In Igboland, the occasion of Iri-ji (new-yam eating) is a cultural festival because of its significance. The individual communities, as agrarian people, have their days for this august occasion during which assortment of festivities mark the eating of new yam. To the Igbos, therefore, the day is symbolic of enjoyment after the cultivation season. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the star guest at the occasion, captured its importance vividly when he described "the new yam festival, in our tradition, as the culmination of a work cycle and the beginning of another."

That perhaps explains why in a traditional Igbo setting invitation to the festival is usually thrown open. What this means, according to Uche Momah, the president of All Igbo Speaking States in Lagos, is that there is abundant food for not just the harvesters but friends and well-wishers alike.

The ceremony at the National Theatre apparently south to replicate the new yam festival in its indigenous setting Interestingly, it was advertised as the first time all the seven Igbo states of Imo. Abia, Enugu, Anambra, Delta, Ebonyi and Rivers were uniformly celebrating the new yam festival. The attempt was not in futility, judging by the carnival nature of the event.

In Igbo communities the solemn role of eating the first yam is performed by the oldest man in the community or the king, as the case may be. The belief is that their position bestows on them the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. The rituals that attend the new yam eating are meant to express the community's appreciation to the gods for making the harvest of farm yields possible. The influence of Christianity notwithstanding, many traditionalists and title holders in some Igbo communities never taste the new yam until the day traditionally set aside for it.

At the new yam festival, only dishes of yam are served since the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce. In contrast, however, the Lagos occasion of October 4 was "a new rice festival", as one observer spitefully put it. Apparently, he was appalled by the pau-city of yams at the event. There appeared to be yam enough only for the ritual by Odumegwu-Ojukwu, as "the father of the day," Garuba Hamza, chairman, Hamza Holdings, who chaired the occasion, and a few members of the high-table.

Amused by the situation Matthew Egbo, an Igooman in Lagos, dismissed the occasion as "a big joke." He told Theweek that "the occasion was just put together by Ojukwu faithfuls" bent on inventing an occasion in Lagos to present the ex-Biafran war-lord as a king.

The absurdity of the situation was not lost on odumegwu-Ojukwu himself, hence he was to question, rather rhetorically: "What new yam are we celebrating?" remarking: "We have no yam."

That the new yam festival in Lagos was a campaign for Odumegwu Ojukwu's acceptance by his loyalists may not be far from the truth. Uwazuruike set the tone in his welcome speech which ironically was silent on the occasion the full hall was gathered for. After clothing the star guest in colourful phrases, he went ahead to exhort "all Igbos in Nigeria to request our Eze Odumegwu-Ojukwu (Eze-Igbo) to dialogue with the federal government on behalf of all Igbos " regarding what he described as their "30 years of marginalisation." He claimed that Ojukwu is a saviour "and above all, the Jesus Christ of Igbos."
 PHILIP EMEAGWALI'S READING LIST
  The Spirit-Man: Nnamdi Azikiwe

  Nigeria Needs Me; Odumegwu Ojukwu

  In Honour of New Yam; Igbo Day/New Yam Festival

  Africa Has Driven Into Exile Its Best Thinkers

  Works From a Country in Progress; Nigerian Literature

  'Just' an Igbo woman; Buchi Emecheta

  Kehinde, by Buchi Emecheta

  Talking With Ben Okri

  A writer on trial for his life Anthony Daniels recalls his last meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa

  Slow Start, Sweet Climax; Nigerian Music

  Blacks Are Key to World Progress, Historian Asserts

  Superbrain of Africa

  Please visit http://emeagwali.com for the most recent list.

With the stage thus set, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who described the occasion as "the most Igbo of Igbo events," laced his speech with a catalogue of his travails through the years, which he described as the "dues" he has paid to Ndi-Igbo and to Nigeria."

Critics of the event may have discerned in Uwazuruike's subsequent announcement a justification of their allegation. Speaking for the organisers, he disclosed that both organisations had unaminously agreed that henceforth "the annual Igbo day/ Iri-ji festival of all Igbos in Lagos shall be permanently held on 4th of every November," For those at the occasion who were disappointed with that development, the big consolation was the dances, the displays and the appearance of Igbo ancestral masks, which succeeded in capturing the festive mood that has become synonymous with the iri-ji in traditional Igbo societies.

Reported by Onyema Omenuwa in TheWeek November 24, 1997.

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