New yam festival, a significant event in Igbo land

The young maiden during the new yam festival performing different dancing steps with yam on their heads
By Tochi Juliet

The new yam festival, known as the 'Emume ịwa Ji na iri Ji ọhuru' is a great festival across the Igboland in Nigeria and in the diaspora. The festival holds annually in August during the season of Yam Harvest.

Emume ịwa Ji na iri Ji ọhuru when translated to English, means New yam ceremony or new yarm festival. The Igboland is an ethnic group in Nigeria, residing in the south-eastern part of the country.

These set of people speak a language called Igbo, which, according to Wikipedia, has about 45 million speakers and is made up of over 20 dialects.

The festival of ịwa ji na iri Ji ọhuru is held annually in Igboland, in August during the season of yam harvest. It is indeed a great festival and Chinua Achebe, one of the best Literally icons in Africa captured it in one of his notable works, The Arrow of God.

The new yam festival is as old as the tradition of the Igbos. It is said to have originated right from time immemorial through the ancestral fathers of the ethnic group to the present children and inhabitants of the land.

Emume ịwa Ji na iri Ji ọhuru is celebrated by the Igbos to thank the gods of their land, and their ancestors for a good harvest. It is the feast of the new yam; the breaking of the yam; and the harvest is followed by thanksgiving.

Preparation for the New Yam (iri ji ohuru) festival

The feast goes with a lot of preparations, and every family, household by household is expected to present their new yam, a form of offering for the gods of the land.

It goes with merriments, dancing, display of different masquerades, events, and so much more.

Usually, at the beginning of the festival, the yams are offered to the gods and ancestors first before distributing them to the villagers. The act of this celebration is called 'Ahijioku', Ahijioku is the yam or earth gods.

The King and his cabinet pouring libation to Ahijoku the yam and earth gods.

The ritual is performed either by the oldest man in the community or by the king or eminent titleholder.

The nobility also offers the yams to gods, deities and ancestors by showing gratitude to God for his protection and kindness in leading them from lean periods to the time of bountiful harvest without deaths resulting from hunger.

The king and elders, according to tradition are the first to cut the yam during the festival

Merriment during the new yam festival

After the prayer of thanksgiving to God, the elders will eat the first yam. Only after then will the rest of the community feel free to consume the new yam without incurring the wrath of the gods.

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.

The yam is then eaten with 'mmanụ nri' i.e red oil.

Although the methods and style of celebration usually differ from one community to the next, the essential components that make up the festival remain the same.

Traditionally, the New Yam celebration includes a variety of entertainments and ceremony; cultural dancers adorn in rich cultural costumes to the admiration of all.

Also, fashion display, role reversals, Igbo masquerade jamboree, heavy drinking of palm wine, folklores, are synonymous with the iwa ji and iri-ji ohuru in Igbo life and culture.

Able-bodied young men displaying different dancing steps during the new yam festival.

Mothers performing during the new yam festival

Serving food during the new yam festival is focused on varieties of yam dishes since the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce.

Enough yam is cooked such that no matter how heavily guests and family members may eat, there will always be enough at the end of the day. It is, in that sense, a season of merriment, abundance and hanging out together.

Another interesting aspect of the festival is the consumption or discarding of old yams prior to the festival day.

And this is done owing to the belief that the New Year must begin with tasty fresh yams instead of the old dried-up crops of the previous year.

During the new yam festival the yam is mostly roasted and eaten with red oil

The New Yam festival is also an avenue to call home sons and daughters abroad to renew and reaffirm the bond of brotherhood; it also brings to mind a sense of belonging and to plan for community development.

In some communities, it is a taboo for any indigene of the community to eat new yam before the traditional “Iwa ji or Iri Ji” ceremony is performed.

The harvest of yam and the celebration of the God of the land through the New Yam festival is an epitome of the people’s religious belief in the supreme deity.

It is a remarkable event in Igbo tradition.

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