THE NEW YAM FESTIVAL AS PRINCIPLE OF RECIPROCITY
Perhaps, there is no one festival which is universally celebrated throughout Igboland and beyond as the New Yam festival. Some people call it Ifha-ji-oku. Others call it Iwa-ji or Iri-ji, etc.
Ifha-ji-oku, Iwa-ji, Iri-ji, or New Yam Festival is celebrated between August and October of every year, depending on when each community will decide to celebrate its own.
Ifha-ji-oku, Iwa-ji, Iri-ji or New Yam festival, marks the conclusion of the planting season and the beginning of the harvesting period. The festival is used to thank God for His protection and kindness in seeing the people through from the lean period (uwu), to the time of bountiful harvest, without death resulting from hunger.
Ifha-ji-oku, Iwa-ji, Iri-ji or New Yam festival equally depicts the respect, prominence or importance the people attach to yam as the king of all crops. It is also a symbol of unity and togetherness, by bringing people from both far and near together in peace and unity.
In the past, Ifha-ji-oku, Iwa-ji or Iri-ji festival was celebrated at the family or kindred level, (Umunna), with the oldest man in the family, who holds the “Ofo” stick (a symbol of truth and justice), as the chief celebrant. But the festival is now turning into a very big ceremony, which is celebrated even beyond the shores of the country, and used to showcase the rich Igbo culture.
In those days, before anybody in the family could taste or eat new yam in any new season, the oldest man in the family must first have eaten it after performing the necessary rituals. Before then, he must have also done away with every old yam in his stock. (Old thing passeth away).
He would then harvest a new yam from his farm. At the family entrance, (Onu Egbo), he would weave some palm fronds (Omu Nkwu) in form of mat. He would slice some portions of the yam and place them on top of the weaved palm fronds.
He would slaughter a cock, sprinkled the blood on top of it, and pour some wine on them as sacrifice to the gods and the ancestors. Later, he would roast the yam, eat it first, and then begin to share it to all the people present.
The weaved palm fronds with the sliced yam on top of it would tell any visitor that the family had eaten new yam or had marked the Ifha-ji-oku Festival, and therefore, that everybody was free to begin to eat new yam.
Interestingly, the New Yam Festival which started as one of the several festivals performed in some remote family kindred, has now been elevated to village or community festival, with the Traditional Ruler of the community at the head of the ceremony.
The Traditional Ruler, together with members of his Cabinet, will be at their best. They will be gorgeously dressed, as they perform the necessary rituals in connection with the New Yam Festival.
With the influence of Christianity, many Traditional Rulers no longer perform ritual sacrifices to the gods and the ancestors, but merely roast the yam, dip it into a well prepared dish of palm oil, salt and pepper, eat it first, before passing it over to members of his cabinet, and then to all the people present.
This particular ceremony of sharing the roasted yam to all people present signifies the egalitarian or the communal spirit of traditional Igbo society. Traditional Igbo society abhors an oasis in the desert, where only one man will be eating, while others starved. Therefore, the oldest man in the family, and now the Traditional Ruler, who presides over the activities of the New Yam Festival must feed and take good care of all his flock, all his subjects. The occasion will features variety of traditional dances and other cultural displays.
Philosophically, the New Yam Festival symbolizes reciprocity, that is to say, the principle of give and take, live and let live (Aka nli kwoo aka-ekpe, aka-ekpe akwoo aka nli). If the right hand washes the left hand, the left hand must equally wash the right hand.
Professor Alexander Animalu put it this way: “The Igbo man gives old yam, (ji akakpo or ji okpoo) to the ground (ani), and (ani) eats it and gives him new yam (ji ofuu). This is reciprocity, a principle of give and take, and of dialogue, which is a principle of unity and regeneration between man and nature, man and man, man and machine. A winner-take-all situation in which (ani) eats the yam and returns rotten yam (ji nwulu anwu) to the farmer is one that dooms the community, as it were, to starvation”.
In other words, we should endeavour to reciprocate for every good deed done for us, to say thank you for any good deed. Our people find it difficult to remember the good deeds done for them, to say thank you for what they have received. Like the Ten Lepers who who were healed by Jesus Christ and only one leper remembered to come back to say “Thank You”, we equally fail to show appreciation for what was done for us.
That is what Ifha-ji-oku, Iwa-ji, Iri-ji or the New Yam Festival is teaching us. It wants us to be appreciative, to say “thank you” for any favour done for us. Our forefathers through the Ifha-ji-oku festival were extremely appreciative to the gods and to the ancestors for seeing them through during the farming season and for returning the old yams sowed on the ground as refreshingly new yams, and not rotten ones. Etoo dike na nke omulu, omee ozo.