New Yam Festival

 
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Nordic Journal of African Studies 16(2): 244–260 (2007)

The Sacred Festival of Iri Ji Ohuru
in Igboland, Nigeria
UKACHUKWU CHRIS MANUS
Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria

ABSTRACT
This article examines the religious significance of the New Yams Festival (Iri Ji Ohuru) among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria. Secondary data for the study was collected from ethnographical information on the origin of the custom by some well-known Igbologists. An analysis of a major extant etiological myth about the revelation of yams in Igboland is provided. A phenomenological description of the Emume (festival), the primary datum as it directly presented itself to my consciousness when I observed one such festival in my village of birth, Umueze, Uzoagba in the Ikedururu Local Government Area of Imo State, Nigeria, in 2004 is presented. Interview schedules with some elders and a ritual master of this kind of traditional custom was conducted in the village on 12 April 2004 and 1–7 February 2006. To anchor the findings on the place of yams on solid ethno-history, a brief sketch of the migrations of the Igbo people, their religion and the legend about their progenitor, Eri, is discussed. The aim is to provide the socio-religious background for understanding the divine origin and the sacred nature of yams in the traditional belief of the Igbo people. Popular views on the value of yams as principal staple in Igbo gastronomic life as attested in contemporary literary works are related. Matters of great interest to phenomenologists such as the descriptive account of the festival, its ritual acts, the oral nature of the incantations, and the age of the participants are discussed. An effort is made to suspend critical judgment on the phenomenon’s value and truth claims from the perspectives of my own present religious experience and tradition. In other words, I have permitted the structure and morphology of the ritual acts of the ceremony to manifest themselves for possible comparisons and contrasts by other Black and African scholars of a religious phenomenon like this in their own areas. In addition, the iconoclastic attitude of Western missionaries in nineteenth-century Igboland to customs and practices as Iri Ji Ohuru is discussed. The study counsels the Igbo to regard the cultivation of yams, even be it potatoes for those in the diaspora to work their gardens annually as a religious obligation. The socio-religious lessons of the ritual acts of the festival call upon leaders of Igbo Christianity to welcome the ritual stages of the rite in the Church’s effort in contemporary liturgy as a means to boost the inculturation of African customs in the Church.

 

Keywords: Igbo, Ahianjoku, ancestors, libation, masquerades, eschatological, epiphany,Igbology

INTRODUCTION
Iri Ji Ohuru, though, an Igbo-wide festival, has its origin in the Igbo homeland
and cultural world. Narratives on the festival are widely transmitted in Igbo oral
history, tradition, religion and culture, but the intricacies of the structures of the
festival are hardly known by most postmodern Igbo people, especially those
who are staying in non-Igbo culture zones of Nigeria and in diaspora, such as in
Britain, Belgium, Germany, France and the USA. The objective of this brief
research paper is to attempt to fill a yawning lacuna in the contemporary Black
history of ideas. An Igbo song of salutation and Traditional Prayer of Opening at
an Iri Ji Ohuru ceremony is considered very important to start off the discussion that follows:

Umunna1 Kwe nu! Haa!
Kwe nu! Haa!
Kwe zuo nu! Haa!
Nke Onye diri ya
Onye iro anyi biri, m’anyi biri
Ya bara Onye, bara Onye
Onye anwuna, m’ibe ya efula
Ogburu Onye n’onye ga-ala
Njo na njo zu kwara
Mma na Mma zu kwara
K‚anyi rie Ji Ohuru afo nkea n’ Udo
Egbe bere, Ugo bere,
Nke si ibe ya ebela nku kwa kwaa ya
Haa! (Amem)

English Translation:
Umunna Sing, Haa!
Sing, Haa!
Sing, All of You, Haa!
Let every person receive what is his or her due
May our enemies live, may we also live
Let progress and what is good reach to all
May no one die, may the fellow man not be lost
May he who kills another go with the dead
May evil be met with evil
May good be followed by good
May we eat this year’s new Yams in Peace
Let the Kite perch and let the Eagle perch
That which refuses the other the right to perch, let its wing break
Haa!

1. METHODOLOGY
A three-pronged approach has been adopted for this study: the documentary, the
historical and the phenomenological. (1) In the documentary approach, much of
the ethnographical information on the religious practices and customs, especially
those related to the New Yams Festival, is derived from the works of other
researchers working on the topic earlier. This involved a critical reading and
assessment of their materials as sources on a culture that is so cherished but is
nevertheless dying slowly out. (2) The historical approach attempts to unravel
the religious tradition of the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria who, in spite
of the onslaught of Western missionary activities in the land, still continues to
see their traditional religion and culture as a treasure worth re-living if only it
can be given a Christian orientation. Within such a frame, a dispassionate
examination was conducted of their sacred past to decipher the raw ingredients
of what counts as the “revelation” of the bounteous Chukwu, the High God of
the Igbo, through the gift of yams. By this method, an effort was made to
delineate the attitude of the shapers of the culture of the Igbo race as well as a
wide range of religious beliefs and legends about yams in the Igbo agrarian
world. This sort of historical enquiry, I agree with Ninian Smart, “involves
depicting histories, but in a manner which involves empathy”2. The ultimate aim
is to generate comparisons as the transition from Igbo culture to the traditions of
other readers. In particular, those in primal societies in East Asia and Oceania
necessarily require a comparative approach in the study of their own traditional
religions. (3) In using a phenomenological approach, I have attempted to focus
on the data of the experience of the Igbo people of the rites associated with the
Festival as they directly appeared to my consciousness during my participatory
observation sessions at an Ahianjoku shrine in my own village. In this paper, I
wish briefly to present my observations by way of an “eye-witness” description,
to use Ninian Smart’s term, of “what the custom means” to the people.3 The
phenomenological method has helped dispel some forms of ethnocentric views
and prejudicial attitudes generated and spread about Igbo culture since the time
of colonialism and the penetration of Western civilization. From this study, one
can discover how Igbo New Yams Festival embodies the people’s cultural
beliefs about nature, the progenitors, family and labour in an agrarian setting.
The methods reveal that the complex but ordered mosaic of Igbo culture is the
consequence of fundamental religious traditions, as is exemplified in the role of
Ahianjoku, the yam deity.4

2. THE IGBO PEOPLE OF NIGERIA
A lengthy disquisition on the origin of the Ndi-Igbo (Igbo people) will become
unwieldy for a paper on a religious practice. Much ink has been spilled both by
Igbo and non-Igbo scholars in the arduous effort to chronicle the migration and
settlements of the Igbo people5. It will suffice to briefly navigate the
geographical location of Igboland in the light of the present homelands of the
Ndi Igbo in parts of the south-eastern and Niger Delta areas of Nigeria. The
settled areas are watered by four main rivers: the Niger, the Imo, the Anambra
and the Urasi, all of which flow from the north and meander towards the south,
emptying themselves into the sea. According to Uchendu,
Four distinct areas may be distinguished: the riverine, the delta, the
central and the north-eastern belts. The riverine and the delta belts are
served by the Niger and its tributaries; they are low lying, are heavily
inundated during the rainy season, and are very fertile. The headwaters of
the Imo and Urasi rivers serve the central belt, a relatively high plain
which gradually fades into the Okigwe-Agwu plateau6.
These areas represent the food-basket of the Igbo nation where yam is eaten in
many forms with style and relish. This geography helps to establish why yam,
this ubiquitous crop that grows in abundance in this region of Nigeria, became a
major staple for the people.

The cardinal place accorded to yam in Igbo oral and literary sources cannot
be appreciated without a survey of some scholarly views on the habitat of the
Ndi-Igbo as I have indicated in my methodology section. Romanticized by
exotic legends and chronicled in European travel diaries, Igboland, the
birthplace of many of Nigeria’s ancient traditions and civilizations, is a region
blessed with vibrant communities well recognized for their diverse physical and
cultural traits, artistic creations, religious festivities and philosophies of life7.
According to V.C. Uchendu, the River Niger, before it enters the Atlantic Ocean
through a network of distributaries which characterize its delta, divides the Igbo
country into two unequal parts. The greater portion lies in what was (in the post-colonial era)
called the Eastern Region of Nigeria, while a smaller triangular portion,
west of the Niger, was part of Nigeria’s fourth – the Midwestern Region8.
J.H. Greenberg asserts that the Igbo sub-group formed part of the Niger-Congo
Kwa linguistic family who separated or detached themselves from their larger
cousins in the area of the Niger-Benue confluence9. Uchendu’s assertion that the
origin of the Igbo remains a subject of much speculation that has come under
critical reassessment in recent Igbological discourse is still worrisome. The wellknown
Igbo historian, A.E. Afigbo, asserts that for over 4,000 years now, the
area referred to as Igboland has been inhabited by people10. Obiora Ike, a
modern oral history researcher, corroborates Afigbo’s assertion when he admits
that the Igbo people, believed to have originated in the area of the Asseler
regions and modern Khartoum (the capital of Sudan), “had migrated to their
present location in the third millennium before Christ”11. I wish to identify with
Afigbo’s well-researched information that the Igbo must have set out from the
area of Lokoja now in the modern Kogi State of Nigeria.12 But Peter
Osuchukwu, who discountenances the trajectory of Igbo pre-history, agrees with
us that Igboland, which is a vast chunk of the Nigerian polity, has long been
located in the south-eastern Nigeria13. In pre-colonial times, and in the postindependence
era, Igbo people, living in the east or in the west, have come to
recognize their cultural and psychic identities have re-grouped under a nonpartisan
political union known as Oha-Na-Eze Ndi Igbo (a non-political association for the Igbo)
as a strong organ through which they express their solidarity and common interests,
and defend and promote Igbo peoples’ wellbeing.

Having cross-checked both oral history and some extant local traditions,
there is little doubt that all other foods than yams and fish, are the common
products of that belt, which will have been brought along with the Igbo migrants
when they journeyed towards their new settlements in the course of their
dispersal. Roasted yam, for example, which was believed to have readily
provided sustenance to the earliest settlers, caused yam to receive a beatification
of a kind that is preserved in many Igbo beliefs, legends and sacred myths.


3. IGBO RELIGION
I consider it quite à propos to treat Igbo religion here as a phenomenon which
generated a world view from which the Igbo people have derived certain
fundamental Vorurteile – pre-judgments – that have to a large extent determined
their visions and horizons in life14. This religious epistemology and ontology
may help us understand why Iri Ji Ohuru has been accepted as a sacred festival
in the Igbo calendar. Like all other sub-Saharan Africans, the Ndi Igbo have
dense religious traditions. The feeling of the sacred is quite a ubiquitous
experience in Igboland. Obiora Ike and Ndidi Edozien have succinctly captured
the situation. They state that:

The existence of the divine Being and the invincible spirit world is
natural to them, and it seems obvious that this Being should have his
mysteries because he surpasses human beings and the capacity for human
reason. Religion imbues all of life and there is no split between faith and
daily living. There is a great openness to mystery. The Igbo do not
demarcate between a strictly material, sensual world and a purely
spiritual world. In stark contrast to the dualism present in Greek antiquity
and Western philosophy, the Igbo view life as a continuum that extends
beyond the demise of the material self15 .

These scholars tell us that religion, with its traditional symbols and beliefs,
affects all departments of life “without positing any division between the sacred
and the profane”16. The wrath of the gods is held in awe. Evil forests abound
and are considered the abode of dangerous spirits, of malignant deities, and of
marauding ghosts of wicked persons who have recently died. Such forests have
something uncanny and eerie about them, and are not cultivated for yam
planting. In many Igbo communities, people do not wander into such forests.
Thus, for the Igbo, a religious perception of reality creates a sense of unity in
life and directs every activity of an Igbo man or woman to the promotion and
protection of ethical principles in the interest of the common good. In the
traditional setting, there existed no possibility of a bifurcation between life and
religion. It is therefore from this religious background that we can now examine
the mythical account of the “donation” of yam as a major and most delicious
staple to the Igbo, this forest people.

4. TH EZE NRI MYTH
The origin of yam, the chief among other important staples in Igbo country, is
transmitted in a myth that articulates a revelation that Chukwu, the most
powerful Spirit of the Igbo17 communicated to Eze Nri, the divine King of
Nriland. Nriland is recognized as the cradle of Igbo civilization and the center of
further dispersal. According to Ikenga Emefie Metuh, the mythical narrative
goes like this:
Eri, father of Nri, and Nnamaku, his wife, were sent down by Chukwu, a
sky God. When Eri came down from the sky, he had to stand on an antheap
as all the land was then a morass. He complained to Chukwu, who
thereupon sent him an Awka blacksmith to dry up the land. While Eri
lived, he and his dependants were fed by Chukwu and their food was Azu
Igwe, Fish from heaven.

When Eri died, this food supply ceased. Nri complained to Chukwu,
but was told that in order to get food he would have to kill and bury his
eldest son and daughter. When Nri objected, Chukwu promised to send
Dioka from the sky to carve the ichi or facial cicatrization marks on the
foreheads of the two children. After Dioka arrived and cut the ichi on the
faces of the two children, Nri cut their throats and buried them in separate
graves.

Three native weeks (twelve days) later, shoots appeared from the
graves of these two children. From the grave of his son, Nri dug up yam.
He cooked and ate it and found it so pleasing that he fell into a sleep so
deep that his family thought him dead. When he awoke, he told his
astonished family what he had done. The next day, Nri dug up cocoyams
from his daughter’s grave, ate them and likewise slept again. This is why
yam is called “son of Nri” and the cocoyam called “daughter of Nri”. The
first-born son and daughter of Nri are marked to this day with the ichi to
commemorate the event18

A longer version of this tradition informs us that Chukwu had ordered Nri to
distribute yams, cocoyams and other food items given to him to all the people in
Igboland.19 But Nri, with audacity characteristic of the Igbo, refused. Chukwu

19 Apart from this widespread myth, there are other pocket narratives that explain
the origin of yam in different parts of Igboland. One such legend known among the
Afikpo people in today’s Ebonyi State states that “the yam was the reincarnation of
the first son of an Afikpo woman sacrificed on the orders of the oracle, Ibini Ukpabi”
(Echeruo 1979: 9). To my mind, this is an etiological account contrived to give credence
to the legend about the growth and had to enter into a deal with him. Chukwu conferred
on him the sole right of ritual cleansing of every Igbo village and community of all Nso Ala
(abominations) committed in it, of crowning and installing kings, and of tying
Ngwulu, ankle cords on candidates for Ozo-title. He also conferred on Nri and
his descendants the privilege of making Ogwu-ji, (yam medicine) for Igbo
communities living in arid and impoverished areas to ensure a rich yam harvest
each year. In return for all these priestly services, all beneficiaries in Igboland
paid the people of Nri annual tribute through their Dibia(s) (medicine-men). As
a result of this God-man covenant, all Umunri people can travel unarmed
through out the length and breadth of Igboland without any fear of personal
molestation or attack or theft of their property20.

The etiological narrative of the Iri Ji Ohuru ritual is shrouded in mysticism
and esotericism. The scientifically minded and rational persons would have
problems with some of its components. But the fact remains that here we are
dealing with myth – a narrative that celebrates the acceptance of events that had
originated at a time that lies outside ordinary time21. The gift of yam to the Igbo
lies in a distant past and it has been portrayed as an event that happened within a
mythical framework. Some of us today, if we were Nri, the progenitor, would no
doubt have vowed, instead of killing our children, to let hunger destroy us.
The myth nevertheless conveys a number of messages. Apart from its
conferment of divine kingship and spatial hegemony to the Nri kings and their
descendants,22 the myth accords the yam and its species a sacred status that
carries with it an immense aura of traditional reverence, honour and adoration
reserved only to yam by the Igbo since time immemorial. Chinua Achebe
alludes in Things Fall Apart to the reverence and social economic value that the
Igbo, rich or poor, attach to yam when he portrays Okonkwo’s visit to a Di Ji (a
prosperous yam cultivator), Nze Nwakibie, to loan some yams to sow in his
farm. Okonkwo’s request to Nze Nwakibie reads:
‘I have come to you for help,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you can already guess
what it is. I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow. I know what it
is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when
young men are afraid of hard work. I am not afraid of hard work. The
lizard that jumped from a high iroko tree to the ground said he would
praise himself if no one else did. I began to fend for myself at an age
when most people still suck at their mother’s breasts. If you give me
some yam seeds I shall not fail you.’

Abundance of yam in the Afikpo-Abakaliki riverain area of Igboland in the West African coast.

Nwakibie cleared his throat. ‘It pleases me to see a young man like
you these days when our youth have gone so soft. Many young men
come to me to ask for yams but I have refused because I know they
would just dump them in the earth and leave them to be choked by
weeds. When I say no to them they think that I am hard-hearted. But it is
not so. Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without
missing, he has learnt to fly without perching. I have learnt to be stingy
with my yams. But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you. As our
fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look. I shall give you twice
four hundred yams. Go and prepare your farm23.

In this piece alone, the word “yam” is employed at least six times, not to
mention the number of cognate pronouns in Nwakibie’s positive response.
Though a novel, from the text there is an indication that ‘Yam, the king of crops,
was a man’s crop” in the Igbo world where yam title rites are performed and
during which time special titles such as Eze Ji (yam chief), Di Ji (expert yam
cultivator), Mbazu Igwe (iron digger), Oji Aka Eri Ala (a specialist hand-weeder
of the land) are usually conferred on men who have distinguished themselves as
great yam farmers and keepers of large barns (Oba Ji). In addition, the yam’s
nutritional constituents that had disposed Nri to fall into sound sleep are still
acknowledged by local and international dieticians. A Yam-spirit (Ahianjoku or
Ifejoku) was established to take charge of this product of life sustenance.24 The
stealing of yam is taboo in the entire Igboland. Digging up planted yamseedlings
is an abomination against the yam deity and Ala, the Earth Goddess,
on and from whose bowel the yam grows. Like digging up a buried relative, it is
a crime that angers the gods. The findings of one prominent Igbo researcher
have attested that the ancestors created the gods and goddesses (especially those
of yams and cocoyams) to promote communal morality and to generate wealth
and good fortune in society25. Annually, yam comes into the barn at harvest time
and goes back to the farm at planting time. This cyclical process constitutes the
object of the annual ritual acts of fecundity, generation, and regeneration. Yam’s
earliest return in the lunar calendar months of July-August as New Yam (Ji
Mmiri) is generally celebrated. The Igbo call it Iri Ji Ohuru. Though a simple
ceremony, it is very much respected and annually celebrated all over the Igbo
nation. In the next sub-section of this paper, I will present my research findings
on how the rite is usually performed in most Igbo communities.


5. EMUME IRI JI OHURU (THE RITUAL CEREMONY)
Iri Ji Ohuru is a thanksgiving festival otherwise known by different names
among various sub-ethnic groups in Igboland. The ceremony is variously known
as Emume-Ifejioku, Iwa-ji, Ime-Ahiaolu, Emume-Ahianjoku, Iro Ofo or Ofala.
According to Uchendu, “each community holds the rite on its market day”26.
The rite is celebrated in many Igbo villages in the form that follows: the Okpala;
that is, the eldest Oji Ofo (a person who is held as the most upright and just; the
one who commands moral authority in an Igbo community) is the recognized
ritual head. The rite is usually performed under an Ukwu-Egbu tree, an Ukwu
Abosi, or an Ogirisi tree. On that day, the most fattened yam tubers donated by
an accomplished Di Ji (expert yam-cultivator in the community)27 are displayed.
A huge cock, several kola-nuts, kegs of dry gin and jars of palm-wine, alligator
peppers and other small ritual items such as nzu, (white chalk) nchara,(yellow
chalk) edo (red chalk) are gathered. The ritual master cuts one new yam tuber
into four pieces, at the same time praying:
Ji Ohuru nke afo a, anyi n’ egbuwa gi taa ta
New Yam of this year, we are cutting you this day
Anyi n’ awa gi nga nno,
We are slicing you into four pieces,
Anyi ahula k’ i na acha ziri ziri.
We have seen how whitish you are.
Njoku nwe ji, gbara oso bia Njoku,
the yam deity, run come
Gozie ji a, mee k’otu ji muta ano,
Bless this yam, may one tuber become four
N’oba onye obula n’ime anyi.
In the barn of every one of us.
Ndi-ichie lere nu ji ohuru, soro kwe nu rie.
Ancestors, behold the new yam, share the eating with us.
Haa! Amin!
On a four-branched Otiri stick, (a red milky stem), the leader sticks the slashed
new yam pieces, saying:
Otiri aja, osisi di mma, otutu aja ama ama!
Otiri the sacrificial plant, beautiful tree, well known sacrifice bearer
Obu aja, anyi etigbuwe ibe ji ohuru ndi a
Carrier of sacrifice, we have stuck unto you these slices of new yam
N’aba gi anno ndi a, bugara ha Igwe,
On your four branches, carry them to Igwe (the Sky god)
K’owere obi ebere mee ka ji anyi agbanwu la,
So that in his mercy he would not allow our yams to whither away
Ka mmiri n’ asu, ka ji anyi rue nne buru ibu
So that rain would fall, so that our yams would bear plenty.
K’ anuri buru nk’ anyi n’afo nkea.
So that we shall rejoice this year,
Haa! Amin!

Then he cuts the throat of the Oke Okpa, (the cockerel), smears the blood on the
floor of Nwa Ala Ubi (the yam spirit) shrine. While doing this, he prays:
Ahianjoku Ji, Nwa Ala Ubi, udo o, udo diri gi!
God of Yam, Yam spirit, peace, peace be unto you
Nke a bu Ji Ohuru, Nke a bu okuko anyi nyere gi,
This is New Yam, this is cock we have offered to you.
Bia rie Ji Ohuru k’ anyi si eri ya taa
Come to eat New Yam, as we are eating it this day,
Gozie anyi, gozie ezi n’ ulo anyi, n’ ubi anyi,
Bless us, bless our families and our farms,
Nye anyi Ji n’ uju, mee k’ obodo anyi
May you grant us plenty of harvest, let our community
Ruputa Ji n’ ukwu, nweta Ndi Di Ji n’ obodo anyi,
Reap yams in plenty, raise us expert yam owners,
Ndi ogaranya, ndi bara eze site n’ olu Ji.
Men of timber and caliber, people who are enriched by their skill in yam
production.
Haa! Amin!
Amin!28

Any of these incantations may be sung, chanted or simply be said aloud during
the ceremony. In other variants of the ceremony as practised in other Igbo
communities, the master blesses and thanks Chukwu (the Igbo High God) who
has given yam to the Igbo people. In some other villages, the ritualist may evoke
the spirits of Ndi Ichie (ancestors) and pray them to continue to intercede with
the homesteads in their quest for Vital life to promote longevity and prosperity
in the community. He acknowledges Ala the Mother of peace (udo), of fertility
(omumu) and as the custodian of morality in the land (Onye nchekota omume
oma) “and the controller of fortune and economic life”29. He prays to the yam
deity, Ahianjoku to continue to prosper the growth and cultivation of yam in
Igboland. With other prayers for good health, protection against diseases and
infertility of land, people and domestic animals, he terminates his rogatory
imprecations with the pouring of a libation, at which moment he faces his cup
homewards, a ritual act that indicates that the wish of the blessings prayed for
should directly come homewards to meet all and sundry in the larger community
at the point of their needs. All the people show their approval with an extended
chorus: Haa! (Amin).

At this point, the elders and shrine attendants retire with the immolated cock
and the remaining portions of the sliced yam. Some slices are roasted and eaten
hot with red palm oil. The rest are boiled with the chicken for the elders to
consume as New Yam Pepper Soup (Ira Miri Ji Awayi – drinking the pepper
soup of sliced yams) as a commensal food. This is the end of the communal
ritual part of the festival. It is known as Iwa-Ji or Ira Ibe among some Igbo subgroups30.
From the structure of this ceremony (emume) one can see that it is an adult
male ritual that takes place in an open space under the shade of a sacred tree
often located at the exit of or the entrance to the Ogbe, the kindred houseclusters
or village. The festival marks the beginning of the first harvest and the
eating of new and fresh yams in most Igbo homesteads. It is an appeasement
ritual with thankful prayers in a rite marked by the slaughtering of live animals,
the pouring of libations and the invocation of the ancestral spirits and the local
divinities. The presence of women at the shrine ground is forbidden. The
explanation of the physical absence of women at the ritual ground can be
deduced from the mythical narration of the origin of yam in the Igbo socioreligious
world view, which tells that God only gave a man the “gift” of yams.
In addition, Igbo society has been highly patriarchal and yam was regarded, as
my sources above have indicated, as a man’s chief crop.
The climax of the thanksgiving ceremony is the cooking and commensal
consumption of boiled yams with chicken-pepper soup. Women cook the food
and prepare Ugba (Oil beans), while the men bring palm-wine. The youths clear
the village pathways. There is much drinking and eating in groups. Privately,
every adult male in the community performs his own ritual to the extent that he
can afford in his own home. Family-groups are involved in the prayers, singing,
eating and drinking. Goats and rams are killed on the day. Umuada or
Umumgboto (that is, daughters of the community married in other villages) also
attend. Echema rightly attests that the Umuada group is “a very powerful and
strong force to reckon with” in Igbo society31. They grace the occasion with
their husbands and children. Many of them bring food and wine to their
immediate relatives. Guests come from neighboring villages as the ceremony is
not performed on the same day throughout Igboland. The day is greeted with
jubilant celebrations. Communal and musical entertainment groups and
masquerade troupes display their dances and acrobatic skills. It is really a
thanksgiving celebration in which the whole community participates32. This
happens because “the traditional Igbo culture is community oriented”.33 As
Umunna, a people who “trace their unity to a single ancestor”, they re-validate
their unity by worshipping and sharing food together34.

6. THE REACTION OF THE MISSIONARIES TO THE IRI JI OHURU CULTURE
The missionaries who came to Igboland in the late nineteenth century
encountered this annual festival with mixed feelings. They frowned on its
manifestations and wondered why it attracted practically all members of the
community. For this and other customs, they considered the Igbo to be beyond
the pale of God’s salvation. The Iri Ji Festival was among the cultural practices
considered to be incompatible with the doctrines of Christianity. They insisted
that the land must be Europeanized before Christianity could take firm root. So
they undertook a systematic iconoclastic approach to eliminate or suppress Igbo
traditional religious practices. One of their strategies was to introduce Western
education through the so-called “bush schools” built in remote villages35.
According to Fr. Lejeune, a French missionary at Onitsha, “he who has the
school has the nation and the key to the people’s future”36. But when the
farmer’s son went to school, he learned so brilliantly that instead of destroying
his culture, education opened his eyes and made him a protagonist-cum-political
jingoist. Men like late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Mbonu Ojike, Mazi Alvan
Ikoku and Dr. Michael Okpara emerged from the “bush schools” to join hands
with other notable Nigerian freedom fighters such as the late Chief Obafemi
Awolowo in the south-west to pioneer the struggle for Nigeria’s political
independence. The missionaries least expected this occurrence.
When festivals like Iri Ji Ohuru and others continued to challenge the
colonialists’ interests, they contrived another tactic to exhibit their negative
attitude to Igbo culture. They created separate communities for newly baptized
people. This was intended to shield them from contamination by local cultures.
The Roman Catholics set up such “homelands” in Aguleri and Obosi as well as
in other surrounding villages near Onitsha and called them “Christian Villages”.
Such villages were far removed from the people and made politically
autonomous from the surrounding traditional villages. The Protestants called
their own projects “Mission Villages” but located them within the traditional
villages around their church compounds. The people who were settled in the so
called “Christian/Mission Villages” were forbidden to have contact with their
non-Christian kith and kin. They were mandated to put into practice “Christian
beavior” which most of the time implied living like Europeans and adopting European
ways of doing things. But the real purpose of these ‘Christian cells’
was to create a Christian civilization in Igboland that would eventually hasten
the breakdown of the traditional social order and the eventual demise of the
people’s culture. But adherence to such religious festivals as Iri Ji Ohuru and
Ikwa Ozu Nkwa n’Abo (Second Burial) promoted the emergence of a class of
stragglers from the “cell” centers. These true “sons of the soil” constantly
sneaked out into the traditional villages to participate clandestinely in the local
ceremonies. Their activities reflect the tenacity with which the average Igbo
holds to the Iri Ji Ohuru custom and its festival. Indeed, Iri Ji Ohuru and others
like it created conflicts and tensions between the traditional villagers and the
missionaries. Once again, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart graphically
depicts and epitomizes this “chance encounter between Europe and Africa
during the imperial-colonial period”37. Iri Ji Ohuru and Igbo people’s long
throat for new yams could be regarded as practices and values that ruined the
establishment of the exemplar “mission villages” in the colonial church east of
the Niger.

7. CONCLUSIONS AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FESTIVAL FOR OUR AGE
At this stage, we can ask the question: what may be the social significance of
this festival in the age in which we live and have our being, particularly in
present-day Nigeria? This sort of existential question is occasioned by the fact
that for many Igbo people, Iri Ji Ohuru Festival ranks as the most esteemed of
Igbo festivals. On July 26, 2003, Nzuko Umuigbo (Gathering of Igbo Children)
Germany e.V. celebrated Iri Ji Ohuru in the diaspora. In the USA, Igbo
businesswomen and businessmen, students and their African American friends
who identify themselves with the Igbo people perform the festival annually. In
Houston, Texas, alone, where the Igbo number more than half a million, the
festival is enjoyed as at any Igbo community in eastern Nigeria. On August 13,
2005, the Igbo Community in Belgium held a rousing social gathering in
cooperation with the representatives of the City of Antwerp and in the presence
37 Killam, G.D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe, Studies in African Literature, London,
Heinemann, 1982 Reprint, 2. of the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
to the Kingdom of Belgium, Mr. Clarkson Nwakanma Umelo and his entourage to celebrate Iri Ji
Ohuru, at which occasion I was invited to officiate as the “ritual cutter” of that
year’s new yam. Thus, the ceremony has become a worldwide festival. It can
therefore be argued that an outstanding aspect of the festival is the fascination it
exercises for all Igbo people throughout the world. The celebration depicts the
Igbo race as a religious people, a people who annually acknowledge their duty to
return gratitude to Chukwu, their God, for providing them with such a gratuitous
gift as yam, a major food that satisfies their gastronomic requirements by
ensuring their physical and material well-being. The festival reminds us that the
Igbo people cherish the bounteous gifts of nature; especially those products that
have sustained their lives over the years and have enriched some members of
their community, enabling them to become Ndi Ogaranya bara Eze (rich and
wealthy men) in traditional Igbo society before the advent of British currency
and a market economy.

Furthermore, the Iri Ji Ohuru Festival reminds us that every Igbo man or
woman has a religious obligation to cultivate yams, however small and whatever
the species. The annual appearance of Ji Ohuru proclaims an eschatological
message in the Igbo religious world. It reminds the Igbo that life’s cycle is like
that of a yam tuber. Like humankind, the yam lives on in the barn (Oba). When
planted in the ground it rots, yet it regenerates and produces new tubers. Like
yam, the Igbo recognize humankind’s trajectory in life to be born, to grow, to
reach maturity and old age, to die and to regenerate among one’s own as a
necessary fact. For the Igbo, there is a strong belief in life-after-life. The
phenomenon directs attention to the Igbo belief in the cyclic return to new life.
This culminates in a belief in re-incarnation. This has generally been
acknowledged by contemporary Igbologists as the epicenter of Igbo ontology.
The Igbo believe that one who has died at a ripe age and who had lived a
morally upright life returns at birth as a baby to her or his family members,
especially to married sons and daughters. The belief is validated by the names:
Nnenna (mother of the father) – a girl born soon after the death of the father’s
mother is believed to be her reincarnation, Nnanna (father of the father) – a son
born soon after the demise of the father is believed to be the reincarnated father:
Amaeshi (the gate of the home shall not be closed) – a boy born soon after the
death of the father who is believed to have come to continue the family’s
lineage. This mystery has been challenged by Christian orthodoxy and
eschatology to the chagrin of many Igbo theologians.
The communal get-together and the sharing of food together that Iri Ji
Ohuru Festival re-enacts reflect the typical Igbo communitarian experience of
the philosophy of Umunna wu ike (power is great when we are together).
Communal eating remains a cherished value among the Igbo people. It is
through eating together that Igbo people come to renew their commitment to the
primacy and sacrosanctity of the blood bond and the significance of consanguine
relationships in the kin group. He who refuses to eat together with his Umunna
is looked upon as dubious and malicious (Opa nshi). It is in eating and drinking
The Sacred Festival of Iri Ji Ohuru in Igboland, Nigeria together that the Igbo
celebrate their sisterhood and brotherhood ties. It is at such gatherings that
they know persons who are deviants in the community.38

This spirit of solidarity and sharing in commensal meals have made the Igbo
well disposed to accept the Christian doctrine of Holy Communion preached in
Igboland by missionaries. In this sort of festivals, yams, oil beans, meat and
palm wine are drunk by the living in communion with the living-dead (the
Communio Mortuorum). Both commingle and share the fruits and products that
God has planted in Igbo farm- and forest land. In such community gatherings,
the people join hands with their priests to bless the Igbo world for continued
human reproduction and terrestrial fertility. In re-enacting the ancient festival,
the Igbo people honour God, the creator of the Earth to whose abode all shall be
retired/committed at death and the wish for a Redivivus.
What values does this festival portend for the contemporary Igbo people in
the Nigerian socio-economic and religio-political spheres? Many are the
proverbs, folk tales, legends and wise sayings associated with yams among the
Igbo. Proverbs that epitomize pre-literary philosophies and Igbo identification
with nature need to be rediscovered for our age. The psychodynamics of primary
and oral cultures of the Igbo with no knowledge whatsoever of writing and
where the thought forms of primary orality made explicit in the ritualist’s
incantations reveal the distinctive psychodynamics of the orally constituted
mind of the Igbo in preference of those of the technology of writing and modern
print. This phenomenon remains a value that Igbo oral culture can lend to
African scholars in literary criticism and the textual hermeneutics of the Bible,
as is being done by Western biblical scholars.39 Igbo orality stands out as a
viable means of reconstructing an ancient heritage in order to assist the
contemporary woman/man in their quest for a truly oral hermeneutic in life
(Manus 2003)40. In addition, the discovery, cultivation and communal eating of
yam are activities fully loaded with ideological principles. And these inherent
principles have epistemological values that the Igbo must constantly be made
aware of in order to boost their quest for leadership in the contemporary
Nigerian polity. The Igbo whose ancestors had been fed with yams instead of
dependence on “fish from heaven” cannot grow lazy in the contemporary social
political culture in spite of whatever doping effect yams may have. Today, the
Igbo must stand on their feet to re-claim their ancient heritage in Nigeria. A
major lesson of the Iri Ji Ohuru ceremony is that the Igbo man/woman must
strive to excel in any enterprise she/he invests her/his talents in. The bountiful
production of yams in ancient Igboland with crude implements reminds her/him
of the industry and diligence that had hardened the sinews of her/his ancestors.
This is the reality that enabled the Igbo progenitors to inspire later generations
with the spirit of hard work. The industry of the Di Ji of yesteryears must be
replicated in various skills and expertise the postmodern age requires of the
Igbo. They must join the course being championed by the latest advancements in
biotechnology required to revolutionize modern agriculture, cultivation and
marketability of yams. To achieve this ambition, the Igbo must curtail overdependence
on oil, since the present oil-driven economy in Nigeria can easily be
subverted by unexpected winds of change tomorrow. In fact, the unstoppable
crises in the Niger Delta, the main oil-producing region in Nigeria, are definite
signs of the time and a “hand-writing on the wall” of woes if agriculture
continues to be neglected.

The socio-religious and theological lessons of the epiphany of yams in the
Igbo world are indeed far-reaching. The cyclic character and destiny of yam
reminds Igbo Christians of the implications of the Christian doctrine of Holy
Communion, the Resurrection and koinonia (fellowship) that characterize a
community gathering around the Table of the Lord as a People of God in Africa.
As members of an increasingly inculturating Church, the gregarious components
and structure of the rite yearn for adaptation and assumption into the Christian
liturgy so that the Iri Ji Ohuru Festival can become fully Christianized to
prosper the liturgical activities of the Basic Christian Communities in the Igbo
Church during the annual festival months.

About the author: Ukachukwu Chris Manus (Ph.D, KU Leuven, Belgium,
1974–82) is a Professor of African Christian Theology at the Department of
Religious Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is the
author of Christ, the African King: New Testament Christology,
(Frankfurt/Main, Peter Lang, 1993) and Intercultural Hermeneutics: Methods
and Approaches, (Nairobi, Acton Publishers, 2003). Professor Manus has
published extensively in his field in many national and international journals. He
is currently engaged in orientating his research on gender, sexuality and
theological education in the context of HIV and AIDS in Africa. His contact
address is <cumanus@yahoo.com>.

1 Umunna is an anthropologically and theologically rich word which loosely means
“Brothers” – that is, all people who trace their origin from a common progenitor/ancestor in Igboland. The females are Umunne.

2 Smart, N. 1981, Beyond Ideology: Religion and the Future of Western Civilization, Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1978–1980, (Harper & Row, San Francisco), p. 47.
3 Ibid.,
4 Echeruo, M.J.C. 1979, “A Matter of Identity”, Ahiajoku Lecture, (Owerri, Ministry of Information, Culture Division, Government Printer).

5 Basden, G.T. Niger Ibos, (London, Frank Cass 1966); Uchendu, V.C. The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1965); Isichei, E. A History of the Igbo People, (London & Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1976); Afigbo, A.E.. Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture, (London, Oxford University Press,1981), 20; Osuchuwku, P- The Spirit of Umunna and the Development of Small Christian Communities in Igboland, (European University Studies, Vol. XXIII/544, Frankfurt/Main, Peter Lang, 1995); Orji, M. O. The History and Culture of the Igbo People (Before the Advent
of the Whiteman), (Nkpor, Jet Publishers, 1999).
6 Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 1
7 Onwuejeogwu, M.A. An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony, (London, Ethiope Publishing, Company, 1981) 8–10.
8 Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 8.
9 Greenberg, J.H. “Studies in African Linguistic Classification: The Niger-Congo Family”,
Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol 5, No.2, 1949, pp. 79–100.
10 Afigbo, Ropes of Sand, 6.
11 Obiora, Ike F. & Edozien Ndidi, N. 2001, Understanding Africa: Traditional Legal
Reasoning Jurisprudence & Justice in Igboland as a Basis for Culturally Rooted and
Sustainable Development, (Enugu, CIDJAP Publications, 2001) 20.
12 Afigbo, Ropes of Sand.
13 Osuchukwu, The Spirit of Umunna, 27.
14 Onuh, C. O. Christianity and the Igbo Rites of Passage: The Prospects of Inculturation,(European University Studies, Vol. XXIII/462, Frankfurt/Main, Peter Lang, 19929, 12–16.
15 Obiora Ike & Edozien, Understanding Africa, 22
16 Ibid.

17 Echema, A. Corporate Personality in Traditional Igbo Society and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, (European University Studies, Vol. XXIII/538, Frankfurt/Main, Peter Lang),1995, 5.
18 Metuh, E. E. God and Man in African Religion: A Case of the Igbo of Nigeria, (London, Geoffrey Chapman), 4–5.
20 Echema, Corporate Personality in Traditional Igbo Society, 57, n.48; 72–75.
21 Manus, C.U. 2002, “Gender Bias Against Women In Some Sacred Narratives: Re-Reading the Texts In Our Times”, in Ojo, A. (ed.), Women And Gender Equality for a Better Society in Nigeria, (Lagos, Federal Government Press), 63–82; 68–71; Parrinder, E.G. African Mythology, (London, Oxford University Press, 1975); Soyinka, W. Myth, Literature and the African World, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976).
22 Parrinder, E.G.Divine Kingship in West Africa, Numen 3, 1956, 111–121.

23 Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, (Heinemann Educational Books, Ibadan, 1958), 15–16.
24 See, V.C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York,
1965) 98–99. It is noteworthy that the Yoruba have something similar: Orisa Oko: “the deity of the farm, fields, garden, planting, harvest, agriculture and natural fertility”. Cf. No Author, Music, Dance and Yoruba Culture, Exhibition Guide, (National Commission for Museums
and Monuments, Alesinloye, Ibadan, 2002), 49.
25 Onwuejeogwu, M.A. “Nri, The Holy City“, in Isichei, E. (ed.), Igbo World, (London,
Macmillan, 1977), 27.

26 The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 99.
27 See, F.C. Ogbalu, Omenala Igbo: The Book of Igbo Custom, (Onitsha, University
Publishing Company, 1979) who, in his Chapter 31, Ike Ji Arondizuogu, pp. 90–94, informs us that “Emume nke a bidoro n’ obodo Aro Chukwu otutu aro gara aga” – the festival had started many years previously in Aro Chukwu land”. This oral history informs us of the origin of the four market days (Eke, Orie, Afo na Nkwo) in the Igbo week. The days represent the ritual acts performed day after day during the festival that lasts for four days among the Aro. I am inclined to regard this narrative as another genre of etiology composed and widespread to
confer on the Aro a high pride of place above the rest of the Igbo.

28 The three oral texts were recited to me by two elders: (Pa Onyeocha Udenkwo and Pa Njoku Amadi; aged 72 and 77 years respectively) on 1–7 February 2006 when I made another visit home to enquire further about the form and nature of the festival and its liturgy before the advent of Christianity in the village.
29 Echeme, Corporate Personality in Traditional Igbo Society, 11.
30 Onumarekwu Agwamba, April 2004.
31 Echema, Corporate Personality, 32.

32 Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast, 99.
33 Osuchukwu, The Spirit of Umunna, 33.
34 For a detailed ethnological information on Umunna/Umunne in Igbo life and culture, see
Peter Osuchukwu, The Spirit of Umunna, 33–49.
35 Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast, 4.
36 Eneh, E.S. “Evangelization in Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province: An Appraisal”, in The
Insight, Vol. II, No. 2, 1985/86, 4–6, 4.

38 Chinua Achebe so graphically articulates the experience when he depicts the foible of that Igbo man who, after assiduously dismantling a mound of pounded yam (fufu), discovers with a welcoming salutation, his friend who was engaging from the other side.
39 B. Gerhardsson, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (CN 20, Lund:
Gleerup/Copenhagen, Munksgaard 1964);W.H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1983; K.E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Critical Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984); O.
Anderson, “‘Oral Tradition’, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition” in JSNT Sup 64 ed. H.
Wainsbrough, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991) 17–58; S. Byrskog, Story as
History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History
(WUNT 123: Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2000).
40 C.U. Manus, Intercultural Hermeneutics in Africa: Methods and Approaches, (Nairobi,
Acton Publishers, 2003)