IRI-JI IBEKU: HOW NOT TO CELEBRATE A CULTURAL HERITAGE
EMMANUEL MADUKA NWAZUE
Iri-ji or new yam festival is one cultural heritage most of Ndigbo do not take for a joke. This is because it does not just celebrate the king of all crops – the yam tuber, it symbolises the end of the farming season and the beginning of harvest, particularly of root crops thus, a moment of not just merriments but also of thanksgiving to the Almighty God for the spared life and of course, rich harvest.
This is why the August occasion is celebrated with a lot of fanfare and hospitality in that some communities and their sons and daughters go as far as inviting their friends over to witness the occasion. This was well depicted in one of Paulson Kalu’s music videos, ‘Ji Eghela’ which happens to be my favourite of his songs.
Permit me to digress here a little. In 2015, I visited Nneatọ Community during their Iri-ji festival. Nneatọ is a community in Isuochi under Umunneochi Local Government of Abia State.
That visit exposed me to something different and unprecedented since I began to cover communities as a news correspondent. I saw for the first time, where a woman competed with and beat all the men of the community in their own game during their new yam festival which featured a yam exhibition. Her tubers were extraordinarily large that they overwhelmed the weighing scale and as a result, she took the trophy home amidst cheers even from the men. It was so spectacular that each time I remember Nneatọ, the woman’s face beams with a lot of admiration.
There is no doubt that if it were in some communities today, that woman would not have had a place in the competition or exhibition. Her offence could simply be that she is a woman who ought not to venture into such a masculine endeavour as planting the yam instead of cocoyam or ọna – three-leaf yam that women are known for. Why should she compete with the men? They would probably ask.
But that never really mattered for the people of Nneatọ. They rather chose to use the occasion to practically demonstrate social/cultural inclusiveness and participation that give one a sense of belonging and as well, promote peace and development.
Now, like the Nneatọ experience, Iri-ji in Igboland has these days, gone beyond the symbolic ‘ịwa-ji’ where roasted yam tubers are cut before the people and heads of families, hamlets, villages or communities as the setting may be; take turns to dip and eat their cuts from a provided wooden bowl of fresh palm oil. It is now a means of raising funds for community projects and development. It has also become a tourist venture in that some communities have turned theirs into carnivals.
But this cannot be said of the rascality that happens every year in some parts of Umuahia when the Ibeku people celebrate their Iri-ji.
What happens here is, to put it mildly, an annual enthronement of hostility which is a total departure from the sincere spirit of hospitality the celebration should be and for which Ndigbo are known.
Nothing explains or justifies a situation where machete-wielding youths invade not just streets but major roads harassing individuals and motorists and extorting money from them with reckless abandon. It does not end there, the market place is not spared as these rampaging youths also invade nearby markets, forcefully take food items or anything of their choice from traders; and any resistance meets with injuries inflicted with machete cuts – all in the name of Iri-ji. Imagine the negative impacts this mode of ‘celebration has on the state’s economy each time it is carried out.
Armed with these ugly experiences, traders no longer open for business each time it is said that the Ibeku people are celebrating their Iri-ji because once beaten twice shy.
Such scenario was witnessed again on Thursday, 30th August 2018, when traders at Isi-gate, a commercial area of Umuahia refused to open for business for fear of losing their items to the youths. Eight days before this, precisely on Wednesday, 22nd August, 2018, at about 7pm; my beloved friend’s teenage daughter was beaten up and dispossessed of her smartphone and all of the items she was sent to buy at Shoprite mall in Umuahia; and we would later learn from police report that the crime was committed by the same youths.
This is aside the fact that the integral part of the ceremony which is the Ekpe cultural dance is usually characterised by violence. People get easily macheted over minor arguments or disagreements. This is attributable to the high presence of machetes and of course, free use of hard substances like weeds during the cultural ceremony.
Personal findings through interactions with some youths of the clan on different occasions reveal that individuals take it upon themselves to sponsor the procurement of the wielded machetes; and one wonders the wisdom behind such ‘investment‘ and its economic benefit.
Surprisingly, all these happen while the elders of the land remain silent in a manner that suggests incapacitation. Abia State Government on its part, only dishes out warnings through radio announcements without any practical action to stop this menace from continuing – and year-in-year-out, the situation keeps repeating.
I feel greatly worried about this development not just because it negates the unwritten principle of cultural exhibition which places emphasis on hospitality and peace; but also because such hostile activities take place in the heart of the state capital which plays host to people from all walks of life. If you agree with me, there can be no worse embarrassment to a state that prides itself as God’s Own State having a part of its people being hostile to the very people they should be hospitable, in the name of Iri-ji.
Although this year’s activities have come and gone with people still nursing their wounds, the Government of Abia State has a duty to come up with a measure to ensure that people are protected against future harassments associated with such ‘celebration’.
Most importantly and frankly too, there should be a cultural reorientation to particularly the youths of Ibeku, possibly by their elders knowing that what they practice now is at best, how not to celebrate a cultural heritage.
Emmanuel Nwazue reports for Mcl-Television and can be reached on email@example.com