For the average Yakurr son or daughter, Leboku, the annual new yam festival is a ritual that must not be toyed with. The involvement of the Cross River state government in the colourful festival has added an international dimension to the fiesta which now forms part of the state tourism calendar, writes Ernest Chinwo
The Ugep Peace Stadium wore a new look the day the People of Yakurr local government area of Cross River state marked the grand finale of the Ugep International New Yam Festival - Leboku 2010. Unlike past editions when the stadium was decorated with tarpaulin canopies, the Stadium this year was decorated with local tents made of palm fronds. There were also garri and yam markets which added a more traditional touch to the festival which has grown to be one of the most celebrated new yam festival in the country.
It is their Leboku. But what used to be the local festival of the people of the area, especially the grand finale, has been taken over by the State government since 2005. As usual, it was a gathering of the young and the old, the rich and the poor. It was a festival where government and the people meet, where barriers created by officialdom are, at least temporarily, kept aside.
It was a show case of the rich culture of the people as they paraded their traditional dances, maidens, traditional institution and history of the people. For the period, the people abandoned their farms, dressed their maidens in the best traditional attires, parading them around the communities to flaunt their beauty. The only work was to go to the farms to bring home the family’s harvest of yams.
While the festival lasted, people trooped to the stadium early in the morning in their thousands. Men, women and children gaily dressed seemingly oblivious to their problems. Most were willing to share; food, drinks and indeed everything. It was the grand finale of a festival which started June 28 with Etikekome – visitation to farm roads to accept palm wine and sundry gifts. July 29 was Leboku Kepile – opening of festival activities like female and male wrestling and football competitions - while August 8 was Ikobase Leboku-Wa, the thanksgiving service to usher in peaceful festival celebration.
Later on was the traditional offering of supplication and appeasement, return of farmers with new yam and exhibition at town square, exchange of visits and gifts, breaking of fire wood by Obol Lopon and midnight fire as well as Mr. Leboku contest.
The celebration proper commenced with Governor Liyel Imoke and wife, Obioma, who were decked in traditional attires, paying the traditional homage to the Obol-Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of Yakurr Local Government Area, HRH Obol Ubi Ojong Inah at his palace to seek free entry as well as partake in the event. Thereafter, attention shifted to the venue of the celebration. Not even the heavy rains of the day could deter the people from savouring the joy of bountiful harvest and culture.
In his address at the festival tagged “A Celebration of Agricultural Achievement and Traditional Values”, Governor Liyel Imoke said agriculture is a factor that could transform people rapidly when they possess the capability, endurance and productive ability which are the true essence of Cross River. He announced that a micro credit scheme would be introduced into the 2011 edition of the festival to give money and support to winners of the various categories of the annual celebration. Ms. Elenda Osima-Bokubo, of the Cross River Tourism Bureau, said the involvement of the state government has contributed in making Leboku the first agro-tourism in Nigeria with the vision of creating a Yam Pyramid in future.
Then it was prizes galore. Winners of the celebration include Diana Okoi Dodeye (Miss Leboku) who won a Hyundai Accent with the runners up winning a saloon kit and a freezer respectively. Mister Leboku also won a car with his runner up winning a motorbike. In the wresting competition, Dennis Ikpi Okon won the male category and was given a barbing kit while the women category was won by Kate Ikpi Iwara, who went home with hair dressing kits.
In the Best Harvester group, Mrs. Lekam Ewa Eteng won the Star prize of a Kia Truck while Mrs Osen Ina Alfred went home with a cassava processing machine and Mrs. Uso Bassey Obono got motor cycle as first and second runners up respectively.
Highlights of the Leboku festival included traditional pouring of libation, parade by traditional chiefs of Yakurr led by the Prime Minister Okpobri of Ugep, maidens and cultural parades from various Yakurr Communities, Farmers Association parade and wrestling competitions.
Commenting on the significance of Leboku, the editor of the Ugep International New Yam Festival: Leboku 2010 Souvenir programme, Chief Uket Omini said, “For the Ugep people, Leboku means a period for celebration, which comes up in the month of August every year. It is also a time of thanksgiving to the ancestral gods in the traditional times that are believed to have steered the people of the land through a tedious farming season to a successful harvest. The thanksgiving goes to the fertility spirit of Ojokobi. Ojokobi as a master fertility deity with other clan deities gives succour to Ugep/Yakurr people and offers spiritual protection it is believed”.
He said the beauty pageant; Mr. and Miss Leboku is “a modern innovation to this otherwise absolutely traditional treat, thereby adding colour and glamour to the leboku celebration.” “Beautiful maidens who file out for the pageantry often meet their spouses at this event,” he said.
With the attention Leboku is attracting from the state government and corporate sponsors and the numerous tourists who throng the festival yearly, there are indications that the festival will grow bigger with each passing year.