Keeping the New Yam Festival Alive


Culture thrives and survives when the elders consciously transfer the relics, customs and traditions to the younger generation. Peace Obi reports that even in distant lands, Umuezena indigenes are committed to keeping their cultural heritages alive

Culture as they say identifies a people and often times serves as a distinguishing factor between one race from another. Identified through the people’s language, customs, beliefs and values among others, culture differs from people to people and society to society. Basically acquired and passed down from one generation to another through cultural practices and festivals, culture is kept alive as the younger generation watch and observe their elders practice the traditions as well as perform the various rites attached.

For the people of Umuezena Village in Umudim town, Nnewi North Local Government Area of Anambra State, the New Yam festival or Iri Ji is one important Igbo cultural festival the people are poised at keeping its flames ever burning. And vested with the burden to transmit her cultural heritage to her younger generation, the Umuezena community in Lagos State has for the past seven years sustained an annual New Yam Festival where the people gather among other things to refresh and strengthen their bond of love as brothers and sisters amidst eating and dining together.

According to archeologists, Iri Ji or Iwa Ji festival is a cultural cum traditional event where Igbo communities come together in unity to make an official presentation of their harvest to the Almighty God. For the Igbos, Iri Ji remains one of her oldest cultural festivals that is highly cherished and celebrated among the people. The festival though is as old as the Igbo race itself, has continued to evolve but interestingly it has remained relevant from generation to generation.

The people of Umuezena, a village in Umudim, one of the four towns that make up Nnewi metropolis in Anambra State, known for their natural endowment, intellectual prowess, established success stories in businesses, career and other fields of endeavour, recently in Lagos set aside their business engagements, class, success or even social status to eat from one pot. The New Yam celebration which appears to be a well-articulated vision of the Umuezena elders, enjoys the people’s approval as they came out in their numbers to participate in the 2016 edition.

In his remarks, the Patron of Umuezena Family Meeting, Lagos Branch, Chief Ike Okoli, said that Iri ji festival is a very important occasion for his people and to any farmer from the Eastern part of Nigeria. “It is a day we specially show gratitude to God for enabling us to cultivate our fields and the subsequent bountiful harvest of yams and others crops. So for us, today is a special day because we come together as a people to give thanks to the Almighty God for His faithfulness, goodness, mercy and great provision to our families and the Umuezena as a whole.”

Stressing that there is a paradigm shift in the celebration, Okoli noted that while their forefathers celebrated New Yam festival acknowledging the gods, deities and their ancestors, that the present day celebration by the Umuezenas is in reverence to Almighty God. “In the ancient times, there were certain things and rituals that were carried out by our forefathers, but with the emergence of Christianity, idolatry was done away with in this celebration. So, today, we gather here to celebrate the 2016 New Yam festival as brothers and sisters as well as Christians whose intent is to thank the Almighty God for the gift of life, health, opportunity to plant and harvest,” he said.

Speaking on the relevance of the celebration to his people and to Igbo people as a whole, the Patron said, “Yam, is an important staple among the Igbos and that is why it is being celebrated. Iri Ji festival in Lagos was initiated to serve as one of the avenues the Umuezena community in Lagos come together as a people as well as to sustain the old cultural festival in Igboland among her youths.”

Likening the New Yam festival to the church tradition of annual harvest and thanksgiving service when parishioners with their friends and well-wishers come in thanksgiving to God for the end of the farming season and the freedom from the necessity to work in the fields, Okoli said “that it is not different from what the New Yam festival represents in Igboland.”

Enumerating some of the benefits of the festive celebration, he noted that while the festival has helped immensely in bringing the people together, adding that it has created a good platform for the sustenance of their cultural heritage and makes it easier for it to be passed on to their younger generation. “The benefits are quite huge. It creates a platform where we meet and share with our brothers and sisters who probably we may not have seen for a whole year. The New Yam festival makes us happy, keeps us united and strengthens the virtue of oneness we enjoy as a people.
“Iri Ji festival is a well accepted festival among our people because of the huge benefits it offers to participants. The underlying ideology is to keep our people united as one, pass down this Godly and worthy cultural heritage to our children. Though we are in Lagos, we see and appreciate the need to keep in touch with our people and culture. We want to inculcate the habit of brotherly love in our children, make them stand as one and that whatever that happens to one, happens to all.”

Speaking further, Okoli hinted that since the inception of the festival, the organisers have continued to improve on the programmes embedded in the festival day. “It is one event where we educate ourselves and our children in various areas. Here, we promote good family life by organising competitions. And one of such is the cooking competition for women whose marriages are not less than 20 years. Through this we teach our children home keeping, mutual respect in relationship, and to remind them that God is interested in the home. We are very spiritual people but not religious,” he said.

Hinting that the festival does not only enjoy good attendance by the Umuezena indigenes, but it also attracts friends, neighbouring towns and villages as well as business associates, he said, “You can see, we are not just here alone, we have our in-laws, friends and neighbouring communities joining us in this ceremony. And over the years, the turn up has remained very impressive. In fact, it is usually a surprise because ordinarily you will never know that we have this large number of Umuezena indigenes resident in Lagos.

“In this occasion today, we have our industrious and respected sons and daughters here, and particularly, our children. This festival affords them the opportunity to interact, know each other which will further strengthen the cord of love and unity and oneness which is our strength as a people. Our people are committed to the Iri Ji feast, so much that individuals are eager to sponsor it every year. And this year’s feast, is sponsored by the family of Mr. and Mrs. Chidi Unachukwu and that is how it has been over the years,” he revealed.

In his speech, the sponsor of the 2016 Umuezena Iri Ji festival in Lagos, Unachukwu lamented on the influence of western culture on Nigerian youths and their lackadaisical attitude towards preserving their own cultural heritage. Describing as an unfortunate situation, the lack of interest among Nigerian youths in getting themselves acquainted with their culture, Unachukwu said that the passion to steer up Nigerian youths’ interest towards preserving their culture informed his decision to stake his hard earned money for the sponsorship of the feast.

“The unfortunate situation we have found ourselves into is that our culture is going extinct. While the western world brought education to us, they also came with their own culture. Their education is intertwined with their culture, such that as we embrace their education, their culture goes along with it. And today, this western culture has so much doused our culture that it is making us look like a people without an origin or culture. And for those of us who are passionate in making sure that our children do not lose their identity to some strange culture, we are ready to stake our hard earned resources for it.”

Stressing that while Umuezena community is committed to the total development and strategic positioning of her indigenes for right opportunities in various fields of endeavours, Unachukwu said that the community does not lose sight of her culture. “We love our culture and we are committed to its preservation. Sponsorship of this programme over the years has been singlehandedly taken care of by individuals. This is to tell you how important and how serous we take the issue of culture preservation.”

Speaking further, Unachukwu urged Nigerian government, communities and families to rise to the challenge of keeping the nation’s distinctive cultures alive. According to him, culture being a vehicle through which languages, traditions, and shared values are conveyed from generation to generation, “our culture should be consciously protected and preserved by all stakeholders,” he said.

Appreciating his people for their massive turn up, Unachukwu, proverbially noted that when a man invites his kinsmen to a feast, it does not mean that his people lack food in their various homes, but for them to stay together and share in love, joy and happiness. “We go out for moonlight not because the moon cannot be seen by everyone in their respective compounds but the aim is to meet together to play, share ideas, learn from one another, among others.

Urging the youth to hold fast to their cultural heritage, Unachukwu said “We are not going to lose our identity, language and culture to foreign languages and cultures. Our aim is to entrench our language, our identity and our culture. We must rise and keep our culture alive. It is important because when you lose your culture, you have lost your identity and when you lose your identity, you are nobody.”

Urging other Igbo communities in Lagos to borrow a leaf from them, he counselled, “Activate the various festivities in your towns and villages that bring your people together. This is because there are some children who are raised up in cities whose only opportunity to experience such events could be that organised here in Lagos, let’s not deny them.”

According to Elder Clement Atusiuba, the annual event is not just a local event but that it’s also celebrated by the Igbos in different parts of the world, between the month of August and October. “Iri Ji festival is a universal event for Igbo communities; even those in the Diaspora have found New Yam festival a major unifying tool. Similarly, the Umuezenas in their love to keep in touch with one another, maintain good community life to build stronger relationship among ourselves. Both the elders, our youths, our wives and children have found the atmosphere of this annual event irresistible,” he said.

In a few words, one of the elders of the community, Sir Emma Unachukwu reiterating his endorsement of the community get together event with a brief historical background, said, “Iri Ji is one of the oldest universal cultural events of the Ndi Igbo. Yam is the king of the staple foods in Igboland. Our forefathers so regarded it that a man’s wealth was then measured by the size of his barns and oftentimes he is rewarded by such titles like Ogwu Ji, Diji, among other titles. While communities assemble to thank God for successful planting and harvesting seasons, it was also a moment of celebrating hard work.”

Photo caption

R-L: Elder Emma Ukachukwu, the Patron Umuezena Family Meeting, Lagos Branch, Chief Ike Okoli, past chairman, Prince Damain Obimma, Chairman, Mr. Dolue Nnadi and the host, Mr. Chidi Unachukwu as the Patron of the Umuezena Family Meeting, Lagos Branch declares the Iri Ji Ofu Ezena open in Lagos…recently