Annually, the indigenes of Ogidi and Ogbunike communities in Anambra State throng home for the celebration of the Nwafor Festival. Marking this year’s event, both communities were a beehive of cultural activities. Iyobosa Uwugiaren, who witnessed the festival, writes that one of the highpoints was the grandiose display by the Ijele Masquerade
Outside Christmas celebration, only the Nwafor Festival brings Ogidi men and women, across religious divide together. It is therefore not surprising that every sons and daughters of Ogidi and Ogbunike communities, both in Idemili-North Local Government Area of Anambra State, always look forward to it as it is the most important cultural celebration – usually performed after the cultivation of yam to mark the commencement of a resting period. It is characterised by dancing, especially traditional dances by the masquerades, and merriment, occasioned by plenty to eat and drink.
History has it that the festival customarily takes a period of 11 days, between the first Friday (Afor) in the month of July and for the next 10 days. A few days to the festival, specifically on the Orie market day, several traditional masquerades perform the traditional dance from one place to another in the community, setting the pace for the main event. Thereafter, the highpoint, which is usually on Sunday, occurs when the people gather at the Igwe’s (the king) Palace to say prayers and thank God for a successful cultivation period and also pray for a bulky harvest of the New Yam.
This year’s edition was not different. For three days, starting from Friday July 27, 2018, the Ogidi and Ogbunike communities were beehive of cultural activities: the available rooms in all the hotels in the town were fully booked and occupied by guests, as sons and daughter of the town came from all parts of Nigeria, and the Diaspora to celebrate this year’s edition of the famous Nwafor Festival.
Described as ’unique’ to the Ogidi people, an Igbo cultural enthusiast, who also doubles as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Dome Entertainment and Hospitality Center in Abuja, High Chief Obiora Okonkwo, told THISDAY that this year’s edition was taken further toward the revitalisation of culture and tradition of the people.
He further said the festival was remarkable because it was the first since the community regained its monarchy, adding that Ogidi Kingdom had been without a tradition ruler for 20 years. He said the interval caused a lot of cultural dysfunction in the community leading to efforts by great sons of the land to reconnect with their culture and tradition.
Okonkwo noted that leaders of Ogidi, who were associated under a common platform known as Olu Ogidi, agreed to ensure that the town invigorated its tradition and culture having successfully installed a monarch who, he said, is blessed with ‘’intellect, wisdom and insight’’, to lead the people.
He extolled sons and daughters of Ogidi for turning out in their numbers to celebrate this year’s event, which he promised will get bigger with time, as plans are underway to mold the festival into the cultural calendar of Anambra State for tourism purposes.
Kicking off the event, the paramount ruler of Ogidi, the Igwe Ezechuamagha the First of Ogidi Kingdom, Igwe Alex Onyido, blessed his subjects in prayers and supplications to God for their progress and success. A pharmacist of ‘great repute’, the Igwe was spectacular in his royal crown as he stepped out at the palace square, to the thundering hailing by thousands of the Ogidi people, friends, associates and foreigners, who thronged to witness the festival.
With kinetic movement that is well-known for Igbo cultural dances, Igwe Onyido danced alongside members of his cabinet, reminding the people of the prodigious affluences of Ogidi Kingdom.
Explaining this year edition of the Nwafor Festival, Igwe Onyido said it was a moment of thanksgiving to God for the successful planting season, while also preparing for the harvest, adding that the people of Ogidi kingdom celebrates the festival in the last week of July every year. He said this year’s celebration was unique because the Ijele made its first appearance after a long year.
The Ijele Masquerade
Some people conversant with the rich culture of Ogidi, said it ‘’reignited the beginning of a cultural renaissance’’ in the town with the appearance, for the first time in many years in Ogidi land, the biggest of all masquerades, the Ijele. The masquerade is now named by Ogidi people ‘’Ijele Inwelle.’’
Ijele Masquerade is recognised as the ’biggest masquerade in Sub-Saharan Africa’, and is a tradition of the Ogidi people. It was listed in the UNESCO archives as an ‘’intangible cultural element in need of urgent safeguarding.’’ And those who know the significance of the masquerade said it ‘’evokes fertility and a bountiful harvest.’’
Cultural studies have shown that the Ijele Masquerade has its ancestry from the Akunechenyi Dance Group in Umuleri and Aguleri communities, also in Anambra State. And obtainable resources also show that the innovative idea was for the masquerade to drive away the early missionaries as well as showcase royalty and greatness in Igboland.
Standing at about 14ft to 15ft, it is believed that in the olden days, about 45 other masquerades performed on top of the Ijele — suggesting its kingship above all other eastern masquerades. These masquerades are represented today by 45 figurines on top of the new designed Ijele Inwelle. Those who know said it took about 100 men to put the Ijele Inwelle costume in order.
Apart from during the Nwafor Festival, Ijele Inwelle performs at the death of important people in the village, members of the Ijele family and during the death of the oldest person in the village. It holds other plentiful significances.
‘’For instance, the fact that the Ijele can bow down to royalty and authority shows that no one is above bowing down. The Ijele must never touch the ground; if it does, it is considered dead and the carrier and his family can never bear the Ijele again,” a guest said.
So, with the presence of Ijele Inwelle Masquerade, the colourful celebration recently was hallmarked with traditional music and dance that dotted the palace square. And from the audience’s reactions, the people of Ogidi enjoyed every bit of the event and asked for more.
The king speaks
Earlier while chatting with THISDAY, Igwe Onyido talked about the great prosperities of Ogidi land, stating that the progenitor of the town, Ezechuamagha, was a hunter and warrior who gave birth to Ogidi, who in turn gave birth to nine children, represented by the nine villages in Ogidi land today. The Igwe also stressed the importance of Ezechuamagha in the life of Ogidi town, nothing that the cultural renaissance of the people is paramount in his assignments.
He stated that though the culture of the people had been eroded by the impact of Christianity, he, alongside others, are working very hard to ensure a renaissance that will clean up culture of the people, by retaining the good aspects and dropping the negatives. He added that part of the renaissance taking place in Ogidi today, is the drastic change in burial and marriage rites of the town. “Marriage rites are now not as expensive. We have so many beautiful girls and we can even waive the rites for you if you desire so long as you show that you can take good care of her”, he said.
Findings show that apart from the cultural importance of the Nwafor Festival, the celebration is also economically beneficial to the community, with increase in trade. Outside Christmas, many said ‘’only Nwafor Festival brings Ogidi men and women’’, across religious divide together. During the festival, people send word home, by way of money or materials to support those at home in order to celebrate. And unlike other festival dates that could be changed, Nwafor has a fixed date well-known to everybody, giving enough room for preparation.
Traditionalists said that as part of the celebration, there are no funerals and wedding ceremonies in community for that period.