Harnessing Tourism Potential through Ikeji Festival

Azubike Okoro

The 2018 Ikeji Arochukwu festival has come and gone leaving a trail of exciting and memorable experience that would be talked about for a long time to come.

The event, which took place between September 5-27, was a harvest of remarkable cultural activities from the first day of the program which is called Iza Awada when the Eze Aro would announce the commencement of the festival to the climax of the celebration called Ekekpe when the Aros would converge at Amaikpe square to pay tribute to their ancestors and fallen heroes, Arochukwu was a beehive of cultural celebration.

Ikeji Aro, has a long history dating back to 912 AD, when it was first celebrated. Since then, it has been celebrated annually in the ancestral home of the Aros and over 360 Aro communities scattered all over the world. It is a season dedicated to showcasing Aro’s rich cultural heritage, renewing of ancient covenant that unite Arochukwu kingdom and thanksgiving to God for a successful year. It also presented a unique opportunity to celebrate Arochukwu tradition and culture in its pure and original form. It equally serves as a platform for infinite entertainment, commerce and tourism as it features huge home coming by Aros in diaspora, rare masquerades, traditional dances and cultural displays.

Indeed, a visit to Arochukwu during the Ikeji festival would reveal an ancient kingdom that is richly endowed with cultural heritage. Ikeji Aro is a period that brings to fore the importance and significance of Aro culture. It is a period that tells the story of an ancient kingdom and of a people who have contributed immensely in advancing the frontiers of civilisation and knowledge all over the world.

As one of the cradles of civilisation, Arochukwu is not like any other community, but one with interesting history of its exploits in time past which have been richly documented for posterity. This makes a visit to Arochukwu more like a journey to discovery of an ancient kingdom that has played a pivotal role in the development of mankind.
This reveals the uniqueness of Ikeji Aro which has been attracting a large turnout of visitors to Arochukwu each year.

However, over the years there had not been conscious effort to harness the huge tourism potentials of Ikeji festival.
But the present leadership of Nzuko Aro worldwide led by Mazi George Ezumah, has taken some initiatives to repackage the Ikeji towards making it more attractive to visitors. Indeed, the last two editions of the festival made significant effort in attracting, encouraging participation by individuals and corporate organizations. Encouraged by this development, the organisers of the recently concluded Ikeji Aro led by Dr. Azubike Okoro introduced some innovations aimed at encouraging participation and popularising the festival both within and outside the country.

This really paid off to some extent as it has been acknowledged as one of the most successful Ikeji festival in the recent time. Some of such innovations introduced included giving cash and other prizes to participating cultural dances from the villages and diaspora.

This had engendered healthy competition amongst them and provided more exciting performance and entertainment to the highly appreciative gathering at Amaikpe who witness the entertainment. Similarly, performance by masquerades were orderly and controlled, limiting them only to entertainment, unlike the ugly experiences of past when their performances ended up in violence and fetish display of charms.

There were also a lot of other side attractions being provided by some individuals and corporate sponsors like MTN and Nigerian Breweries that helped to add value to the memorable occasion.

Equally, the youths were recognised for the first time by being given the opportunity to showcase their talent and creativity on the eve of Ekekpe in a show tagged: Aro Got Talents: These are some of the commendable innovations introduced by the organizers of Ikeji to broaden its popularity and acceptability not only in Arochukwu, but globally.

Although it is well acknowledged that there has been tremendous improvement in the quality, content and organisation of Ikeji festival, notwithstanding the obvious challenges, there are a lot more that still need to be done towards making it a global tourism destination.

There is no doubt that Ikeji Aro, given its long history and tradition, has the potential to become a major tourism. But it depends on the willingness and commitment of the people to promote and market their culture globally. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the Aros are very proud and passionate about their origin and culture. It will also require integrating Ikeji Aro into the national cultural calendar.
This will make it more acceptable both locally and internationally. Equally, deserving of attention is the development of Aro tourism sites. Just like its culture, Arochukwu has many interesting tourism sites that are lying dormant.

One of such places of interest in Arochukwu is the shrine of the legendary Ibini Ukpabi, otherwise known as the long juju of Arochukwu. Reputed with so much powers and authority in those days, especially during the period of Slave Trade, the deity is still highly revered even today, and has continued to attract a lot of attraction.
Also of notable interest is Ulonta Okoroji museum located at Ujare Village. This place has a lot of interesting collections mainly on slavery. The founder, Mazi Okoroji, was said to have played active role as a slave merchant and his exploits are well documented in the museum. There is equally the 79 steps located in Amannagwu which also harbours the residence of the colonial masters. These are just a few of such interesting and historical tourism sites in Arochukwu. Unfortunately, they have been neglected or abandoned over the years. However, in trying to harness the tourism potentials of Ikeji festival, attention should also be given to developing the tourism sites and make it an integral part of the festival. There is no doubt that these tourism sites would be of tremendous benefit towards enriching the Ikeji festival, as they can help attract more visitors to the community.

While commending the Nzuko Arochukwu leadership and the organisers of the 2018 Ikeji festival for re-inventing the almost dead festival and restoring its lost glory, there is still a lot of work to be done especially in harnessing its huge tourism potentials for the development of the community. This calls for concerted effort by every well-meaning Aro indigene.

.Okoro, the Chair, Ikeji Aro 2018 Organising Committee, wrote in from Abia State

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