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The Traditional New Yam festival of the Ndigbo people of Nigeria

Updated on March 10, 2015

Planting the yam

The small occasion usually has dancers and masquerades in attendance they proceed to the planting spot which is a farm land the priests offer prayers to the supreme being , they bless the yam for a bountiful harvest and the elders and notable members of the community plant yam seedlings in turn to commemorate the beginning of the planting season.

The new yam month

The Igbo people of Nigeria are sometimes referred to as Ndigbo and their ancestry is shrouded in mystery without concrete proof by historians of their true origin. They are hardworking and highly enterprising business people who basically control forty five (45%) percent of small commerce in Nigeria.

You can find them in the eastern side of Nigeria like Imo state, Enugu state, Anambra state, Abia state and others, they have very important traditional festivals full of colorful cultural practices, but the new yam festival is a brilliant showing of their communal heritage.

The festival in recent times is having resurgence with a focus on communal integration, social development, and to increasing interest in Igbo culture and traditions. The new yam festival otherwise known as Igo Afo-Iba Ubi day when translated means Igbo new yam day starts with the coming of the planting season which starts in march.

The day is a social event that highlights the Igbo peoples cultural heritage on agriculture especially yam planting, yam is an important staple food eaten in most parts of Nigeria and can be found in large plantations all the way from the north, southeast and western parts of the country.

Yam is an edible tuber from the genus Dioscorea, they are starchy tubers that can be found in many regions like the Americas, Asia and Africa, and the yam interestingly is a vegetable and can stay very long after harvesting of close to five and a half months without getting bad.

Yam s generally grows to about maximum five feet (5ft) in length, three to six inches in diameter and could weigh as much as sixty five kilograms (65k) in weight. They come with a rough rugged exterior and can be light brown, dark brown, yellow, red and pinkish red in color, the type of soil and species sometimes contribute to the color of the yam tuber.

The size of the yam largely depends in the species, sweet potatoes which a tiny, smooth skinned, moist and sweet to taste are is also regarded as a yam. Yam comes in over five hundred kinds and the ones used in new yam festival are cylindrical in shape large have rough skins, are dry and starchy.

Yam verities include sweet potatoes, water yam and the common yam tubers.

Cultural dancers

Cultural dances are part of the new yam festival
Cultural dances are part of the new yam festival | Source

The planting season

The new yam festival starts with the planting season and is a more serious occasion, the planting season starts in March and the chief priest and elders start the planting of the yams. Before the first yam is planted elders pay homage to their traditional ruler or chief the Dede Igbo who is the custodian of the tradition and the ancestral father of the Igbo people.

Very top members of the Igbo people like high chiefs, title holders, respected elders and important personalities in the community in an entourage make the journey to the Dede. When the elders and top title holders arrive at the Ezeonomobi Igbo they are usually received by the leader as culture demands, by presenting them locally brewed palm wine and kolanut and white clay which is first offered to the gods as supplication before the visitors.

Brief discussions and prayers are done, the usual calendar puts the planting season on January while the Igbo calendar which is agrarian is called the first Eke and starts in the month of February and is known as Onwa Mmiri Nda Afo.

In Igbo land yam is an important economic crop which is highly favored and a regular staple in most homes, the crop is very significant and has important status being the chief crop and forerunner of other crops in the region. The planting season flags of on the first week of February and the crop usually takes six months to mature making the festival period between late July and early august when the valuable crop is harvested.

Harvesting the yam

Harvesting the yam
Harvesting the yam

Adim new yam festival

The New Yam Festival takes place during the harvesting of the yam

The harvesting season

The harvesting season is the most significant reason for the Igbo new yam festival, the harvesting of the new yam is a grander occasion than the planting season. It is highly symbolic of the agreement and supplication between the gods the people and the land for granting them a bountiful harvest.

The harvesting season of the new yam is called the iri iju or Iwa ji and it is mostly held after the rains have subsided and the crops are ready to be harvested. Even though the practice can be attributed to the Igbo people other regions throughout West Africa have their own version of the practice, the common denominator is harvesting the yam at end of rains and supplication and tanks to their ancestors and gods for a bountiful harvest.

The new yam festival is a very ancient practice that existed long before colonization and the presence of the foreigners to West Africa, the way its practiced today is mostly symbolic and a resurgence of the culture so the heritage is not lost in time. This is because fifty five percent of Igo people (55&) are Catholics by faith, thirty percent orthodox Christianity and the rest other faiths and traditional practitioners.

When the harvesting day arrives the town’s people go to farms to dig out the yams, some of the yams are then brought forward for blessing. There usually is a pervading sense of joy and accomplishment that fills the air. They keep the excess in storage to sell later or use for domestic consumption while the remainder is distributed to family and friends and the community, special gatherings where traditional songs are rendered are common.

The festival is not complete without wearing your best traditional outfits, having cultural dances, song and music by both contemporary ethnic musicians and local bands to infuse a celebratory mood. Many indigenes travel from great distances and major cities to participate and enjoy the festivities.

Other entertainment during this joyful occasion is the emergence of masquerades that entertain the people, also libations are made, prayers offered and a host of yam based delicacies are consumed and shared throughout the villages.

Different villages have similar celebratory patterns but they might differ very slightly but is carried out almost simultaneously with certain harvesting periods. The joyful feasting is fully characterized by maiden dances, masquerade performances, eating, drinking of locally brewed palm wine, eating of the boiled yam with palm oil and beautiful maidens and youths in a colorful parade.

The major significance of new yam festival is getting in touch with their ancient practices and culture having fun and giving the people an identity and a sense of communal synergy. The new yam festival has not yet developed into a full fledged tourist attraction but certain things are being put in place to make the cultural day very significant one like other festivals in Nigeria such as the Eyo masquerade festival in Lagos state, Argungu fishing festival in the north of the country, Osun Oshogbo festival and the Durbar festival.

New Yam Delicacies

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Festivals location

The new yam festival is normally done at the Igwes residence, the Igwe is the tradition ruler or leader of a certain community, when the day is approved, notification is sent to indigenes of the community of the festival date. The reason for notification which could be a good three weeks before the date is because majority of most communities have their people doing business in far away lands and cities. The time frame Gives them time adequate time to travel back home so they can be participate in the joyous occasion.

Beautification of the environment with banners, balloons, colored trees and canopies makeup the venue, the chiefs and elders are seated at the high table and chars are arranged for the community and visitors. After opening prayer the leaders bless the yams and the festivities start in earnest, with cultural dances, masquerades showing skillful acrobatic displays, a parade of beautiful maidens, rich cultural clothing’s and attires and rich ethnic music.

If there is a centralized area like a market place or town hall then they may choose to use any of the locations, all depends on the convenience and available space that can accommodate the large turnout of people. The only criteria are that the entire community can be part of the festivities without any hindrance or restrictions.

New Yam festival in Dublin

The Igbo people celebrate new yam festival all over the world and are not limited to geographical location. new yam festival in Dublin
The Igbo people celebrate new yam festival all over the world and are not limited to geographical location. new yam festival in Dublin | Source

Things that characterize the new yam festival

1 The new yam festival begins with the harvesting of the crop around end of July and first week of august

2 The festival is flagged of when the elders of the community harvest the first yams.

3 Then the yam is blessed and harvested by the community

4 Each house hold prepares sumptuous yam dishes.

5 The yams are also distributed to family, friends and community members while some are kept for domestic use or for sale at layer dates.

6 The usual yam meals eating during the gatherings is boiled yam and palm oil

7 The local drink favored in such occasions is the palm wine drink.

8 A parade or procession of nicely dressed teens and elders is common place

9 There are many traditional dances and colorful attires

10 Local ethnic music or contemporary local musicians entertain the crowd

11 The whole purpose being cultural integration and communal participation of an ancient custom.

New yam delicacies

The delicious meals have yam as the primary dish cooked in a verity of ways, the yam might be boiled whole without removing the back in a big pot, and some remove the back and boil the yam. Some are made into yam portage by adding local ingredients to garnish the meal such as crayfish, small stock fish, sliced meat and other locally obtained ingredients.

Oil bean seed is also common in the ensemble including rich palm oil sauce to accompany the boiled yam, fried meat and fish can also be introduced in the meals. All this is washed down with cold palm wine and sometimes assorted drinks.

The yam can be prepared in many ways such as roasting the tubers, they can be barbecued, some are fried or grilled it can be baked in a make shift oven, boiled either whole or peeled- which is the most common type served or can be made into portage.

Yam portage

Yam portage
Yam portage | Source

Conclusion

The new yam festival is celebrated by the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria as a cultural festival that brings together people of that region during harvesting of the new crops as a way to unite the people. The festival is rich with culture- traditions, local menus, acrobatic masquerades, brilliant parades, fun, dance and ethnic music. The whole town is given a facelift and is beautified in preparation for the guests; it takes the whole community to celebrate the new yam.

The new yam festival is not limited to the different villages and ethnic groups but can be celebrated in far of countries even in Europe or America. So as long as there is a high chief to bless the yam and the Igbo residents bring yam samples including rich cultural dances and masquerades the event is accepted.

The important significance of the special day is to preserve old cultures and traditions that have to do with the ancient practices and to offer the new generation an insight into such practices, so that the culture lives on with the next generation.

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    • tony55 profile image
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      femi 3 years ago from Nigeria

      Eiddwen, thanks for the vote up especially coming from our in house poet laureate.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting and just the trick for some great armchair travelling.

      Voting up plus sharing.

      Eddy.