A glimpse into “iwa ji” or “iri ji” festival
Yams form the main staple food of Eastern Nigeria, and the harvesting of yams is celebrated every year. Igbo people after months of cultivating and tending yams, there finally arrives that time of expected plenty that will last to the next planting season. The yam itself is similar to potato in texture but significantly larger in proportion. The festival connected with the harvesting of yams is called “iWa Ji” or “iRi Ji”, depending on the dialect of the particular area of Igbo land. The NRi people in Anambra state of Eastern Nigeria, notable custodians of Igbo culture, refer to this festival as “ONWa aSaTO”, literally meaning the “eighth month”. This indicates that the “New Yam Festival” traditionally referred to as “iWa Ji”, “iRi Ji” occurs during the eighth month of the year – in august, though variations may exist due to the vastness of Igbo land. Several events herald the start of the yam harvesting season: Family heads, elders, and custodians of the culture perform thanksgiving ceremonies; homes are cleaned, swept, and painted with basic colours of white (nzu), yellow (ufi), black (unyi), and red (nmee); roads are cleaned and swept from one family compound to the next until the whole village is pristine; old things are discarded in anticipation of the new. In individual households, barns where the new yams will be stored are carefully rebuilt.
Ogilisi trees, methodically and geometrically planted to provide shade and cool the environment in the barn, are trimmed and ready to receive new yams while domestic animals are kept strictly away from the barn. The entire household bustles with anticipation: young women decorate themselves in black and yellow patterns using uli and ufi, (small seeds that give out coloured dye); young men gallantly secure the welfare of their families; elders attend to the core aspects of the festival; even domestic animals benefits from the general good cheer, their food supply being noticeably more plentiful and varied in the days leading up to the festival. It is a magical time. It is a time that joy and happiness fills the air to the enjoyment of everyone in equal measure, rich or poor, young or old, man or woman.
Even children, at this time, do not miss out from the general euphoria. They play games, devise tricks and set up challenges against one another peculiar to the upcoming festival. One of these children’s games goes thus: a challenger gets a slender yam of between six inches to a foot long and about two inches thick. They roast it in a fire but beat it soft until the inside is mashed but still in one piece. They then cut the yam open and stuf palm oil into it. When ready it is given to the challenged to eat. If, while eating it, no piece of it falls off from the challenge’s hand or mouth then the challenged had won and the challenger can go away a loser. If a speck of the yam falls of the challenged, however, the challenger will leap up in joy because he or she will have won the game. The reward for winning is that the loser will now prepare a yam and pass it on to the winner to eat while the loser watches. “iWa Ji” or “iRi Ji” is an elaborate affair lasting many days during which various aspects of the ceremony take place. Scarifies of thanksgiving to the creator for His goodness will continue to be offered up to the big day of the festival, which is the climax of the events. On this final day of the festival, relatives and friends near and far attend. This festival is celebrated as if yam is the only crop because although the Igbo’s cultivate other tuberous crops like coco-yams, cassava, potatoes, and so on, yam is considered the king of them all.
On the final day of the festival, yam is the main dish and is often offered in a number of mouth watering combinations including broiled chicken with new yams in exotic spices, pounded yam and egusi soup rich in free range chicken, and roasted yam with palm oil and fresh pepper.
At the start of the iWa Ji or iRi Ji festival somebody declares when people can start eating the new yam by using a knife and cutting through a roasted yam. After giving thanks to God he dips a piece of the roasted yam in palm oil and eats it. This person is often the king, the ruling chief, or a privileged elder within the community. Once this rite has been completed, everyone can then eat the new yam. Traditionally, it is unlawful for anyone to eat the new yam before this ceremony is done. During the festival, distinguished yam farmers obtain the titles of Di Ji, Eze Ji, Owa Ji, and so on. These titles indicate that the farmer has become masterfully skilled in the science and art of growing yams. Some recognized yam farmers grow yams that can stand as tall as a man. The festival is colourful with dances and displays of works of art in every family using tender palm fronds. In village squares a whole day of entertainment with dances and masquerades continue into the night. This is a time of peace and gladness. While the Igbo’s celebrate a number of other festivities during the year, iWa Ji or iRi Ji tops them all. On this day, the general atmosphere can be described as seen in the book of Nehemiah 12:43 “Also that day they offer great scarifies, and rejoiced: for GOD had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.