When COVID-19 aborted New Yam celebration in Ibeku Kingdom

For the first time in over two hundred years, the people of Ibeku ancient kingdom, in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia state, suspended the celebration of the New Yam festival due to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, writes MIKE UBANI

It was Thursday, August 27, 2020. As Onyekachi Ogbonnaya, 15, a native of Umuajiji Isieke-Ibeku, in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia state, woke up early that morning, he hastily prepared himself to join his mates in celebrating the new yam festival scheduled to take place that day. He had fully and joyfully taken part in the previous year’s celebration, and had assured himself of similar outing this year.

The time was 11 a.m. As he stepped out of his compound, he noticed to his disappointment the absence of the usual discernible signs that pervade the day dedicated to venerate yam – famed as the king of crops in Ibeku kingdom, and indeed all communities in Igboland.

There was neither singing nor dancing on the streets; the masquerades were conspicuously missing, and there was disturbing silence in the land suggestive that something had really gone wrong.

Indeed, something went wrong. Unknown to Onyekachi, the custodian of the custom and tradition of Ibeku land, Prince Benjamin Benedict Apugo, had few days to the new yam festival, gone on air to announce the suspension of the annual event slated for August 27, 2020.

Prince Apugo who is also a member of both Board of Trustee (BoT) and National Caucus of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), said the suspension was due to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to observe the protocols and principles, including safe distancing, enunciated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

He enjoined all Ibeku sons and daughters to eat and celebrate the new yam festival in the comfort of their homes, and not to do anything that would contravene law and order.

If Onyekachi and several others like him were disappointed by the turn of events, there could be merit in their disposition. This is the first time in over two hundred years that this significant festival could not hold on the traditionally appointed date.

As a matter of fact, many festivals exist in Ibeku ancient kingdom, but ‘Iri ji’ (new yam festival) is the most prominent probably due to the importance attached to yam. And that importance derives from the fact that the new yam festival marks the end of ‘unwu’ famine) season.

The ‘Iri ji’ festival, therefore, is a celebration of survival from hunger and heralds the period of plentiful supply of food. This festival is usually celebrated on a joyful note throughout Ibeku land.

According to the authors of ‘Ibeku in Igbo History,’ “whenever the Ibeku people celebrate their new yam festival, people publicise the event by announcing Igbo ‘Eriele ji’, meaning that the Igbo people have performed the rituals of new yam.
“The deduction from this is that the rituals performed by the Ibeku people for the ‘Iri ji’ festival is on behalf of themselves and other Igbo people.

“The indication is that this is a carry-over from the days of Ibeku kingdom when the Ibeku people were in control of much of Igboland. It is also an indication that the Ibeku are among the early settlers of Igboland.

“The land occupied by Umuahia-Ibeku Township was an Ibeku farmland known as Alaocha-Ibeku. It was farmed by the people of Ndume, Afara, Ugba na Nkata, Ossah, Emede and Amuzu.

“Yam ‘ji’ is regarded as the king of all farm crops, a man’s crop, not only in Ibeku ancestral kingdom, but also throughout Igbo land. It is accorded a respect amounting to adulation.

“After the turbulent years of warfare and conquests, the Ibeku kingdom stabilized. There was relative peace and people settled down to mind their farms.

“Apart from demonstrating his prowess in war, an Ibeku man was not fully recognized by people until he married a wife or wives, built his own home and acquired a large yam barn where he tied rows and rows of yams which he proudly exhibited and advertised to his visitors.”

Though a lid was placed on the celebration of the new yam festival in Ibeku land, Prince Apugo, however, performed the necessary traditional rite at ‘Egwu Ibeku’, to herald the cooking and eating of the new yam. The site houses the shrines of all Ibeku people. It is also believed to be the burial place of Mr. Ibeku – the famed founder of Ibeku land.

The AUTHORITY learnt that it is sacrilegious for any Ibeku family to cook, roast and eat the new yam before the performance of those traditional rites, exclusively done by Prince Apugo, the custodian of Ibeku tradition and custom.

Addressing journalists after performing the traditional rites, Prince Apugo expressed delight that Ibeku people heeded his call not to celebrate the annual festival with the usual fanfare attached to it because of the prevalence of COVID-19.

He said the traditional rites were there even before he was born, adding that he inherited the performance of those rites from his forefathers.

He said: “No matter how rich you are, you cannot come to Egwu Ibeku to perform the traditional rites to herald the new yam festival. This responsibility is reserved for only the descendants of Ibeku land.’

Prince Apugo decried the attitude of some Igbo sons and daughters who celebrate the new yam festival outside Igbo land. He advised them to go home during such celebration to join their kith and kin to celebrate the annual event.

He appealed to Ibeku people at home and abroad to work hard for the development of the kingdom, even as he warned non-descendants living among the people not to do anything that would truncate the existing harmonious co-existence in the clan.

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