New yam festival which is ‘Emume Iwa Ji na Iri Ji Ohuru’ is a great festival across Igboland and among the Igbos in the diaspora too.
The festival is held annually in August during the season of yam harvest.
It is indeed a great festival that Achebe captured it in one of his notable works, Arrow of God.
The new yam festival is as old as the tradition itself.
The Festival is celebrated to thank the gods for a good harvest. It is the feast of new yam; the breaking of the yam; and harvest is followed by thanksgiving.
Usually, at the beginning of the festival, the yams are offered to the gods and ancestors first before distributing them to the villagers. The act of this celebration is called ‘Ahijioku’, Ahijioku is the yam or earth gods.
And to depict its prominence, “The New Yam Festival” is celebrated to thank the gods of good harvest. Being an important event in the calendar of Igbo people all over the world, the festival usually begins with a ceremonial roasting of whole yams by the king or titled elders of the community.
This nobility also offers the yams to gods, deities and ancestors by showing gratitude to God for his protection and kindness in leading them from lean periods to the time of bountiful harvest without deaths resulting from hunger.
After the prayer of thanksgiving to God, the elders will eat the first yam. Only after then will the rest of the community feel free to consume the new yam without incurring the wrath of the gods.
It is believed that their position bestows the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. The rituals are meant to express the gratitude of the community to the gods for making the harvest possible.
The yam is then eaten with ‘mmanụ nri’ red oil.
Although the methods and style of celebration usually differ from one community to the next, the essential components that make up the festival remain the same.
Traditionally, the celebration includes a variety of entertainments and ceremony; cultural dancers adorn in rich cultural costumes to the admiration of all, fashion display, role reversals, Igbo masquerade jamboree, heavy drinking of palm wine, folklores, are synonymous with the iwa ji and iri-ji ohuru in Igbo life and culture.
Serving food during the new yam festival is focused on varieties of yam dishes since the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce.
Enough yam is cooked such that no matter how heavily guests and family members may eat, there will always be enough at the end of the day. It is, in that sense, a season of merriment, abundance and hanging out together.
Another interesting aspect of the festival is the consumption or discarding of old yams prior to the festival day.
And this is done owing to the belief that the New Year must begin with tasty fresh yams instead of the old dried-up crops of the previous year.
It is an avenue to call home sons and daughters abroad to renew and reaffirm the bond of brotherhood; it also brings to mind a sense of belonging and to plan for community development.
In some communities, it is a taboo for any indigene of the community to eat new yam before the traditional “Iwa ji or Iri Ji” ceremony is performed.
The harvest of yam and the celebration of the God of the land through the New Yam festival is an epitome of the people’s religious belief in the supreme deity.
It is a remarkable event in Igbo tradition.