By Cyprian Ajah
New yam festival is a cultural practice that goes with extensive feast being observed by some communities in Igbo land. It is a practice whereby yam is being celebrated like a new born baby. Some communities are known for their rich cultural heritage in celebrating new yam
festivals which comes with many interesting activities.
Yam is a food and food is linked to agriculture. Agriculture then is the practice of cultivating plants or livestock. It could also be seen as the process of rearing animals or cultivating crops. Expectedly, man cannot stay without food for a long time; man needs food for survival. The biblical saying that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but the words that proceeds out of his mouth’ is words of encouragement to enable young believers to strengthen their faith but not that he won’t need food to eat.
Over the years, the people of Okpanku in Aninri local government of Enugu State are known for farming, especially yam crop. Yam is a dominant crop in that locality until other crops like rice, groundnut, okra, maize and sweet potato were introduced to the community.
According to Chinua Achebe, yam is the chief crop among men farmers. It commands much respect among farmers who spend time and energy trying to make a living through farming. The Okpanku new yam festival is being celebrated annually and its being accompanied by a series of cultural activities like masquerade displays, drama, cultural dances and display of yams. Different masquerades ran round the villages to entertain people with different dancing bands.
Yam is celebrated in Okpanku in so many ways: It is being celebrated as a personal achievement of a serious farmer. If a farmer calls for a feast and feeds hundreds of people with the yam he produces and was able to make additional merriment to his fellow farmer with palm wine and cultural dances, such farmer would earn himself a title of ‘Osuji’ (a competent yam producer who can feed multitude). A yam merchant cannot earn the title Osuji, no matter how rich he may become unless he is a yam producer.
Secondly, yam is being celebrated as the most essential crop more than any other crop in Okpanku. At the beginning of every planting season to the period of harvest every male adult must have made sacrifices to his ancestors and seek their blessings to harvest big yam at the end of the season. Any adult who fails to seek the consent of the ancestors risk cultivating his yam in vain.
During the time of harvest, no yam would be harvested until the day the festival
commences. The month and day of the festival might differ from year to year. No particular date is fixed for the celebration it, depends on the month the traditional new-year calendar falls into. This is being determined by the chief priest.
However, it is expected that from the month of September, the date for the celebration of new yam festival would have been known by the chief priest whom it is his responsibility to announcement the date. When it is finally announced, the preparation would start in earnest and people from all walks of lives living within and offshore of Okpanku would return home to participate and witness the event. New yam is not eaten by anyone until a sacrifice is made to the gods on eke-ise day.
When that is done, the celebration starts after four days. Yam is being accorded much respect according to the tradition and culture of Okpanku. One of the respects accorded to yam is the yam competition being organized by the paramount ruler of Okpanku, Igwe Reginald A. Chukwu, where he rewards farmers who produce the biggest yam during the festive period. This is done every season to encourage producers of yam. Many farmers had struggled to win the prestigious prize but it goes to the most experienced farmers who know the tricks of
cultivating yam. No wonder Achebe said in his book that “A serious farmer plants his yam in farmland located at a distance but the lazy does that at his backyard”.
As a result of this, the federal and state governments should encourage farmers in agricultural production to increase their yearly output by making farm implement available to farmers and move away from peasant to commercial farmers.
The advent of modern technology has made it possible for farmers to boost their harvest. Therefore, government should formulate policies that would encourage farmers to improve on their welfare by providing improved species of plant and live stock at a cheaper rate. There are varieties of improved species of plant crops and livestock as well as other farm implements that
could ameliorate the suffering of farmers. If the government can listen to the plight of the farmers food will be surplus for the nation. There is a wise saying that a hungry man is an angry man.
It would be recalled that from inception of the world, food has formed the most essential needs of a man even during the era of sedentism farming formed the major occupation that man embraced. From the time of human civilization agriculture remains the key development. A nation without agriculture is a dead nation.
It will also be recalled that agriculture constitutes the highest per cent of the Nigerian Gross Domestic Product before and after independence. The then government of Nigeria made tremendous achievements with agricultural produce.
Ajah, a versatile journalist, researcher and farmer, wrote from Okpanku.