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New yam festival promotes Umuawulu’s cultural heritage – Ozo Nkala

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Ozo (Sir) Iyke Nkala, the Ozo Omelora Umuawulu comes across as a nexus between modernity and tradition in Umuawulu town, Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State. A bastion of the Christian faith (Knight of St. Molumba (KSM) and great custodian of Igbo culture and tradition by virtue of his membership of the Ozo traditional exclusive club, Nkala exudes Igbo culture and tradition the same way he espouses the Christian doctrine. At the inaugural Enugwu New Yam Festival, Ozo Nkala was among the few that performed the Iwa ji ritual, in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit. In this interview with OrientDaily’s Associate Editor, SIMON NJOKU and Dr. AZUBUIKE NKALA, Member, Editorial Board, Omelora throws light on the new yam festival as a vehicle for community development; Anambra politics, IPOB sit-at-home and others.

Can we meet you, sir?

 I am Ozo (Sir) Iyke Nkala, KSM (Ozo Omelu-ora Umuawulu) and a Knight of St. Mulumba

To the best of your knowledge, could you tell us the origin of Iwa Ji (New Yam Festival) in Umuawulu?

Actually, the new yam festival is an event that started during the time of our fore  fathers. That is, it started from time immemorial. Our forefathers used the occasion to express gratitude to their gods for a bumper harvest. The farmer after farming for eight months, would have to give thanks to what was then called, ‘ the gods of the land, Chi Ji.’ The farmers acknowledged the fact that after hard labour in the farming season, they were able to reap the fruit of their labour. This has been the custom of communities in Anambra State and Southeast generally. During the periods of August, September and towards October, people harvest the new yam and most communities use the opportunity to thank the God of yam for bumper harvest. In this case, our community, Umuawulu, is not left out. They have been holding this festival collectively in the community. Why this one is special is that Enugwu, being the first son of Awulu, (the father of Umuawulu), decided to celebrate the festival this year in their own quarter. We have three quarters in Umuawulu; Enugwu Quarter, Umuene Quarter and Agbana. So, we decided to celebrate this year’s edition at the market square in Enugwu Quarter. 

In this context, some Igbo bear names such as Njokuji, Osuji, Oparaji etc. Could you explain the reasons or meaning of some of these names in relation to ji (yam)?

Well, such is not done in this part of Igbo land. We do not call people by those names. It only exists in some parts of Imo state. If one is reputed for being successful in yam farming, they give the person title showing that the person harvests large quantity of yam. You know, in those days, our fathers did not pay for labourers instead they used what they had to work on their farmlands. So, such titles had to do with someone who farmed yam in large quantity and had a very big yam barn. In those days, riches and wealth were denoted by the expansive barn. It boils down to large farmlands and that is why you notice men married many wives in those days unlike what is common now. Those days, some men married up to six wives and had up to 30 children and that meant in the farming season, they would have more hands that tilled and cultivated the land. 

Do you still have yam barns in your villages?

Yes! We still have it but not as it used to be. That is why during our yearly new yam festivals, we include yam competition where people that harvested 100 yams and above win prizes. The person with the largest harvest goes home with a special prize.

Why is it that the focus is on yam and not on cocoyam, cassava etc?

Yam is regarded in Igboland as the King of crops and its cultivation is more cumbersome than cocoyam, cassava or corn cultivation and the rest of the crops. It takes a lot of energy, time, space and money. So, one can plant cassava and leave it for some months but such cannot be done for yam. A farmer has to visit his yam consistently to give it tender care for it to grow well. So, cassava is easier to cultivate than yam.  

Why is it that the Igbo attach so much importance to yam among all other crops?

It is because, as l said earlier, yam is the king of crops. The task involved and for us, the task in yam farming, is more difficult compared to other crops. So, we thought that someone who tills the land, plants yam and harvests it has done a lot more job than one who cultivates corn or any other crop. Again, yam seedlings are more expensive than cocoyam seedlings or the stems of cassava.  So, I think our fathers considered a yam farmer as someone who can endure the rigours of yam cultivation to obtain a bumper harvest.

To what extent do your people use modern method of yam cultivation?

 I don’t think our people engage in that.

How often do you hold this festival?

We celebrate the new yam festival annually, like I said, between the months of August and October. Nise community did theirs last week; Mbaukwu did theirs a week before  and I think Awgbu did their own a couple of weeks back. Every community has its particular day for its new yam festival but we, Umuawulu, do celebrate ours every last Saturday of every September and we don’t change it.

Do youths and women play any role during the festival or is it restricted to the elders?

Everybody is involved. We organize Christian crusade the night before the new yam day proper. If it is the one we do generally, our traditional ruler would officially cut the yam by himself.  Apart from the yam, other delicacies are cooked for the celebration. The youths would come with their masquerades and they are also involved in the competition for the biggest yam. They belong to different cultural groups which entertain the audience. So, you see, it is not a thing for the elders alone. It is for everybody including the children just like Christmas celebration. 

Are you saying the new yam festival is meant for just the villagers?

No. It involves everybody including those people in diaspora. We, Igbo, travel intermittently and we like to travel to where we would have the opportunity to see our friends including those we have not seen for a very long time.  So, it’s like a Christmas period but the only difference is that this time it is about new yam celebration. 

Are there development projects that will be launched to mark this year’s festival? 

Of course.  In fact, meetings would start holding by Monday where every quarter would present issues bothering them. An Igbo man would say he who climbs an Iroko tree should fetch all the fire woods from it because it is not always that one climbs the iroko.

Specifically, could you tell us some of the projects that have been undertaken as a result of this festival?

When I was the president general of my community, during the last new yam festival, we were able to raise money for the roofing of our 1,200 capacity hall in Umuawulu. It was during that festival that I organized the meeting being the only time I could get our brothers from far and near to raise money for the project. 

Other quarters have their own peculiar problems ranging from bad roads, electricity bills, erosions and the rest. So, we raised money to address some of these problems facing the community.  

In what way does this festival promote the people’s cultural heritage?

Like I said earlier, during the festivals there are cultural dances by women and age grades. The newly initiated age grades would come to showcase themselves either with a dance group or in a well-ironed uniform. The different quarters even unveil their new masquerades to the delight of the people. So, it is a cultural programme and it comes with so many cultural activities. 

Festivals are seen as avenues for creating harmonious relations among people. Has this festival had any impact in this regard in Umuawulu Community?

Yes! The new yam festival is one of the symbols of unity in Umuawulu community. It is just like the case where a Northerner and an Easterner would not mind their ethnic differences when football is being played. So, everyone comes together to eat and drink without rancour and worries. We also use the opportunity to settle disputes where they exist and start our lives afresh. 

You led your town for three years as the president general. Could you tell us some of your achievements? 

Well, as the president general, I did my very best. First of all, I named the hall I talked about Unity Hall and that is because it is one symbol that is uniting the three quarters of Umuawulu and everyone contributed towards the project. You know, when you have a community as big as Umuawulu with 3 quarters and 21 villages, there is every possibility of rivalry and competition existing amongst the quarters and the villages but the Unity Hall is one project that brings all of us together as brothers and sisters. Again, during my tenure, we were able to construct roads; maybe I would attribute that to luck. Over 18 kilometer-roads were constructed within Umuawulu courtesy of one of our illustrious sons. Our health center was equipped with modern facilities and secured with a perimeter fence.  Perimeter fence was also constructed in a number of schools in the community. In fact, during my tenure, Umuawulu started paying for WAEC and JAMB fees for her final year students and awarded some scholarships. Also, the skill acquisition centre which had been moribund was re-equipped and we built hundreds of seats and desks for the center and primary schools in the community. My administration was also able to attract 30 lock-up shops within our market. We attracted a cottage centre at one of the quarters; it has been finished but not in use yet. We were able to do no fewer than five culverts spread at different locations and we maintained our roads using palliatives. Above all, we had a community where the rule of law reigned supreme. The people wanted me to continue at the end of my tenure but I declined because it would be out of order.

What do you do at the skill acquisition centre?

Our skill acquisition centre trains youths on tailoring, carpentry, leather works and others. All these were there before but became moribund due to neglect but my administration revitalized it. 

By these achievements, it means your people were behind you,

what are these qualities in you that endear you to your people?

Ehm. I believe that everything that is worth doing is worth doing well. I hate failure. Presently, I’m the chairman of the committee for the new yam festival. I like showing the way to the people I lead. I don’t wait for people to bring money. I put my own money down first. Again, integrity and accountability matter in leadership and my achievements speak volume about who I am, compared to other leaders who led the community before my tenure. I do not take sides in any dispute because truth is life. In settling disputes, I judge from a neutral ground and that was among the reasons my tenure recorded success. Generally, I’m a sociable person and I belong to most of the social groups in the community.

Don’t you think some people will say you are too young to be an Ozo title holder?

(Laughs) Anyway, what matters is I met the criteria. I’m married with children and a man in the first instance. I was able to meet the financial demands.  In fact, I’m the Chairman of Ozo Umuawulu and the Vice Chairman, Ozo Ebeteghete. Ebeteghete comprises Umuawulu, Mbaukwu and Isiagu communities.

Awards were given out to some people at the festival. What were the criteria for this award?

Well, awards are given at occasions like this. At times, chieftaincy titles are given but at this very festival we did not give any. This is an inaugural new yam festival for Enugwu Quarter. For the first time Enugwu Quarter had her own new yam festival without going to the Igwe’s palace, for some reasons including unsettled family issues. So, in a way, we are protesting to the Igwe that we are not happy with what happened hence we held our own festival at our Oye Market Square. Since it is inaugural, being our first time, the only competition that we had was that of the biggest yam farmer competition where the first three prize winners smiled home with N150,000, N100,000 and N50,000, respectively. There were also consolation prizes for all farmers for their efforts. The overall objective is to ensure that everybody is a winner at the end of the day. 

Maybe as the festival continues, in the future there could be recognitions. Our illustrious sons and daughters who had contributed immensely to the development of our community could be duly recognized. For instance, Ikenga Umuawulu has helped in constructing so many roads, some are building bus stops and paying electricity bills. For me, I’m the owner of Nkala Foundation and for the past seven years, my foundation has been giving out free medical services to community members. The diabetic, hypertensive persons and people having malaria are given free diagnosis, drugs and treatments every Monday and Wednesday. So, some people would be given an award but what we have at hand now is new yam festival. 

What role do the women play at the yam festivals?

Traditionally, anything yam concerns men even though women also farm, but men are the chief farmers. On the festival eve, we would have canopies for the women and the Enugwu women’s wing will be there.

What’s your take on the meeting of tradition and Christianity at the festival?

It was great.  We kicked off on Friday with an interdenominational crusade to water the land and on Sunday, after the festival, the Igwe and his cabinet would go to church for thanksgiving, though some churches would always claim they do not believe in new yam festival. 

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