The New Yam Festival popularly known as “Orureshi, Iwa ji, Iri ji, Ike ji, or Otute (depending on dialect) is an annual cultural festival by the Igbo people usually held at the end of the rainy season in early August to October every year.
Festivity is an important aspect of the cultures and traditions of the Igbo people inhabiting the eastern and southeastern regions of Nigeria. At the end of the rainy season in August, the Igbo people harvest new yams and come together to celebrate the success in the name of a festival known as Iwa Iji which literally means new yam eating. The new yam festival is also know as Onwa Aasa, Orurueshi and so on in the different dialects found across the Igbo settlement.
The new yam festival stands as one of the most celebrated and recognized festivals in Ndi Igbo (Igbo land) as Igbo sons and daughters both at home and in the diaspora come together to share the festive spirit. Yams are the first crop to be harvested as it is regarded by Igbo people as the chief and queen of all crops, hence it is a taboo to sit or place heavy objects on it. After harvesting the yams, preparations are made for the festival which include spiritual and physical cleansing of the community, decorations and intense rehearsals of traditional dances. Also, in the evening before the new yam festival, old yams are sold or thrown away because the festival is strictly celebrated only with newly harvested yams.
As Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) describes: “The pounded yam dish placed in front of the partakers of the festival was as big as a mountain. People had to eat their way through it all night and it was only during the following day when the pounded yam “mountain” had gone down that people on one side recognized and greeted their family members on the other side of the dish for the first time.”
This brief submission explains the significance of the celebration of new yam festival in Igbo society and among the Igbo wherever they may live outside of Igboland. It answers the question, what is new yam and why is new yam such an important ceremony and identity of the Igbo of Nigeria? Why are Igbo children particularly ritually cleansed before partaking in the eating of new yam? The essay adopts a straightforward approach drawing from experience and participation in new yam festivities at home and in diaspora.
New Yam festival in Igboland of Nigeria or among the Igbo and their friends in Diaspora is always marked with pomp and pageantry. The occasion of Iwa Ji and Iri-ji Ohuru or new-yam eating festival is a cultural feast with its deep significance. The individual agrarian communities or subsistence agricultural population groups, have their days for this august occasion during which a range of festivities mark the eating of new yam. To the Igbo, therefore, the day is symbolic of enjoyment after the cultivation season. Yam culture is momentous with hoe-knife life to manage the planting and tending of tuberous requirements. Yam farmers in Isu Njaba of Igboland know this well.
Drawing from Nri, the ancestral clan of Igboland, Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani states that “?WA JI” (to break new yam) is observed as a public function on certain appointed days of the year. It is the feast of new yam; the breaking of the yam; and harvest is followed by thanksgiving. An offering is put forward and the people pray for renewed life as they eat the new yam. An offering is made to the spirits of the field with special reference to the presiding deity of the yam crop. In the olden days, fowls offered as sacrifice must be carried to the farm and slain there, with the blood being sprinkled on the farm. Yam is cut into some sizes and thrown to the gods and earth with prayers for protection and benevolence. When the ceremony is completed, everything is taken home; the yams are laid up before the “Alusi” (deity) together with all the farming implements, while the fowls boiled and prepared with yam for soup (ji awii, ji mmiri oku) are eaten at the subsequent feast. Everyone is allowed to partake in this and those who are not immediately around are kept portions of the commensal meal.