The New Yam Festival otherwise known as the “Iri ji”, Iwaji or Ike ji (depending on dialect) is synonymous to the South-Eastern people of Nigeria, as well as Ghana and several other West African Countries.
The Iri ji is an eventful annual Cultural festival celebrated by the Igbo people usually around August and September.
Iri ji (otherwise known as “New Yam eating) symbolizes the climax of the harvest season, and marking the end of a farm work cycle.
The celebration is a very culturally based occasion, tying individual Igbo communities together as essentially agrarian and dependent on Yam.
Yams of all the farm crops occupy a very important place among the Igbos in the South Eastern Nigeria. And as such the New Yam Festival is a celebration depicting the place of Yam in the socio-cultural life of Igbo people.
The evening before the day of the festival, all old yams in the Yam’s barn (from the previous year’s crop) are either consumed or discarded. This is because it is believed that the New Year must begin with tasty, fresh yams instead of the old dried-up crops of the previous year.
On the day of the festival, only dishes of yam are served at the feast, as the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce.
The duration of the festival last between a day in some communities to a whole week in others across the region.
The activities marking the festival include a variety of entertainments and ceremonies, including the performance of rites by the Igwe (King), the eldest man or chief priest, wrestling matches by the young Igbo men, dances by the women and children.
It is a show of unique Igbo cultural activities in the form of contemporary shows, masquerade dances and fashion parades.
The festival usually commenced with the Igwe or chief priest offering yams to the gods and ancestors as an expression of gratitude for the protection throughout the farming period as well as leading the people to a period of bountiful harvest.
After the prayers of thanksgiving to God, the Igwe, chief priest or the eldest man eat the roasted yam first by the virtue of their position as intermediaries between the gods of the land and the community.
The yam thereafter distributed to the people. The yams are usually eaten with the traditional local sauce of fresh red palm oil.
In Ghana, a similar event is also held at same time of the year. Ghanaians call theirs “Homowo” or “To Hoot at Hunger” Festival, the people hope for a good harvest so no famine will hit the people in the coming year.
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.
The coming of the new moon in the month of August marks the preparation of the “Iri ji ohu” festival, but the time and mode of the preparation differs from community to community.
The colourful festival is a visual spectacle of coherence, of dance, of joy and feasting, an annual display for community members, to mark the end of the cultivation season, a festival where the people express their gratitude to those that helped them reap a bountiful harvest.