New yam festival, celebrated annually by many communities in Igbo land in Nigeria and beyond, has, over the years, remained a rallying point and a unifying factor among the various communities. As one of the most prominent platforms for the enactment and actualization of socio-cultural ideals, the new yam festival has continued to enjoy tremendous popularity because it often attracts people from far and wide.
In most traditional societies, new yam festival is celebrated with pomp and pageantry as most of the farmers use it as an avenue to show their appreciation to God for His kindness, protection and bountiful harvest and the general agrarian successes recorded during the year. Farmers, who had bumper harvests often make grateful sacrifices and pour libations to the Almighty for giving strength and prosperity to mankind through the instrumentality of the hoes and machetes.
The new yam festival is a historical event and epochal moment of get-together, happiness, enjoyment and overall reflection on family performance, challenges and prospects. Many people, especially the titled men and avowed defenders and protagonists of cultural norms and values, do not eat the new yam until the new yam festival is held. This is borne out of the belief that the sacrosanctity of the new yam should not be profaned by premature consumption.
Some communities in Igbo land even use the new yam festival to ascertain the advancement of agriculture in their localities, the major problems facing the farmers and how best to ensure food security in the future.
Today, the uniqueness of the new yam festival has assumed a more elaborate and transcendental dimension. Now, many see it as an avenue to showcase their cultural potentials. That is why events like masquerade displays, traditional wrestling, cultural dances and title-taking are usually held in most communities to mark the occasion.
However, the festival has provided a strong platform for fund raising and other development-oriented projects. In some areas, for instance, launching are held for the building of town halls, renovation and rehabilitation of public places, health centres, rural roads, markets, provision and maintenance of community security and vigilante groups. This is because it offers the time that many, who had returned from the urban areas and beyond for the festival, are usually seen in large number.
No doubt, Ndi Igbo cherish the new yam festival as a moment of reunion and demonstration of oneness among various communities. Elders and age grades often take advantage of the gleeful atmosphere that usually pervades the system to reconcile warring groups and listen to genuine complaints.
Others use it to handle cases and petitions of volatile nature as well as punish those who are found guilty of crimes and theft. They equally hand down sanctions to erring and recalcitrant house wives or husbands as the case may be. One thing very remarkable about new yam festival is that any action taken must be in the spirit of corporate existence and in accordance with the demands of the tradition.
While the new yam festival is a potent barometer and credible yardstick for the measurement of the social and cultural legacies in most Igbo traditional societies, it is hoped that this festivity should be fine-tuned to reflect the aspirations of the contemporary Igbo nation without losing its traditional substance and irresistible developmental ideals to the intimidating and overbearing influences of modern civilization. As the Igbos pay their respect and celebrate the king of crops, it is very important that this time should not be used to ferment violence but should be used as a veritable tool to bring lasting peace to all Igbo communities.
WRITTEN BY CHUKWUEBUKA OBINUGWU