New Yam Festival In Igbo Land: Offering First-Fruit To The Deity Called NJOKU
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Every August is a period when Igbo people (Nigeria) of West Africa have their most important celebration - New Yam Festival, known as Iri-Ji or Ike-Ji in Igbo language. Ji means Yam in English. And before the exploits of Christianity, new yam festival was the “Christmas of Igbo people”.
It was a time for carnival. Different masquerades paraded the market square in addition to different musical groups. People ate the new yam, drank palm-wine, including local gin and danced out their hearts.
But, what is new yam festival?
Well, planting season starts in February and by August, it is harvest time. However, before people start eating from their harvest, the deity for fertility called NJOKU is first served.
This is what the Bible described as offering First-fruits to the Lord in Deuteronomy 26: 1-11. Let me take some aspects of this chapter to illustrate my point. Read the whole chapter when you have the time.
Verse 2: “take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name…”
In this instance, Ji/Yam is chosen to represent all the crops. Ji is an important crop in Igbo land, which features in every Igbo celebration including: marriage, birth, death, etc. Ji/Yam is thus taken to ALA-UBI (fertility shrine) where NJOKU resides, for offering.
Verse 10: “…Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.”
This is when the yam is sacrificed to NJOKU. Every Igbo community has its method of making the sacrifice. But ORIE-UKWU market day is when sacrifices are made in Igbo land.
Now, let me describe the method of offering adopted by my community called OHUHU clan in Umuahia Abia state, which represents 21 market villages. This was before everybody became a ‘born again Christian’.
Every of the 21 market villages had its NJOKU and its priest. But the NJOKU of my village (Umukabia) ranked higher than that of the other 20 villages. So, the Njoku priests of the other 20 villages would gather in my village for the offering of first-fruit to Njoku.
Hence, on the appointed day of the sacrifice (Orie-Ukwu market day), at about 6am, 21 cannons are fired to greet every Njoku priest of the other 20 villages, including the host village, that will gather with their Njoku for the sacrifice. Before 12noon, the sacrifice is completed.
The apparatuses for the sacrifice included; Kola nuts, local gin – for libation, chicken or goat as they afforded – for burnt offering, and of course, the yam itself, which is of special requirement.
There was a process of extracting the Ji/Yam that would be used for the sacrifice. After firing the 21 cannons, the Chief Priest of Njoku will go to the farm. He will use a special Yam-knife (nma-ji) to cut the Ji from its throat/neck (yes, every Ji has its throat/neck) while the body of the yam is still in the ground. This process is called Ike-Ji (cutting the yam’s throat/neck) for sacrifice just like cutting of animals’ throats for burnt offering.
Thereafter, the yam is gradually pulled from the ground while the head of the yam is reburied. The pulled yam is then taken to Ala-Ubi (shrine) and offered to Njoku by the Chief priest supported by the other 20 Njoku priests.
Moreover, the head of the yam that was reburied will be extracted and will be planted during the next farming season. The symbolism of this exercise is to establish a link between Njoku and the next farming season.
Unfortunately, Christianity eroded this tradition, but Arondizuogu people are the only Igbo community who still practice the original tenets of yam offering to Njoku, till today. That’s why they call their new yam festival Ike-Ji Arondizuogu.
Verse 11: “then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household…”
After the priests have offered the new yam to Njoku, each of the 21 market villages can now eat the new yam on their individual market days. And that is when the merriments start. Friends and extended family members from neighbouring communities are invited for the festivity that follows.
Note: Igbo people are not idol worshippers. We believe in one God which we call CHI-UKWU (the higher God). Njoku and its likes are go-between Igbo people and CHI-UKWU. Theirs is not different from other religions that have go-between them and their God.
For example, Judaism has Moses. Christianity has Jesus. Islam has Mohammed. Buddhism has Buddha, etc.
In addition, Igbo people are highly respectful and fearful of CHI-UKWU that they have different deities to intercede on their behalf. I must highlight this to disabuse any mind that will think otherwise.
Anyway, that is what new yam festival is about, offering first-fruits to NJOKU as described in Deuteronomy 26.