Owuwaji: The Festival of the First Yams in Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria

The Owuwaji festival traditionally referred to as Ifejiokuis the time set aside by the Onitsha community to celebrate abundant crops and declare the new yams edible. Ji (yam), the tuber of a tropical vine (Dioscoreabatatas) is, a staple food in Africa that is often stored in barns that keep the staple crop off the ground thereby protecting the tubers from attack by insects and fungal rot. There was a time in Onitsha when a man’s wealth was measured by his barn of yams – abundant yields. More barns equal wealth. This means that the yams a man has harvested for the season would suffice for his family through that harvesting season to the next harvesting season.

During the Ifejioku ceremonies the indigenes chant prayers to their ancestors and seek good rains that will ensure abundant crops in the future. In times of drought, their prayers are more fervent than ever. Held variously by different villages at certain intervals, this festival culminates in the Obi’s special Owuwaji ceremony. These ceremonies are accompanied by the roasting of yams and the performing of certain rituals by ozo-titled men and ndi Diopka (heads of families) considered the custodians of the culture.

Then, this is followed by feasting and traditional colourful dancing as some associations of men and women dressed in traditional attire, often display their new traditional dance. Family and friends gather together feasting, expressing gratitude to God and making memories. Titled elders pay homage to our ancestors, and there is abundance of everything, from food, drinks to laughter. Okuku (Chicken) and especially ewu (goat) are at the centre of these ceremonies and they make for delicious soups such as ofensala (pepper soup) that goes with nniji (yam fufu). There is a specially prepared yam made with a very special green vegetable, known as, Nne di. These can be washed down with mmanyankwu (palm wine). People make merry! One is often nostalgic for these occasions especially watching ulaganaotuiche (masquerade).

Similar to this festival is what Americans call, “Thanksgiving” (being grateful). Thanksgiving is a time to count one’s blessings and be grateful. In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving official United States holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. It adds a little something extra to the moment because of the feasting – gathering with loved ones over good food, drinks and laughter…

For Americans, Tolotolo (Turkey) is always at the centre of the Thanksgiving ceremony both, as a seasonal symbol and the main course of the holiday. People, businesses and organizations collect extra turkeys (and any donations) that people drop off at designated sights, to give to the needy – celebrating with communities. This way, they try to make a difference in people’s lives.

The celebration begins the fast paced holiday season as people fall into the pressure of Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving). This means getting to bed in time to wake up early for Black Friday so as to find some nice deals. It is always a wonderful day filled with family time, lots of visitors (family and friends), football (American), food shopping and preparation, and cleaning up after. However, like the Owuwaji ceremonies, the Thanksgiving dinner menu is a tradition most families do not stray from. Preparing it can also be stressful and expensive, therefore, Thanksgiving dinner hosts often face a daunting task.

In a season that’s already busy enough, hosts must find time to prepare a delicious meal for friends and family. Whether it is a big guest list or a smaller affair, the pressure to provide a memorable holiday meal can prove overwhelming at times. One way that some people ensure that everyone has a good Turkey Day, especially the host, is to write out the menu – write out exactly what will be served.

Being a communal society, relatives, friends and neighbours often help out with preparing the Owuwaji feast in Onitsha. Yes, one should be mindful of his/her many blessings throughout the entire year. Like Thanksgiving in the Unites States, the Owuwaji ceremonies are occasions filled with joy as family and friends celebrate reflect on the past year’s blessings and look forward to the promises that lie ahead in the next year. In all, Thanksgiving is about being thankful, truly thankful as people reflect on how good they have it. Indeed, Uwabuolili (life is a banquet)! Obviously, some things elude millions including, for example, excellent health. Are we grateful for simple things starting from:

  • FOOD – The aroma oozing from the kitchen (the warm food being prepared) or warm cup of coffee or tea – that’s a blessing!
  • SHELTER – A roof over our heads – that’s a blessing!
  • SIGHT – our eyes being open once the day lights come on or, at the sound of the morning alarm clock or, beautiful music (Ogbotobo, Mazeli…) – that’s a blessing!
  • The warm or cold water coming from the faucet – that’s a blessing!
  • An amazing LOVE – the presence and love of family and friends – that’s a blessing!
  • But most of all, LIFE – celebrating the gift of grace which allows us to continue living our dreams – that’s a blessing!

© Chineze J. Onyejekwe, PhD

   Women’s and Gender Studies

   Northern Arizona University (NAU)

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