The Ikatpang Women’s Association brought a lot of colour to the festival.

There was fun in Ogoja during the recent New Yam Festival, with fun and good cheer on display all through the event.

This is a festival in honour of yam, the King of crops, and no other crop but this one is eaten on that day in the community. “Yam is the main meal eaten on the occasion,” one respondent exclaims in answer to a question on the preferred diet.

An array of soups and sauces are prepared to accompany the meal of yams, which may take the form of boiled yams, roast or pounded yam. The cooks of Ogoja are kept very busy at this time, and they make a good job of the culinary task before them. It is also a moment for a great annual homecoming. Every road leads to Ogoja sometime around mid September every year, conveying a constant stream of happy returnees to the town. All sons and daughters return to engage in merriment and to catch some fun, as well as to do some form of stocktaking with their kith and kin.

There are conscious efforts to use the festive moment to reconcile groups in the community, Daily Trust is told. The spirit of good cheer and camaraderie in Ogoja is infectious. On the festivals eve, at the close of a football match, supporters of the winning side ride through the streets performing stunts on their motorcycles to the delight of everyone both young and old. Mallam Hussein, who sells suya was kept busy that evening, as well as throughout the festival. Then there were parties that lasted through the night.

On the festival day proper, when the rain fell for some 40 minutes at the Ishibori playground, the well dressed singing women continued to dance, and the rain eventually reduced to a friendly shower. It was as though through song, music and dance, the women made an appeal to the rain to stop, and it did stop, allowing the fun filled event to continue.

Chief Julius Ayim Inyambe says that the festival was in existence long before he was born, and adds that it has been modernized to some extent. On the festival, he says, “In the past we would just sit in our houses quietly to mark the festival. But today, it is marked in the playground. The festival is important because through it we celebrate the first crops which the Almighty has granted us as a sign of a good harvest for the year. By the celebration we thank the Almighty for a good harvest, and the gift of the new yam.”

Chief T. N. Ntaji, President Ishibori Development Council, speaks on the roots of the festival. His words: “This festival originated here, and spread to other parts of Cross River state. Ours is the biggest new yam festival, and it also serves to reawaken our culture.” He says that the people of Ogoja are farmers, and adds that they value yams much more than any other crop.

On other social implications of the festival, Elder Julius Iwong stresses: “We use the festival to reconcile ourselves. All over the Ishibori community, we use this moment for reconciliation and stocktaking. This festival reduces famine. When the yams are planted, life is hard, but during this period a lot of food comes into the community, and so it’s another kind of Christmas.”

Chief J.I.C. Igbe comments on the festival in the following words: “The festival is to appreciate the hard work of farmers, what the farmers have laboured for, and to thank the Almighty for all of us being alive to see the end of the year, and the beginning of another.”

He also provides an interesting insight into the festival. According to him, “The festival keeps changing. In the past it didn’t hold as late as September. Because of changes in the weather, and the fact that the soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so the yield is not the same as before, and so the festival has now shifted from August to September. But after a hard years labour, the farmers need to rejoice. The festival encourages the farmers and it is a kind of honour for them.”

George Nsor Ibembem, Head of the Nkem Ishibori Clan describes the event as, “a thanksgiving to the Almighty for the miracle of a half seed becoming a whole. It is just to give thanks to Him, and also for the people to feast and be happy.”

He says that the festival is also held in honour of Ugbache N/Negri, the god that, “takes care of the whole clan, especially in matters relating to farming and the overall welfare of the community.”

According to him the sacrifice to appease the god is usually offered long before the main festival, and he says that the priest does not appear at the playground on the main festival day itself.

Chief Christopher I. Monkon also sheds light on the festival. His words: “This new yam festival has been in existence from time immemorial. Our community is a farming one, and our main crop is the yam. We celebrate it as the king of crops. It is our main stay, and we inherited the festival from our forefathers.”

Mrs. Ajoro Igogo, who heads the Ikaptang Women’s Association, Ogoja opines thus on the festival: “The festival is significant because our parents suffered to farm various crops. So, the festival is gratitude to our parents for what they have done, as well as gratitude to the Almighty for a good harvest.”

Last Monday, the people of Ogoja trooped out in radiant colours to mark this year’s New Yam Festival. The events of the day began with a Church service at St. Benedict’s Cathedral where the yams were blessed by the officiating priest. In the afternoon events shifted to the Ishibori playground itself, where several canopies had been erected and a crowd had gathered. Members of at least four different age groups were present, and they wore similar attires, especially the women who were easily the largest group present. The festival is an opportunity for the various age groups to come out, sometimes in uniform attire, and to discuss issues of common interest.

There were dancing contests, as well as archery displays, and prizes were given out for various categories, such as the best farmer, the best football team as well as the best age grade. Philip Ujaga emerged as the best farmer, while Agboje Udey came second in the same category. They inform Daily Trust that the soil around Ogoja is very conducive for the cultivation of yams of immense size, and they draw attention to the elephant grass, which in its decayed form, is excellent manure for the cultivation of huge yam tubers.

Two masquerades emerged all of a sudden in the course of the festival. Daily Trust is told that the masquerades come out only during very important occasions or ceremonies. The masquerades are known in the community as Akaptang, which is the name of one of the four villages that make up Ishibori. The masquerades are a pair. One is of a rather dark colour, and the other which carries a sword, is largely red, and represents a female principle. The sober looking masquerade is suggestive of a male principle, and both hint at the revitalizing power of male and female principles or forces in creation. Many old stools, farming implements, cooking utensils, and even an ancient baby’s cot, were on display during the festival, and these were proudly presented by the women. The festival continued late into the night, with much music, dancing and feasting.

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