Dr. Obiora Okonkwo recently hosted his annual New Yam ceremony in Ogidi, Anambra State. The event attracted prominent personalities within and outside the country. Iyobosa Uwugiaren who witnessed it presents an account of the pleasurable ceremony
The characteristics of the Ogidi people, which cover their language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts, hugely resonated recently in Ogidi Village, Anambra State, the home of Professor Chinua Achebe, the late Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic. It is the Ogidi’s culture of celebrating the “New Yam.”
Hosted by Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, a politician and culture enthusiast, in Ire Ogidi, the event pooled the “who is who”, especially from Anambra State.
A holder of two traditional titles: the Dikeora of Ogidi and the Ugegbe Igbo, Okonkwo chose Saturday, September 16, to revel the “New Yam” with his friends some of whom came from faraway Germany, South Africa, Burkina Faso and other parts of the country. His kinsmen were also on hand to join him to cut the roasted yam, which was eaten with a well prepared local sauce laced with natural herbs.
The colourful, entertaining and pleasurable ceremony began with a Catholic Mass celebrated at a Chapel situated at the expansive and roomy compound of Okonkwo. Twenty-three Reverend Fathers/Sisters, friends and family members joined at the Mass. Together they dedicated the celebration to God Almighty and thanked Him for a very successful planting season, which output they described as plentiful.
The home kitchen opened as early as 5a.m. with a pack of cooks dishing out their different kinds of foods to all and sundry, who had come around to help fix the grounds for the day.
Okonkwo’s ceremony started the previous night with what looked like a night of eulogies. Many of his friends and associates gathered to pour encomiums on the Dikeora for sustaining the “Iwa Ji”, the traditional ceremony, which has become an annual event, hosted solely by him..
The night, which lasted into the early hours of the morning, was made cool with traditional Ogene music, which blared from a music system in the background. But on the day of the event proper, Saturday, the atmosphere changed. Dignitaries appeared in their traditional regalia. Chiefs, Nze, Ozo and other title holders appeared as demanded by culture. Everyone was welcomed by a mountain of yams that had been brought in for consumption.
The ceremony formally kicked off at about 1p.m. after a church service conducted by dozens of Catholic priests. Different cultural music groups numbering over 20 and clad in special attires took the centre stage. First, there was a competition staged for the Ogene music groups from different states in the South-east geo-political zone.
A Catholic priest, Rev. Father Okonkwo accompanied by other clerics took to the floor, dancing to a cultural rendition by different Ogene troops. That prepared the ground for the welcoming to the stage of the chief host, Okonkwo. A special group peopled by men and women, mainly from Ogidi Village ushered him into the arena with a traditional music beat. He danced round the compound, waving a traditional hand fan to the huge guests.
While he had a hand fan in his right hand, he gripped a traditional staff on his left hand. Interestingly, a Catholic priest conducted the oratory speech-making, eulogising and evoking emotions. After more than 40 minutes dance round the spacious compound to the admiration of the crowd, he took his seat.
Okonkwo sat alongside notable leaders of Ire Ogidi, including the traditional ruler, popularly known as the Owelle of Ogidi. Okonkwo described the “Iwa Ji” as an important event that shows the richness of the Igbo culture.
According to him, culture is crucial to the growth of the society, cautioning against taking to idol worshipping or anything that inhibits progress.
As he broke the Kolanut, there was a resounding shout of Dikeora! Dikeora! Dikeora! his traditional title by the huge crowd. His facial scrub mien showed he was ecstatic by the applause. Apparently delighted by the welcoming atmosphere, he went ahead to perform the Iwa Ji. Again there was huge ovation by the appreciative crowd.
This marked off the proper beginning of the event. Masquerades of diverse sizes and makeup took over the stage. There was an elephant masquerade as well as the one locals call ‘Obodo Dike’. Each tried to out-perform the other. The crowd gave a standing ovation and applauded those considered to be exceptional.
The treatment was handed to the cultural dancing troupe that followed. The dancing groups were not from only Ogidi; they came from five other states especially the South-east states. Each canopy had something to watch and comment on; there were those whose business was to blare the local flute, while others especially two women busied themselves with solo renditions. As these were going on, shots from cannon gun were let out intermittently.
The arrival of prominent individuals like, former ministers, Prof. ABC Nwosu and Mrs. Josephine Anenih; former governor of Anambra State, Chief Peter Obi and others further swelled the event. The crowd shouted approval, as they stroll to the canopy that housed Okonkwo, the traditional holder of Owelle Ogidi.
The event lasted till night. Okonkwo promised to sustain the event, as it promotes the cultural values of the Ndi Igbo.
Talking about where he derives the inspiration for the annual event, the chief celebrant said, “As far as I’m concerned, all positive inspirations come from God. Just looking for what is good, what will excite people, the whole nation is so moody.
“South-east is so downtrodden and it’s always in my mind, what is it that we will do to give hope, even if it is for one second, to bring joy? I believe in the saying that ‘any joy that you bring to somebody’s face, mind, heart, soul for one second, even if it is just to say hello that will bring about a smile, is worth a whole lot to some people who may never have had excitement’.
“So, I think what is always in my mind is what do we do to make people happy? Don’t forget that I’m also in the business of hospitality. It’s all about service and in this whole environment, one way or the other; you just do what will fit into this particular nature of the environment,’” he explained.
Talking more about the culture within the context of Ogidi as a community, Okonkwo added that Anambra is the heartland of Igbo land, adding that Ogidi is one of the elite towns of Igbo land, and by extension, also victims of the cultural decay because they are all embracing metropolitan status.
“So, doing this is part of the way of doing practical things to bring about cultural renewal. I still singly believe that part of our problems today in our society, whether it’s in Ogidi, in Nigeria, solutions can be gotten from the cultural leaning,” he added.
“Our cultural values, our traditional values are impeccable. The ones I know about, the ones I grew up with, all the things that I knew as a child within our own traditional setting that you must not do that it is abomination; that it makes you look bad before people, those things are practically all the 10 commandments of Moses.
“It was very strictly implemented those years when we were growing up. You know it, you have to respect it and the society at large must have to observe it.”
Okonkwo’s junior brother, Catholic Rev. Father Okonkwo is at home with the culture of Ogidi community. At the event he danced excitedly to Ogene music, putting on traditional dress.
He talked about the link between Christianity and culture: “As an individual, I think I’m a great promoter of my tradition, my culture, my custom, not only practically but also theoretically.
“By that, I mean I did a profound research, that is my Masters and PhD research in Theology and Religious Studies in Belgium and my point of departure is to see the transformative potentialities of religions, with particular reference to African traditional religion and Christianity.
“Intrinsically, African culture is not devilish. It is not in itself bad. But for a very long time, African culture was kind of demonised and given all kinds of names, perhaps more because our own history as West Africans have been told severally by people who are not Africans. But the normal thing in today’s experience, the owner of a particular story is the best person to tell his or her story,” he pointed out.
An ordained priest of the Catholic Church and Priest of the Catholic for about 23 years, Rev. Father Okonkwo is also a traditional chieftaincy title holder in Ogidi. He was given the title of Ezeudo – an advocate of peace, king of peace in his tradition. “Today being a great day, I try to get actively involved in what was done today. For instance, I invited my Ogene group. I have my Ogene group that took the second position. I introduced the Ogene dancing group in my place of work. I formed it,” the man of God added.
He said he took active part in what happened at the New Yam celebration against the background of understanding that the festival as an occasion to give thanks to God for what he has done for his people, when they go into the farmland to cultivate and at the end of it they come out with fruits of the land.
“But by extension, I see it as a holistic opportunity to thank God, not just for farmers. There are some who don’t have the opportunity due to the nature of their work to take part in cultivating the land like civil servants; but wherever one is working, that may be considered to be the person’s farmland and whatever comes from it is harvest of the land.”
He advised the people not to equate culture celebration with paganism because according to him, one may not say that it is outrightly paganism.