The development process for a nation should be total: it should embrace the growth and progress of that nation for physical, moral, intellectual, cultural, political and economic well-being of all its citizens. In this process of development, cultural festivals therefore have a significant role to play. From time immemorial, they have served as means of bringing together periodically a group of people with a common sense of identity, religion and history. They are marked by the public observance of the sacred and significant events that give meaning and cohesiveness to that society. Such events provide on a recurring basis seasons or days of gaiety and merry-making expressed in communal feasting, dancing, drumming, singing etc by the community as a whole. The rites of passage which mark the significant stages in the life of individual or community are very important and provide an opportunity for such cultural festival. Among the ‘Ndi eni asaa’ who are to be found in Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State the Ikeji festival (pre-farming festival), constitutes one of such festival. These seven towns that make up the Ndi eni asaa are bonded by same Aro ancestory they include: Ajalli, Ndi Okpareke, Ndi Okpalaeze, Ndi Okolo, Ndi owu, Ndikelionwu and Okpeze.
The antecedents of this festival (pre-farming festival) are not peculiar to the Ndi eni asaa, being Aro communities in the area alone they are observed by other Aro communities that are spread across more than 11 states in Nigeria and in Diaspora. Every member of the community sends a representative to the association of Ndi Eni asaa meeting. In one of such meeting the commencement date for Ikeji festival is announced. It is normally an eight day event that each community must start and end within eight days of the 14 days. Communities are independent on what date to start off their own Ikeji within the 14 days. Modern religion and civilization have modified Ikeji to suit culture and tradition suggesting that the festival has turned to strong tourist’s hot spot for adventurers and fun seekers. In the pre-colonial days, the various stages of the Ikeji festival were clear-cut and each stage has significance for the development of the community and the individuals, with in it.
The first stage is the ‘Iku Ikoro’. The Ikoro in all Igbo communities is universally accepted instrument for passing coded information and announcement. Ikoro is a giant size wooden gung. It will be sounded by designated experts heralding the beginning of the festival always at the eve of the festival and jubilation will be in the atmosphere. Women prepare dinner, serve their families and with their daughter’s and all young male children go to bed early. The Ikoro will sound repeatedly in quick secession till the twin light. The second stage is the ‘Ogiri Abani’ (night of the men). As soon as the Ikoro goes silent that same night all qualified male adult and adolescence will take to the street chanting songs and masquerading till dawn. Qualification to be part of this night activity as a male is completion of certain rites with initiation into the male folk to share in the secrecy of masquerading in that Aro community. Non Aro male visitors or even those that domicile in the community no matter their age are not permitted to join in the Ogiri Abani activities in search of new masquerade for the Ikeji festival unless such a male has completed same rites. It is however worthy of note here that modern religion and civilization has influenced Ogiri abani in so many ways especially in such Aro communities as Ajalli, a highly cosmopolitan town, but it is still observed even in Ajalli.
The third and all important stage is the, Ichu aja Ikeji. Ikeji being a pre farming festival is a ceremony done to pay obeisance to the gods and deities that provides increase for ones effort to be productive. Every family head or leader, aka kpa ofo, is expected to perform this rites first thing in the early hours of the first day of the festival. Materials that are common to all in performing this ritual are, oji, mmanya, Nzu, Edo with any livestock that will be slaughtered and the blood sprinkled on the ground with the mmanya for libation amidst prayers for good farming season and increase. Then members of the family and visitors join in eating the kolanut while they await to eat the livestock which can be roasted or cooked. Although some chief priests of certain deities in some communities take more delight in Ichu aja ikeji. They go extra mile in doing it with divination, incantations and merry making to the delight of many.
The fourth stage is the display of new masquerades (Mmonwu Ohuru) from about 9:00am till about 1:00pm on the first day of the festival, only the new masquerades are permitted to display on the street on this first day and go back by noon.
The fifth stage is the three days no masquerade show. After the display of the new masquerades the previous night, Ogiri, Abani, will entertain and go, no masquerade is expected to come out for the next three days. This is to give the women and girl children the opportunity to go to the stream and forest to fetch water and firewood enough for the household for the next four days that they are expected to be indoors. A visitor to the community within these three days will be disappointed because not much will seem to be happening in the area of entertainment. However, civilization is fast catching up with this stage of the festival as obedience is now being compromised by the communities making some to now go on masquerading from day one to the last day of the festival.
The sixth stage is the four days of full masquerading. These four days marks the peak of the Ikeji festival. It is very colourful, energetic and entertaining. All forms of masquerades, singers and dancers entertain. No gain saying that these four days are the best days for visitors with lots to eat and drink.
The seventh stage is the last stage of the festival, ntiko mmonwu. This is a must watch for any visitor, on the previous days days, the masquerades and entertainers move from place to place while the visitors watch from a location; either bar or restaurant, but on this last day, all masquerade and entertainers come to perform for the audience to cheer them at the village square. The custodians of culture and tradition of the people award prizes to best performing masquerades and dance groups after the day’s event. All masquerades invited from neighbouring communities go home with livestocks to take home. The event usually comes to an end by 6.00pm.
Every stage of this festival and all aspects of it therefore stimulated the development of the ndi eni asaa communities in the past. As a result of the historical experiences these communities were subjected to, particularly during the colonial era which witnessed the introduction of new cultural traits with Christianity as well as western education, the Ikeji festival had undergone many charges.
It is therefore appropriate to consider what contribution the Ikeji festival still has to make to development in these modern times. A quick observation of the present enactment of the festival however show that it still has relevance for the development of the ndi eni asaa communities, the Igbo race and Nigeria nation in general.
In spite of the changes to which it has been subjected, the salient features of the festival have been retained and the underlying principle guiding each stage of the festival has survived. The festival should therefore be encouraged in our changing society which is exposed to external influences that are often not conducive to proper and beneficial growth. The roles of the elders as the repository of our traditional culture and bastion inroads is emphasized in the ‘ichu aja rituals a worthy bequest from generation past to the yet unborn, entrenches the consciousness of an unseen greater being or force that is controlling the affairs of man here on earth, this consciousness is absolutely necessary for a would be moral upright person.
The festival also affords members of the larger family in the communities of ndi eni asaa an opportunity to be reminded of their common ancestry. Thus, the cohesion of the communities are maintained and the value of extended family in providing a support system that could cut across communities in our society, that is fast becoming increasingly individualistic is underlined. Such a system provides succor against the isolation and loneliness of urban life.
With the festival being a pre farming ceremony coupled with the emphasis on agriculture, the event can be used to stimulate youth’s interest in farming and food production. The festival has so many interesting aspects to it masquerade, music, dance, poetry, visual arts etc which can easily become a major tourist attraction in this part of the country. Tourism is an important industry in national development. By attracting people to this area, it will increase the earning power of inhabitants and provide greater employment opportunities. There are many spin – offs from the presence of tourists, hotels and restaurants will be busy and new ones built; roads will be repaired and comfortable transportation provided. The basic infrastructure of potable water, electricity, hospitals, will be made provided. An industry that specializes in the making of souvenirs like stickers, vests, ornaments, decorations can be established. The festival could thus become a good foreign exchange earner for the country.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Ikeji festival has a great potential as an instrument for national development especially at this period of continuous search for alternative income as replacement for oil. For the individual in the community, in the present disintegrating socio-cultural environment, it has great political and educational implication, it can help the individual to learn about the traditions of his society and to understand his duties and privilege; it also has a sociological function in helping to transit the culture of the society to its individual members. Psychologically it is a useful way of moulding young men in accordance with the rules of the community, and in directing their personality along lines which the community considers good. By socializing and developing an individual member, the whole society is socialized and developed.
But for the regular re-enactment of the festival to be beneficial in these ways, there is need for more study. Extensive field work will be necessary to collect information about the different facets of the festival. The dances, songs and music must be recorded, transcribed, translated, if necessary, and analyzed for posterity more so now that the culture, tradition and Igbo language faces possible extinction.
For purposes of tourism, the dates of the festival must be fixed well ahead of the time of its commencement and the various stages of the rites would have to be structured in such a way that all the major players are well briefed about their roles, with time and locations accessible to visitors. The communities must be galvanized into action to receive the influx of people by provision of decent accommodation and local delicacies in restaurants. Indeed, a committee can be set up for promoting, popularizing and modernizing the festival, but it should not affect its underlying principle; it should make the festival an instrument for national development; indeed with some modifications, the Ikeji festival can serve as a model for other communities on how to package a traditional festival to advantage in our modern setting.
Watch out for the next edition Aro News, a special edition that will have extensive reportage of the 2016 Ikeji festival in the ‘ndi eni asaa’ communities We enjoin you to subscribe to this journal as a true Aro or good friend of the Aro. We also promise that hence forth subsequent publication will include more news on the Aro in this axis.
Ndi eni asaa; mma mma nuoo; ndewoo.
By Uche Louis Iroha-Okereke