The Ikeji is the yam festival celebrated to mark the end of an old year. The Aro celebrate Ikeji in the month that coincides with the Gregorian month of September, although in some years the celebration time-table spills over into early October. The end of Ikeji does not necessarily mark the beginning of another farming season, as it opens a harvesting interlude that leads into harmattan and months of dry season when no one farms but yams and coca-yams lie in the barn, a period generally referred to in Aro as onwa ato Aro (the three months of Aro).
Several events are associated with the Ikeji Festival just as Ikeji signifies a number of things:
1. The word, “Ikeji” means harvesting of yam, which is a significant food crop among the Igbo. Hence, Ikeji marks the end of one farming season;
2. It also marks the end of the year. That is why it is characterized by general merry-making by people and sacrifices to Chukwu (God) for surviving the past year and prayers that they may be kept alive throughout the New Year;
3. Exchange of gifts between friends and families as an extension of the spirit of conviviality generated by (2) above;
4. Pilgrimage is made to the Aro homeland by the Aro in the diaspora serving as re-union between the two. In the past, this re-union served as an opportunity for reviewing the conditions of Aro in the Diasporas and for re-examining the strength of Aro influence and authority in the various Aro settlements;
5. The Ikeji season afforded the Aro an opportunity for planning strategies for the continued growth and development of the Aro both at home and in the Diaspora;
6. It was a season for family re-union and settlement of family feuds;
7. Authorization for the eating of the New Yam given by the Eze Aro. Until the Eze Aro makes the appropriate proclamation, New Yam is not eaten by the Aro nation;
8. Marriages are solemnized during Ikeji on a massive scale. Damsels are groomed for marriage in fattening rooms and let out on Eke Ekpe Day to dance at Amaikpe, the Aro celebration arena, from where they return to their parents homes and later join the bridegrooms after Ola Mgbede (anklets) have been removed;
9. It was a season for hunting for a live leopard for the Chukwu if it was a year designated for that special hunting expedition. This was known as ‘Ichu nta agu’, (hunting for the leopard). After the leopard had been caught, the Aros went before Chukwu to seek blessing for the coming year; time has however, overtaken this event as leopards are nowhere to be seen anymore;
10. Ikeji was an occasion for trooping the colors. A display of masquerades is held. The various Aro settlements send in their dances and masquerades to perform in this most colourful carnival at the Amaikpe ceremonial arena. These include Ojukwu from Abakaliki and Uburu; Odo from Amasiri and Uburu; Omaba from Uburu and Nsukka, Ohaozara, Nkalagu settlements; Ekeleke (but called Obiankpo at Arochukwu) from Oguta and Mgbidi; Eru or Obam, Ekpo and Ekpe from the Cross River; Mmanwu from Aro Ndizuogu; Aba from Bende.
The Ikeji Cycle:
DAY ONE (1) AFOR OKPO NA-ZA AWADA
Ikeji commences on Afor Osu day of the Ututu. On that day, members of the Otusi (clan) of Amata sweep the Awada (ancestral temple) of Akuma Nna Ubi at Ugwuakuma village.
DAY TWO (2) AFOR ARO NA-ZA AWADA
Members of the Otusi (clan) of the Amaja sweep the Awada of Okennachi at Oror village. Other Otusis present are Okennachi, Eze Agwu, Bianko, Umu Nna Okwara Agwu. Only the Amadi (Aristocracy) of Aro witness the occasion. The attendants came wearing bells on their waist and carrying gongs, both instruments producing resonant sounds.
DAY THREE (3) AFOR NDULASA NWAEKPE
Nwa Ekpe literally ‘the child of Ekpe’ (different from the secret cult Ékpé) but in fact a symbolic representation of the royal ancestors is led home. All nine Otusis (clans) in Aro go to Ugwuakuma village in different processions to offer sacrifice, people wearing bells around their waists while carrying gongs on hand. The ceremony ends at night and people return singing joyfully. On their return from Ugwuakuma, the talking drums (uvie) are brought down from where they had been left hanging since after the last Ikeji celebrations, rolled out and played. The uvie sounds only in the compounds of the most outstanding men of each village. The uvie is not usually brought down in a compound that is not ready with the relevant sacrificial materials. The sounding of the uvie is indicative that the Ikeji celebration has gone into full gear.
DAY FOUR (4) NKWO NKU
Nkwo Nku is the day following the Afor on which Nwa Ekpe was led home. It is a day on which women are expected to fetch firewood for their husband’s mother, their mistresses or close friends. The wood is meant for cooking while the Ikeji season lasts. It is indeed a friendly gesture of love and respect for elders.
DAY FIVE (5) EKE AGBA UDU
On this day, the Amadi (Aristocracy) of Amuze section of the Aro kingdom offer sacrifice, Ibom Isii do not. The day is marked with unrestricted festivities. The Amadi moved around and are feted wherever they entered.
DAY SIX (6) ORIE AWA
Fodder is obtained for the feeding of goats etc, while more firewood is fetched. Compounds and village squares are cleaned up to welcome Aros from the Diaspora.
DAY SEVEN (7) AFOR AWA
By this day, all Aro coming from abroad were expected to have arrived Aro. Cleaning up activities are rounded up. Everyone is in full holiday mood – men, women and children look spick-and-span. People were not expected to go to work (say the farm). Women spent time in body painting (ide uri and ide – nkasi ani) which were traditional indigo cosmetic designing on the body, which is kept bare for the cosmetic designs to be seen and admired. Similarly, coral beads and cowries are worn to match. Today however, times have changed as women now prefer to put on beautiful clothing and some of these old traditional outfits are reserved for mgbede brides.
DAY EIGHT (8) NKWO NZUKORO
On this day, Aros are expected to do the last marketing for the season. Although Ikeji is a yam festival, the eating of rice (eresi) has been introduced in recent times on this day which on this account is also known as Nkwo Eresi. The day also marks the end of the year, as activities at midnight are largely a replica of what Christians now do on 31st December as they send – off an old year and usher in the New Year. After dinner, a vigil is kept and at midnight, there are spontaneous shouts of afo lao, afo lao (goodbye old year, goodbye old year), lighted and smoking firebrands are run long distances to the backyard, waved above the head and thrown headlong along gutters, behind compounds to drive away the evils of the passing year. The merry-making is usually crowned with the Obon society dances by initiated male members who take over control of the compound village squares that night, to the exclusion of women and uninitiated children and men. At the end of Nkwo Nzukoro, the Aro main market, Ncheghe, and the Eke Ukwu market, go into recess.
DAY NINE (9) EKE ODU
On this day, the Ututu people bring yams for the Aro to buy. The Aro eat new yam on this day. All marketing is concentrated at Ama Ikpe in Obinkita village for, as we observed earlier, after Nkwo Nzukoro, the Ncheghe and Eke Ukwu markets go into recess.
DAY TEN (10) ORIE EGBUGBU
Early in the morning of this day, a succulent plant known as OKPOTO is placed at the entrance of each onu nkpu (compound). The most elderly Amadi of the compound offers a sacrifice before the arrival of dawn. Thereafter, about 7.00 a.m., every family offer sacrifice to its ancestors at the family ulo nta, literally small house but an ancestral assembly hall where the family staff of office is reposed. Chicken and cows are sacrificed. Compounds that could afford it hired the Ututu to play Okon and Igeri music into the bargain. People are expected to tether their domestic animals to prevent them (especially goats and dogs) from tasting the ofor left at the ulo nta. Any animal found tasting the ofor would be killed instantly. In the evening, families begin to cook an Ikeji delicacy called osu. This delicacy is only prepared by women of proven purity and decency in manners and behaviour although their aboriginal status carry more weight. The end of the cooking is heralded with gun shots, each gunshot representing each goat used for the meal.
DAY ELEVEN (11) AFOR OSU
The osu meal prepared the previous day is now presented to friends and well-wishers on the Afor osu morning by women. Visitors are also entertained with the delicacy. Members of each family are summoned to the osu meal by the exclamation AFOR OSU OKO-O! The word Okoo is an exclamation used by the Aro to signal an emergency.
DAY TWELVE (12) NKWO IBOM-ISII
On this day, Ikeji activities are centred in and around the Ibom village as the day’s activities purely concern Ibom-Isii. Other Aros attend as Ibom Isii guests. Plays and wrestling matches are on and attract the attention and witnessing of people from other villages of Aro; people demonstrate their skills in dancing and arts in contest mood, singly as well as in group (collective) display of power. Girls show their beauty in true or high quality maidenhood, while women dress and dance to suit the taste and style of their villages as they move and pass in waves of merriment before the Eze Aro and his cabinet sitting in majestic appraisal in Ibom square.
DAY THIRTEEN (13) EKE EKPE AROCHUKWU
This is the climax of the Ikeji Festival when the Aro at home and in the Diaspora put on their best attire, assemble in the ceremonial arena at Amaikpe in their separate groups, with dances and masquerades, to make merry and celebrate with fanfare, pomp and pageantry. Girls who have gone through puberty rituals in preparation for marriage are let out on this day to dance in the arena, from where they are taken to join the bridegrooms. At about 6:00 p.m, people begin to disperse from the arena, and at nightfall, quiet replaces the fanfare and noise that characterised the day.
DAY FOURTEEN (14) ORIE UBI LEE AVO
On this day, the ofor (family ancestral staff of office) which was brought down on Orie Egbugbu in the ulo nta is returned to its usual place of repose.
DAY FIFTEEN (15) AFOR NDULA NWA-EKPE
The Nwa Ekpe is ‘led back’ by the Amadi to Awada Akuma Nna Ubi (ancestral temple of Akuna Nna Ubi) at Ugwuakuma village.
DAY SIXTEEN (16) NKWO NWUPU MMAI IBOM ISII
The Amadi of Amuze and Ibom Isii assemble at the house of Eze Ibom Isii (Head of Ibom Isii Section of the Aro Kingdom) for drinking and further sacrifice. Libation is poured in all the ulo nta in Ibom Isii. This day is also known as Nkwo Nzupu Avia (Nkwo market day) when the Ncheghe market that went into recess on Eke Odu (Day 9) is re-opened for business.
DAY SEVENTEEN (17) EKE NWUPU MMAI NA AMUZE
The Amadi of Ibom Isii meet those of Amuze and jointly move into the palace of the Eze Aro at Oror village for the final drinking; libation is poured in all ulo nta in Amuze. This ceremony bring the Ikeji Festival to a close.
Note: – This story was culled from a new work “Ikeji Festival of the Aro of South Easthern Nigeria”, by Mazi E.A.C. Orji of Aro Orji, Uratta, Owerri.