Prince Benjamin Apugo – ready for the day’s event
It was an impressive outing. Thursday, August 25, 2022, will remain an outstanding day for the people of Ibekuland in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State.
It was the day the people – children, young and old – celebrated this year’s new yam festival in a grand and joyful mood.
The time was 9.00 am. Several hundreds of people – especially the youths, including young girls – dressed in traditional Igbo attire – danced excitedly along the major streets of Umuahia Ibeku, the capital of Abia state.
Indeed, the people came out in their large numbers to pursue as it were a common purpose. And that was to say good bye to the famine season, and to welcome the beginning of abundant food supply symbolised by the harvest and eating of yam – famed as the king of crops in Ibeku kingdom – and indeed all communities in Igboland.
Prince Benjamin B. Apugo (Ochiagha Ibeku), the custodian of Ibeku custom and tradition, explained why the youths turned out in their large numbers to celebrate this year’s new yam festival which hitherto had not been the case.
According to him, the youths currently know their roots, explaining that they now know who-is-who in Ibekuland, and have accordingly turned out en masse to identify themselves with the culture and tradition of the people.
He expressed satisfaction over the large turn out of youths at this year’s celebration, especially their peaceful conduct, adding that he will continue to do all that is necessary to ensure that Ibeku new yam celebration continues to be a cynosure of all eyes.
Early in the morning an unusually large crowd made up of youths and elders of the land had gathered at the legendary ‘Egwu Ibeku’ located at Umuajiji Isieke Ibeku to await the arrival of Prince Apugo who usually performs some traditional rites to kick start the celebration of the new yam festival.
The ‘Egwu Ibeku’ had for several years remained an important site for Ibeku people. Besides housing the shrines of all Ibeku people, it serves as a place where all major issues concerning Ibeku people are discussed, and decisions taken.
Beyond that, ‘Egwu Ibeku’ serves as the venue for the celebration of the yearly new yam festival. The site is also said to be the final burial place of the founder of Ibekuland, late Mr. Ibeku.
And as scores of people trooped into the newly refurbished ‘Egwu Ibeku’, the locally made guns known as ‘kurutu’ boomed – sending the mammoth crowd into a state of ecstasy.
A villager who spoke to newsmen said the guns were fired “to announce the arrival of the custodian of Ibeku custom and tradition, Prince Benjamin B. Apugo to ‘Egwu Ibeku.”
According to him, he (Prince Apugo) comes to the site early in the morning of every ‘Iri ji’ day to perform various traditional rites after which the people can begin to cook and eat the new yam.
It was gathered that the performance of the traditional rites by Prince Apugo, precedes the cooking and eating of the yam, and that any Ibeku man or woman who does otherwise would be sanctioned.
“The performance of these traditional rites is an inheritance,” says Prince Apugo, adding that “when I am no longer there, the rites will be performed by any of my children, or any member of my family.
“No matter how rich you are, you cannot come to ‘Egwu Ibeku; to perform the rites to herald the new yam festival. This responsibility is reserved for only the descendants of Ibeku land.’
The traditional rites include beating of the ‘Ikoro’- a wooden instrument used in Igboland to summon the entire community in periods of emergency; breaking of kolanut, and pouring of libation to the gods for keeping the people alive to witness the celebration of another new yam festival, and for having given them a bountiful harvest.
Many festivals exist in Ibeku ancestral kingdom, but ‘Iri ji’ (new yam festival) is the most prominent probably due to the importance attached to yam.
According to the authors of ‘Ibeku in Igbo History,’ “whenever the Ibeku people celebrate their new yam festival, people publicise the event by announcing Igbo ‘Eriele ji’, meaning that the Igbo people have performed the rituals of new yam.
“The deduction from this is that the rituals performed by the Ibeku people for the ‘Iri ji’ festival is on behalf of themselves and other Igbo people.
“The indication is that this is a carry-over from the days of Ibeku kingdom when the Ibeku people were in control of much of Igboland. It is also an indication that the Ibeku are among the early settlers of Igboland.
“The land occupied by Umuahia-Ibeku Township was an Ibeku farmland known as Alaocha-Ibeku. It was farmed by the people of Ndume, Afara, Ugba na Nkata, Ossah, Emede and Amuzu.
“Yam ‘ji’ is regarded as the king of all farm crops – a man’s crop, not only in Ibeku ancestral kingdom, but also throughout Igbo land. It is accorded a respect amounting to adulation.
“Apart from demonstrating his prowess in war, an Ibeku man was not fully recognized by people until he married a wife or wives, built his own home and acquired a large yam barn where he tied rows and rows of yams which he proudly exhibited and advertised to his visitors.”
Prince Apugo, who is a member of the Board of Trustees (BoT) and National Caucus of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), maintained that yam is venerated in Ibekuland, and indeed all communities in Igboland because ‘it is is the king of all farm crops.’
He had earlier urged the people of Ibekuland through a radio announcement to celebrate this year’s new yam festival devoid of the traditional bearing of cutlasses and weird dancing on major streets of Umuahia, the state capital.
As the singing and dancing progressed, several Ibeku women busied themselves cooking yam in one part of the building housing ‘Egwu Ibeku.’
“There is much to eat and drink,” said one Ibeku woman,” who spoke with journalists.
Indeed, the eating and drinking lasted till the following day in many homes and families in Ibekuland.