Prince Apugo (3rd right) flanked by family members
It was another day of venerating the yam, the king of all farm crops – a man’s crop – throughout Igboland. Yes, on August 28, the aged, youths and children of Ibeku ancestral kingdom in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State, sang and danced merrily on the streets of Umuahia, the state capital, to celebrate this year’s New Yam Festival.
Indeed, it was a memorable day for all sons and daughters of Ibekuland, particularly Prince Benjamin Benedict Apugo (Ochiagha Ibeku – Warlord), who is traditionally empowered to announce the date of the New Yam Festival, as well as perform the traditional rites which includes, and not limited to breaking of kolanut, and pouring of libation to herald the festivity, and the physical eating of the new yam.
“It is a taboo for any Ibeku son or daughter to eat the new yam until Prince Apugo, who is also the “Oparaukwu Ibeku” (first son of Ibekuland – by inheritance), performs the traditional rites,” says Ogbonnaya Ikeogu, a resident of the area.
Bende war dancers thrilling the audience
It was against this backdrop that Prince Apugo, accompanied by traditionally attired youths from the area, the legendary Bende War Dance troupe, and masquerades from Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, moved swiftly to ‘Egwu Ibeku’ early in the morning of August 28 to perform all the necessary traditional rites before the day’s event begun with pomp and pageantry.
It was gathered that the ‘Egwu Ibeku’ was originally the residence of late Chief Ibeku, founder of Ibeku ancestral kingdom. During his life time, the residence was said to have served as a place for receiving and entertaining family members and visitors.
And with the passage of time, ‘Egwu Ibeku’ became the meeting place of Ibeku people, as well as the take-off point when going to war, and also the place to show off trophies after a war. It is believed that Chief Ibeku was buried on that same ground.
According to the authors of ‘Ibeku in Igbo History’, “after the turbulent years of warfare and conquests, the Ibeku kingdom was stabilized. There was relative peace, and people settled down to mind their farms.
“Apart from demonstrating his prowess in warfare, 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.”
There is no wonder then that the people of Ibekuland had for several hundreds of years given yam a pride of place through cultivating it in large quantity, and elaborately celebrating it in the month of August every year.
“The yam culture is highly respected by our people, and that’s why you see this large crowd of celebrants here today singing and dancing.
“It is important to point out that the New Yam Festival in Ibekuland, signifies the end of famine season, and the beginning of harvest time,” says one of the celebrants who simply gave his name as Uche.
Interestingly, the celebration of the new yam in Ibekuland is not limited to the residents alone, rather celebrants from the Efik ethnic group in Cross River and Akwa Ibom States usually add colour to the event. And they didn’t miss this year’s New Yam Festival in Ibekuland.
The various masquerades on parade
“Ibekuland is their ancestral home, and they know the truth about their original home. They came to eat the new yam, and they have been coming in the past.
“They are descendants of Umuahia Ibeku,” said Prince Apugo while speaking to SummitNews on why the Efik communities of Cross River and Akwa Ibom States actively participate in Ibeku New Yam Festival.
Indeed, according to the book ‘Ibeku in Igbo History,” the Efik (originally known as Eburutu), left their settlement in Ibekuland near what is today called Afara in Umuahia Ibeku around the year 1305 to their present locations.
“Majority of the Efik went further down to Enyong and Cross River, and reached Mbiabo Edere, while others went to Oku Iboku near Ikoroffiong .
“This group at Oku Iboku, broke again and moved to Esuk, Osu in Ibibioland. The Eburutus, as they were then called had a misunderstanding with the Ibibios who nicknamed them “Efik” or oppressors.
Youths dancing on the streets of Umuahia
“The Efik then migrated to Ikpa Ene, an island on the Cross River, which is still known as Akani Edik or old Efik Creek Town.’
Whatever may be their antecedents, the fact remains that the numerous masquerades brought to the day’s event by the Efik communities from Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, were largely admired by spectators, though they at some point provoked a groundswell of fear among the audience.
The time was 5 pm. The streets of Umuahia were still clogged with many singers and dancers – and according to one of them, “the celebration of this year’s new yam festival will continue till the next day.”
Indeed, that was the case.