Written by David Ugbabe
The New Yam festival (Iri ji) or Onwa Asaa is one of the most celebrated and significant festivals in Igboland. Although there is no specified date to celebrate the event across the whole of Igboland, it is often celebrated around the seventh month (August). It is known by several names including, Iri ji, Onwa Asaa, Iwa Ji or Orurueshi, among others, in various communities across Igbo land.
The festival which is as old as the Igbo culture marks the beginning of the year in Igbo calendar and signifies the end of famine and food shortage each year. The special event attracts indigenes of various communities, including those in the Diaspora, friends and well-wishers who
BUT WHY YAM?
There is no specific date for the celebration of this Igbo festival but most communities hold the festival at the beginning of each harvest season to thank the gods for bountiful harvests, especially yam. Akunne Amuta helped to shed light on the events that led to the celebration of the New Yam festival; in the 17th century when Onitsha crossed over to the Eastern part of the Lord Niger, yam was not in vogue among them. At the time, a nuclear family in Umuasele Village “the Obamkpas” discovered a seed called “Adu” – a slave yam that grows on the surface of the ground produced by a creeping stem plant. The family died of food poisoning shortly after eating the plant. This sent fear across the land.
The fear that gripped the people as a result of the death of the Umuasele family would later be the reason the dreaded eating the real yam when it was finally found. It took consultations with the oracle with the Umuikem people to enable the people eat yam. The New Yam festival has continued to be celebrated from generation to generation; hence it has become a ritual that the Igbo people commit to so much that no full-fledged or mature man eats new yam in Igbo land without performing this festival as group or individual.