Celebrating Ofala Festivals In Igbo Land

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For Ndi Igbo, Ofala festival occupies a unique place in their annual calendar. It is not just a day for celebration and merry making, but also a day when the sons, daughters and friends of the town gather to thank God for keeping them alive. It is also a day for stock taking when the king gives account of his stewardship for the out gone year and projects into the New Year.

In Igbo land ofala is celebrated mostly in December and January. For some communities like Enugwu-Ukwu, Ofala is Igu aro. To the people of Igbariam, it is ovalla. No matter the nomenclature, Ofala festival has come to define a way of life of a people. In modern Igbo setting, Ofala has become a platform for tourism and community development. It is also a day when deserving members of the community and their friends are specially rewarded and honoured for their contributions to the development of their communities.

For the ancient kingdom of Nnewi, the commercial nerve centre of Igbo land, the last edition of Ofala festival was not just another Ofala. It was remarkable in many respects. It was a day the town kept a date with history as their traditional ruler, His Royal Highness, Igwe Kenneth Onyemaeke Nnaji Orizu, marked fifty years on the throne of his ancestors. The royal father, one of the longest serving monarchs who ascended the throne in 1963, also turned 88. To underscore the importance of the ceremony, a three-day special programme was lined up for the festival. They included youth vigil, church services, cultural displays and traditional dance.

Expectedly, the town erupted in activities to make the memorable occasion. Thousands of sons, daughters, friends, well wishers and associates of the town including tourists from across the globe thronged the sprawling Igwe palace to pay homage to the respected monarch.

But the high point of the occasion was the Ofala Festival. The day featured traditional dances, cultural festivals including dance groups, age grade performances from different villages, a cultural troupe from Akwa Ibom among a host of other activities.

Before Igwe’s first appearance in the packed arena in his palace, different traditional troupes from the four autonomous communities in the town thrilled guests with their exhilarating performances. As the Igwe (accompanied with his royal cabinet) makes his first appearance, the jubilant crowd thundered with shouts of “Igweeeee!” at every step taken by Igwe Orizu’s entourage. It was heralded by a bell ringer, called Oduma, and the Igbe Eze traditional group.

After his first appearance, the Igwe honored some deserving individuals among them Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio and his wife. He was given the titled of “Omelora Nnewi,” while his wife was honored with the title of “Ada Eje Jemba “. On hand to witness the honor was Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi, his former deputy, Mrs. Virgy Etiaba among a host of others.

The visible excited Akpabio thanked the Igwe for the honour. While describing Nnewi as the spiritual headquarters of Igbo land because it was home to Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, he said his acceptance of the honour was as a result of the Christian fate of the monarch. He used the occasion to call for unity between the South East and South South to achieve political emancipation.

Said Akpabio: “It is not usual for me to go all over Nigeria receiving titles. I received this title because of your pedigree; your personality is well known to all. I found out you are a grand patron of fellowship in the Anglican Communion. That shows you have brought Christianity into governance. That is why I associate with you. If it were the other way round, I would not be here.

“I bring you greetings from the good people of Akwa Ibom State who deeply appreciate this gesture. And by this gesture, you have reunited the South South and South East which is something that I and Governor  Obi have been trying to do in the last six years. We want that old unity of this region to return. I stand here very proud that receiving this title today. I want to assure you that the relationship between my family and the Igbos will never ever seize. All my children have Igbo blood. The Igbos are the most industrious while the South South have the oil. What we are seeing today is the blessing of the two regions.

“May mistakes of the past be forgotten. May our sons and daughters see the need for unity. Once we have a united region, we will have a greater place in the community of the states. There is no where there is progress in this nation without an Igbo man and most of them are from Nnewi.”

On his part, Obi thanked God for the longevity of the Igwe. He described the monarch as a wonderful father with an exemplary leadership quality, the reason he was specially honoured with Grand Patron of Traditional Rulers in the state. “Nnewi is a big city and we don’t joke with it. I support Nnewi not just as a town but every business man from Nnewi. That is why we are developing the city. We will continue to support projects that would uplift Nnewi and the entire Igbo land.

Lending  support to Akpabio’s call for a united region, Obi said, “If we are united, there is nothing we cannot do.” He described Akpabio as one man committed to the good of both Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria. “ We are trying to change a lot of things and our commitment is total.” Obi said.

Speeches over, it was time for the new titled chief, Akpabio, Obi and the Igwe to perform a royal dance round the palace. With the royal drummers leading the way, Igwe Orizu, despite his frail age, demonstrated that age has nothing to do with an act he has performed these past fifty years. His steps were magnificent, dignified, measured and graceful in his flowing attire complete with his traditional staff of office. Akpabio also showed that he was not new to the royal dance as he gaily moved his body and steps in rhythm with the beat. And for governor Obi, getting him to dance was like squeezing water out of stone. But he made history because he danced. Despite the prodding by some cabinet members, Obi displayed a dance step that can best be described as “dance limping,” The best he could do was limp like a man with a bad foot, while having a good laugh at his not satisfactory efforts.

It was not only Nnewi community that held their annual Ofala festival. From Nneni, Aguleri, Enugwu-Ukwu, Ezinifite and Igbariam, the Christmas and New Year period was full of celebrations.

Unlike other communities, Enugwu-Ukwu mark Igu Aro festival. For the community, this year’s edition was very special as one of their sons, Dr. Nkem Okeke, was elected deputy governor of Anambra State. It was also the first time ever that governor Obi attended the annual cultural festival since the traditional ruler, Igwe Ralph Obumnemeh Ekpeh, Eze Nri na Igwe Enugwu-Ukwu, ascended the throne three years ago. Igwe Ekpeh used the occasion to appeal to Obi to accept the title being offered him by various communities in appreciation of his development strides in the state. When he makes up his mind, the Igwe admonished, it must be from his kingdom. “Whether you like it or not, you must accept Igbo leadership; you must accept title from Umu Nri.” Igwe Ekpeh insists. The deputy governor-elect also expressed his happiness and gratitude to his community for their support during the election and APGA leadership for finding him worthy. Chief Umeh was honoured with the title of “Ekwueme” while his wife received “Anieze Nwanyi Bu Di Ya.”

Ofala festival in Agukeri dates back to the 18th century. The festival is said to have originated from the commuinity as no other  Igbo land has such long history of Ofala celebration. The festival is held every first weekend in January. Last edition was historical in that it was the 114 edition of the festival by the Idigo Royal Dynasty, starting from Onyekwerlu Idigo to the incumbent, Christopher Nwabunwanne Idigo, the fourth in line of succession.

The Okanga Royal Band, dating back to the 18th century, which runs the royal square, is said to be the oldest cultural group. It is made up of the Igwe, Onowu and other cabinet members. On the eve of the Ofala, the highly revered Ada Masqurades made up of over 10,000 (ten thousand) masquerades accompanied by over 20,000 (twenty thousand) people colorfully attired according to their age grades perform.  The outing of the Igwe on Ofala day was preceded by the cultural performance of Ikpawa Ogbonna, a performance by a group of virgin dancers between the ages of five and ten; Iyom Onyemelue group made up of women carrying colourful wooden chairs on their heads with their leader bearing an equally colourful wooden box for putting money and Odu Enyi, a group of men bearing elephant tusks walking and dancing in a dignified and asymmetrical form to the rhythm of royal music.

The Sunday morning after the Ofala was a thanksgiving church service. In the evening, masquerades of different age grades appear.
The festival is rounded off on Monday with the visit of Igwe to the aged members of the community who are too old to attend the festival and the outing and initiation ceremony of new age grades

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