The New Yam Festival of the Igbo people (Orureshi in the idoma area, Iwa ji, Iri ji or Ike ji, depending on dialect) is an annual cultural festival by the Igbo people held at the end of the rainy season in early August.
The Iwa ji festival (literally “new-yam eating”) is practised throughout West Africa (especially in Nigeria and Ghana) and other African countries and beyond, symbolizing the conclusion of a harvest and the beginning of the next work cycle. The celebration is a very culturally based occasion, tying individual Igbo communities together as essentially agrarian and dependent on yam.
Yams are the first crop to be harvested and are the most important crop of the region. The New Yam Festival known is, therefore, a celebration depicting the prominence of yam in the social-cultural life of Igbo people. The evening prior to the day of the festival, all old yams (from the previous year’s crop) are consumed or discarded. This is because it is believed that the New Year must begin with tasty, fresh yams instead of the old dried-up crops of the previous year. The next day, only dishes of yam are served, as the festival is symbolic of the abundance of the produce.
Traditionally, Depending on the communities, the style and method of the festivity differ, but the essential components that surround the event always remain the same. In some communities, the festivities last the whole day and in many places, it may stretch up to one week or even more. These festivities normally include a lot of variety entertainment including the performance of ceremonial rites by the Igwe (King), or the eldest man, cultural dances by Igbo men, women and their children as well as a display of Igbo cultural activities in the form of contemporary shows, masquerade dance, fashion parade, and feasting at a grand scale on a wide variety of food making up the menu of the Igbos.
Usually, at the beginning of the festival, the yams are offered to gods and ancestors first before distributing them to the villagers. The ritual is performed either by the oldest man in the community or by the king or eminent titleholder. This man also offers the yams to god, deities and ancestors by showing gratitude to God for his protection and kindness in leading them from lean periods to the time of bountiful harvest without deaths resulting from hunger. After the prayer of thanksgiving to god, they eat the first yam because It is believed that their position bestows the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land. The rituals are meant to express the gratitude of the community to the gods for making the harvest possible, and they are widely followed despite more modern changes due to the influence of Christianity in the area. This, therefore, explains the three aspects of Igbo worldview, that they are Pragmatic, religious and appreciative.
The day is symbolic of enjoyment after the cultivation season, and the plenty is shared with friends and well-wishers. A variety of festivities mark the eating of new yam. Folk dances, masquerades, parades, and parties create an experience that some participants characterize as “art”; the colourful festival is a spectacle of exhibited joy, thanks, and community display.
Palm oil (mmanu nri) is used to eat the yam. Iwa ji also shares some similarities with the Asian Mid-Autumn Festival, as both are based on the cycles of the moon and are essentially community harvest festivals.
This event is an important event in the calendar of Igbo people all over the world.
In Ghana, a similar event is also held at the same time of each year. Ghanaians call theirs “Homowo” or “To Hoot at Hunger” Festival, the people hope for a good harvest so no famine will hit the people in the coming year.
The harvest of yam and the celebration of the God of the land through the New Yam festival is an epitome of the people’s religious belief in the supreme deity. The coming of the new moon in the month of August marks the preparation for the great “Iri Ji Ohu” festival, but the time and mode of preparation differs from community to community.[
The New Yam festival is a highly captivating art event. The colourful festival is a visual spectacle of coherence, of dance, of joy and feasting, an annual display for community members, to mark the end of the cultivation season, a festival where the people express their gratitude to those that helped them reap a bountiful harvest.