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Iko Okochi Ehugbo

By Chief Gabriel Anigo Agwo

July 22, 2009

It is difficult now to dig back into the history of Ehugbo (Afikpo) beyond the coming of Igbo Ukwu, who dislodged the earlier settlers, the Egu. Igbo thus became the acclaimed founder of what was originally known as Ehugbo and now widely known and called Afikpo. Therefore, Igbo is the reference point for Afikpo history.

Iko Okochi, (dry season festival) is said to have started as close friendly visits between a girl – Agbogho Obe and a boy, Nwokorobia Obe, both of Igbo’s kindred. It started in the form of Nwa Ulo (small house), a way of describing one’s second home or house mainly for friendly visits and relaxation. With time, and probably with the intention of cementing friendly ties, the exchange of visits developed into an annual event involving the village groups in Afikpo.

Another account has it that apart from the time Igbo invaded and drove out the earlier occupants of Egugbo – the Egu – there are no known records or legends implying that Afikpo people ever engaged in inter-village warfare. All tribal wars were fought outside Afikpo, notably at Edda, Amasiri, Akpoha and beyond. However, the need for closer ties and merriment gave rise to a large scale exchange of visits between the village groups.

It is a known belief in Afikpo that even during wars, raids or occasional misunderstandings, females and children were never touched. Afikpo people believed that only a mad man could kill a woman or a child. It was pointless to kill a female of any age. Rather they were regarded as symbols of peace. If disputes arose, women served as the harbingers of peace. Therefore, as girls were regarded as sacred lambs, it would not be out of place to accept the idea that girls played a dominant role in the annual dry season festival called Iko Okochi.

Igbo is said to have decreed the duration and order of Iko Okochi. Since he lived at Nkpoghoro, it is no surprise that most festivals in Afikpo (including Iko Okochi) always started from the Nkpoghoro group of villages.

Iko Okochi always begins on an Orie day and ends on the subsequent Orie day. For instance, if the feast starts at Nkpoghoro on November 25 (Orie), it moves over to Ugwuegu the following Orie, November 29. In succession, the feast moves on to Ohaisu, Itim, Ibii and Onuogo Onye-ani on December 3, 7, 11 and 15, respectively, thus spanning exactly twenty four days. Ozizza operates a separate cycle.

The preparation for the feast usually begins with Anwata (or Anwari) Ulo, i.e., buying provisions for the feast on the preceding Eke market day. Initiated males from the host village group would organize masquerades (Njenje) to go around all the playgrounds in Afikpo. The masquerades served as an invitation or reminder to the girls who would soon come flocking to the host villages for a visit lasting four days.

Long before this day, girls would have sought and found other girls with whom they pair up as partners or friends during the Ike Okochi festival. Usually, girls sought their partners or girl friends from villages other than their own. Only in a few cases are girl friends from the same maternal relation (Ikwu). Usually, the girls were recommended by girls from the same village or met each other by chance and decided to become friends.

The continuation of such friendships throughout the girlhood period depends on how cordial such pairs become later. The non-cordial ones change partners after a year or two. Many are known to have sustained the Iko friendship throughout life and even passed it on to their own daughters or cemented it through inter-marriages.

Apart from the purchase of edible goods, the host girls and their families clean up the house and compound. A few years back this cleaning up consisted of the scrubbing of houses to get them ready for daily scrubbing or varnishing using a variety of green leaves called “ekwukwo ulo.” The scrubbing leaves included ikoro, ubenwu, opioroko and ekwukwo nkasai maa. Some of these were plucked two to four days before the day they would be used and stored in slightly damaged pots. The reason was for the leaves to be partially decayed in order to make for a lasting dark green paste on the mud beds, earthen floors and mud walls. Girls used to compete for those who would give the shiniest rub to the scrubbed parts of the house. It was a mark of incompetence to leave cracks (enya odo) on the walls, mud beds or the floor.

The actual feasting cycle has specified daily activities or ceremonies. On Orie day, the girls arrive between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. That night’s supper is usually light as the girls were supposed to have eaten in their houses before coming. From about 8:00 p.m. to about 10:00 p.m., the girls sang and danced the customary dry season songs (egwu iko). Young men and boys mill around the girls’ houses, taking note of the visitors in their midst. They retire to bed fairly early.

The following morning, Aho, the girls get up quite early to fetch water from the stream or the nearby water tap. There is a constant stream of movement to and from the water sources. Rubbing or “varnishing” of houses “ihu ulo” follows. The girls start with the house where they sleep. After that, they carry their rubbing materials in small basins or buckets to the homes of relatives and well-wishers, especially those without girls. Once there, they clean and tidy up the homes.

While this is going on, either the mother of the host family or a member of that family would prepare breakfast. On their return from the clean-up visit, the girls eat the breakfast prepared for them and are treated to gifts of coconuts, dried fish / stock-fish, toilet soap and pomade (body lotion) by boys and men who are family friends, relatives or well-wishers.

These days, most houses have cement walls and concrete floors. As a result, such houses no longer get the green-leaves-paste treatment that used to be applied to bring mud huts to a sparkle. However, the girls – most of whom are now in school – still pay courtesy calls on relatives, friends and well-wishers in the village group where the feast is in progress. During school days, they go to school from their temporary homes.

For un-initiated boys (Umu ena), the Aho morning is for a test of endurance. At their gathering place (ohia usuho), they engage in a caning (whipping) contest – “iti-osisi” – in a charged but hilarious atmosphere punctuated by men’s chants. Boys used to be proud of displaying their bare backs with swollen cane wounds and enjoyed the shrugging of girls’ shoulders in admiration of their courage. That was in those days when men were men.

The Okpaa masquerade was part of the festivities. The masquerade would spur the girls to almost continuous dance displays all day.

In a lighter mood, boys watch out for a chance to touch the girls, who in turn give them a spirited chase and smack them on the back. The atmosphere is generally that of merrymaking and relaxation. The Nkwo day follows a similar pattern as that of Aho day. Aho and Nkwo night witness more spirited and prolonged night songs – whether there is moonlight or not. The lazy girls and generally badly behaved girls and boys are picked on in these songs. Such satirical songs left scars on those about whom they were composed. Nevertheless the correcting effect was enormous on society.

The fourth day, Eke, is a very significant one in the dry season festival in Afikpo. It is customary that every woman, nay household, must prepare “ohe oko” – soup prepared with “oko” leaves (called “oha” in some Igbo communities) and balls of egusi (ahu). An assortment of meat, fish, stockfish, etc., may be added to the soup. The foofoo for the soup has to be prepared with yam (utara ji). Married women leave the food in front of the Obu (village gathering place) or a nearby man’s house.

While the men assemble at the traditional spots, the women stay together at another part of the compound. After brief ceremonies where the ancestors (represented by a masquerade called “maa obu”) are thanked for the past year, some of the prepared food is sent over to the women. Each group eats from a common source. The meal has significance beyond the nourishment it provides. It serves as the setting for pious’ communion — not unlike communion in other religious settings. It is believed that any woman who is not in a state of sanctity and who eats the “communion” must either die or is seriously afflicted by a curious sickness.

In the night of this “Eke anatu nri na maa” the usual festival song is different. Ordinary everyday songs (instead of “egwu iko”) are sung. Boys make bids to the girls to see if their acquaintanceship can mature into friendship. Again, the dances do not extend far into the night, as the initiated at the ogo square will have to commune with the invisible but noisy symphonists.

From midnight to early morning, mysterious chants from the Ogo (play ground) rent the air. The chants signal an end to the feast in that village group and an annual outing for men who are men.

From about 2:00 p.m. on the Orie day, the girls begin to depart for the next village group or return to their homes. They usually took with them parcels of fish, egusi (ahu) meat, coconut, etc., together with items of clothing.

Note that nothing prevents a girl from moving from Nkpoghoro to Ugwuegu, Ohaisu, Mgbom (Itim) and Ibii in that order. In actual practice most girls take part in two or three village groups’ Iko Okochi.

Ozizza is the fifth village group in Afikpo even though from 1987 she became an autonomous community. But she has always maintained her own cycle of Dry Season festival which comes up in October.

It begins about the middle of October with “Iko Ezeanyi Ozizza” on an Orie day, probably in commemoration of their common ancestral god usually associated with the totem, nhoko (crab).

The following day, which is Aho market day, the Iko Onuoka of Amorie Ozizza takes place. The rest take their turns on the succeeding Aho days.

The very significant attraction of this particular festival is the historic beauty contest called Agbogho Obe. A girl judged to be the most beautiful among other girls is usually chosen.

Unfortunately the restrictions imposed on the chosen girl are such that any little mistake may result in bodily deformity or mysterious diseases, including sores all over her body. For a girl to be so chosen becomes a source of ill-luck, hence that aspect of the festival is usually cleverly avoided.

The next Aho day is the turn of Amaikpo and Orra. This group includes Ameta and Amaozara. Finally, Imama celebrates the Dry Season festival four days later.

The Ozizza village group has a unique dry season festival called Okochi Nwayi Nde Orra i.e., dry season for Orra women. On that day – usually the Aho following the Imama festival – the women restrict the movement of all men from morning till about noon.

It is worthy to note that the only other time women in the entire Afikpo can impose such a restriction on men is when they clean their ohuhu (compound or village common spot for baking/firing their earthen pots). But this one always takes place at night between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 a.m.

In conclusion, Iko Okochi in Afikpo, though a predominantly women’s affair, cost men quite a lot in money and materials. It is a period during which people look forward to meeting old friends, exchanging visits and feeding the small deities of the traditional religionists. The masquerading gives life and attraction to Iko Okochi. The female folks of all ages derive a lot of fun from “okpaa” and “njenje,” while the young boys delight in showing what makes them men. For the old men it is a period of reminiscence and relaxation. They sit or lie down in the Obi ogo and watch through the dwarf walls the sight and fun of the young ones.

In Afikpo, Iko (feast) has gained a wide application to the extent that any event or gathering requiring eating, drinking and general merrymaking is described as Iko. The common Afikpo expression “biko” (please, I beg you) is said to derive from the iko sense. Thus if one annoys or displeases another, one begs or pleads for forgiveness by inviting the one offended to come for a reconciliation feast – “bia iko” (abbreviated “biko”) (“come for a feast”).

And if this write-up has not met your taste, “BIKO, IHU EKA N’ALI.”

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