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The Mythology of Yam (Ji) in Afikpo (Ehugbo)

By Chief Gabriel Anigo Agwo

July 22, 2009

The New Yam Festival (Ikeji) day in Afikpo marks the beginning of the traditional New Year. It is the equivalent of January 1 in the western world. It is now the custom that the New Yam Festival Day has to be on an Eke Market day in the last week of August (usually between 24th and 27th) each year. Therefore, in Afikpo, the New Year begins in the last week of August.

Yam is the king of crops in Afikpo and it is treated as such. Sayings and proverbs are woven around the yam even though cocoyam and cassava are also cherished. Cocoyam is said to be the oldest in their order of arrival at Afikpo. Yam came next while cassava is said to have been introduced into Afikpo menu by one Badaro (a non-indigene) early in the 19th century. Why is yam accorded a revered status among other food stuff?

According to Afikpo mythology, yam was dearly “purchased” with human life. Igbo Ukwu*, the acclaimed founder of Afikpo had a younger sister popularly known as Nne Oriete Imomo. The woman disliked the taste of wild yams (common at the time) called “Kpokpokume” and she complained bitterly about it. She needed a better substitute.

Legend has it that mortals communed occasionally with the Creator (God above or “Chineke” or “Obasi N’elu”). So, Nne Oriete Imomo communed with Obasi n’elu for her wishes. She was ordered to clear a portion of arable land, hire labour to make mounds, then await further instructions. She obeyed and the further instructions were not long in coming. In order to have her wish of good yams, Nne Oriete Imomo was asked to offer a male child born of one of her brother’s seven daughters. She had to sacrifice the child in the following manner:

Gather a lot of tinder around the foot of an “Uchakuru” tree. Let the boy climb the tree, ostensibly to prune it. As soon as he is up, set fire to the tinder. The resulting thick smoke will suffocate him. Do not hearken to the cry of the boy. He will eventually fall into the burning fire. Allow the flames to consume him. The sacrifice will then be complete. Then pluck young shoots of the wild yam and plant them in the prepared farmland. After four to five month, you will dig up good edible yams. Make sure you always treat the yam with great respect.

Nne Oriete Imomo summoned her seven daughters-in-law (as they are known in Afikpo tradition) and narrated the revelation. One of them, Aliocha Imaga Orie, offered her son. Her husband raised no objection probably because of the ancient adage that since the woman and her children were of the same matrilineal descent, she could do what she liked with the children. The stage was thus set for the hunt for yam.

On the agreed day, the boy, completely ignorant of his fate, happily accompanied his parents to the farm. The “altar” was already laid as directed by Obasi n’elu, and the boy obediently climbed up the tree to prune it. When he had climbed high enough, his parents set fire to the base of the tree. Thick smoke enveloped the tree, and he was suffocated and then burnt to ashes as a sacrifice to the yam god for a gift of good edible yam.

Up to date in Afikpo, in folk tales, proverbs and moonlight stories, the above myth is still recounted and passed on via oral tradition. In the recent past, during “erebe Udumini” (traditional folk songs), it used to be recounted annually that Aliocha Imagaorie, Igbo Ukwu’s daughter, offered her son to the yam god in the quest for yam (Aliocha Imagorie, nde jiri nwawo zaa ji).

About the same time yam was being introduced to Afikpo, the Nkalu people migrated to Afikpo from Ikpom in Ikumoro (lower Igonigoni area) in the present Cross River State. They brought with them “Eketa” (also known as “Elom Ji”), the god of yams. Eketa was installed at Ohia Eketa, located between Ehoma (a natural fish pond near Ndibe Beach) and Enohia Nkalu by Otu-eke (Ndibe Beach) Road. The significance of Ohia Eketa is underscored by the fact that till date, maidens from Enohia Nkalu sleep overnight at Ohia Eketa forest on the eve of Egwu Imo (a dance for Eleri – the yam god’s chief priest) in preparation for the New Yam Festival. This ceremony takes place annually in July – about seven to eight market weeks (izu) to the New Yam Festival in Afikpo.

From the time the Nkalu people brought “Elom ji” to Afikpo, Igbo and his people accorded them the pride of place as owners and custodians of Elom ji. The Nkalu were free to regulate how and when they observed the New Yam Festival.

This position finds expression in the common Afikpo proverb, “Ji diri Igbo diri Nkalu, nke nkalu karie” (i.e. let there be yam for Igbo [Ehugbo] and Nkalu but let Nkalu’s be greater). This is in recognition of the priestly role Nkalu people play in respect of yam, the premier food crop in Afikpo. The rest about the New Yam Festival and yam generally in Afikpo is common knowledge.

Our forefathers handed these down to us and we should keep the tradition alive.

Footnotes

* Igbo Ukwu is the acclaimed founder of Afikpo (Ehugbo) following his defeat of the original inhabitants – the Egus. Oriete Imomo was Igbo Ukwu’s sister. She was married at Amaizu and was instrumental to the establishment of Orie Amaizu. A feast for Orie Amaizu called “Iko Izu” marks the end of Iko Udumini (associated with the New Yam) and the start of the dry season (Okochi) in Afikpo.

A woman named Osim was the founding chief priestess of Orie Amaizu. Osim was Oriete Imomo’s slave. It was through Osim that the Ibe Osim maternal lineage (ikwu) originated. Osim lived at Onu-Ogo Onye-ani (one person’s settlement) located at Amelu Amuro. In appreciation for her services, Igbo Ukwu and his descendants upgraded Osim’s “one-person compound” to the status of a large village group that celebrates Iko Okochi as a unit. Though now extinct, Onu-ogo Onyeani is still taken into count in the annual Afikpo Dry Season Festival (iko okochi) cycle.

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