By Ebube Brown
Afia Olu cultural festival is celebrated annually in Nnewi to mark the end of the year’s farming season and also offer traditional thanksgiving and prayers for a bountiful harvest. It is a feast that is performed to declare the new yam fit for general consumption.
Although there is no comprehensive account about the origin of Nnewi Afia olu festival, however according to Nnewi history written by John Okonkwo Alutu, Nnewi Afia Olu festival is observable to a deity known as Ufiojioku to which formerly was being observed the feast of Oghulu. In contradiction to the account of John Okonkwo Alutu, Uruagu Nnewi history written by Mazi Goody A.O. Obi puts that Nnewi Afia Olu Festival was known and called Ufiejiko festival which was principally celebrated in the honour of god of agriculture before it metamorphosed into Afia Olu festival.
However, the agreeable fact remains that Nnewi Afia Olu festival was to thank god for a successful family season as done in various communities across Igbo land.
Afia Olu festival started with Uruagu and Nnewichi owing to their contiguity to Ojoto and Ichi, historically, Ojoto and Ichi started the festival before Nnewi.
According to Mazi Goody A. O. Obi, Afia Olu Festival started in the year 1922 by the people of Akaboichi village (now called Akaboukwu village) in the first week of August. Akaboukwo village are direct neighbours of Ichi and Ojoto. The festival later rose to prominence in Uruagu and Nnewichi, it later extended to the two remaining quarters of umudim and Otolo.
Before the Nigeria-Biafra war, the festival was celebrated independently by the four quarters that makes up Nnewi and was not observed by all the quarters of Nnewi at the same time. The festival was celebrated separately at different village squares as was socio-culturally done by the people. According to Nnewi history written by John Okonkwo Alutu, Uruagu observed it firstly, followed by Nnewichi, Umudim, Otolo and in each of these, it lasted for three days. Uruagu, Nnewichi and Umudim observed it in August while Otolo observed it in September.
But as events unfolded, the desire to come together to evolve greater strength, love and unity became generally accepted. Since about 1977, all the four quarters of Nnewi started observing the festival on four days fixed in August.
Few days to the festival, various preparations are made, the roads are put in proper shape, the boys have to go to the bush in search of special whipping sticks from a particular plant called “Anyasi” preparing of masks, beautification and decoration of living house and compound walls by the females. The girls learn to dance and also dye their bodies and dress gaily. Both the boys and the field must ensure that there is enough firewood and water for the feast. Drawings of known masquerade like Ogbamgbada, Ikeliudo, Okpolumpi and animals are drawn on the walls to add colour to the annual festival. Cows, pigs, dogs, foul and pigs are bought for the celebration of the festival.
The evening prior to the day of the festival, all old yams (from the previous year’s crop) are consumed or discarded followed by “Onuakuku” which marks the dropping of hoes and machetes after the farming season. And even though many families have started eating new yam, the supreme ancestral deity of the town, “Edo” and “Edowuwe” his chief priest must not taste new yam until the “Afiaolu” festival.
According to Nnewi.info, “On the first day of the festival which is Eke, the Igwe of Nnewi officiates the Harvest thanksgiving ceremony at his palace where the yam is offered to the gods and ancestors. The chief priest of Edo after the thanksgiving ceremony is presented with fowls in the palace by elders from the different communities that made up the Anaedo (Nnewi) community in order of seniority, Otolo, Uruagu, Umudim and Nnewichi. After the parading of these fowls by the chief priest, the fowls are taken to the farm where they are slaughtered in honour of the “Ufiojiokwu, the deity of land fertility. After that, the ritual of breaking Kola nut (IWA OJI) follows. It is also offer by the Igwe for it is believed that his position bestows the privilege of being the intermediary between their communities and the gods of the land. The Iwaoji is meant to express the gratitude of the community to the gods for making the harvest possible. Following the “iwaoji” is the “IKPA NKU” (the wood gathering). The Nku is used in the roasting of the newly sliced yam. The belief being that roasting the new yam will make every other yam harvested to be strong, more edible and nourishing. The Igwe after the roasting of the yam is usually the first to eat the yam after which other people are invited to join him. Immediately the Igwe eats the yam, masquerades such as “Mikpala and “Ikehudo”, randomly parade the village square and market place teasing and entertaining children and women. The first outing of these masquerades signifies that the Igwe has eaten the new yam.
The following day, “Olie” is a day for dance performance by young girls and boys. “Igba Ijele” dance is a dance performed by this group and it is devoted to “Edo” and nominally to public deities of the land. With Iwaji, the people are free from famine and hunger. From now on merriment can begin and that is when Igbaijele” appears for the first time in the years to perform on stage. The dancers first perform at Edo shrine before touring the Nkwo market square and eventually enters the Igwe’s palace where the main dance is performed. During the dance the people are virtually thrown into an uncontrollable ecstasy with rhythmic body jerks and twisting of waists and breasts. Highly trained chorous leaders lead during Igba Ijele. It is a time for competition in excellence during which the best dancer- artiste for the year is honoured.
Among are the days of the “Afiaolu” festival, the evening of “Afor” is the most entertaining and most memorable. It is usually an evening reserved for masquerades drama and the Igwe and his counselors usually invite the Ijele masquerade from Umueri Anambra State. Ijele is the king of the masquerades in Anambra state and it is a family of four: the mother, father, police and palm wine tapper.
Nne Ijele meaning “mother of Ijele” is always the first to come out, she is a beautiful lady masquerade that holds a big ox tail with a carved enamel plate. She performs dance to flute and soft music. Ijele “Onuku” (Ijele father) has a big face and dressed in chieftaincy regalia as he follows the wife into the arena. The next to step into the arena is the Ijele police, they are usually six in number and their duty is to ensure that the people do not encroach on Ijele father and mother. To complete the group is the Ijele palm wine Tapper: it accompanies Ijele for the sole purpose of picking its rear as it performs. Another significant personality is the Ijele fan carrier of Akupe carrier. It is not really a masquerade but it plays crucial role of leading the Ijele with its symbolic powerful fan called Akupe. Once one Ijele loses sight of the fan and its carrier, it gets lost and it signifies danger. Ijele moves when the fan carrier move and also stops when it stops.
For Ijele to start performing, his musical instrument must be set. The musical instrument includes drums, ogene Ubom, Uyo, Ekwe, flute (Oja –Ufele); the Ijele dances majestically to the royal Igba – eze: dance of the kings popularly called Akunechenyi in Anambra state.
The Ijele masquerade only performs immediately (7) cannon gunshot are released to the air alongside the sound of its royal music. The Ijele mostly perform during the dry season to mark fertility and annual bountiful Refer
Nkwo day is the last day of the “Afiaolu” festival it is the day the chief priest, Igwe, and elders make the final prayer on behalf of the community. Sacrifices are offered to Edo to protect the children home and abroad. Women who have been commissioned to cook, prepares pounded yam and bitter leaf soup which is taken to the palace to entertain both visitors and Anedo people present at the arena. It is equally a day devoted to all the adult masquerades which are displayed at designated venues for each village. All four communities are represented by one masquerade such as “Orinuli” in tolo, “Ayakozikwo”-nai” from Uruagu, Ozo –ebunu from Umudim and Ebu –Ebu from Nnewichi performs at their various centers to round up the day’s activities. And so ends the Afiaolu traditional festival of Nnewi.”