The New Yam Festival is annual event in the Igbo culture. Photo: Gov Emeka Ihedioha/Facebook

By Charles Mgbolu

Local kings turn out in symbolic regalia, and traditional masquerades take to the streets in a vibrant display of culture and acrobatics during the New Yam Festival, a key part of the tradition of Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria.

This traditional spectacle is part of the annual New Yam Festival that marks the beginning and end of the farming season. In many ways, it is a celebration of life, common accomplishments, shared culture, and the community's well-being.

The ceremony begins with a collective prayer, followed by the community partaking of freshly harvested yam. The tubers are roasted, dipped in palm oil, and washed down with the local brew.

Over the past decade, the festival has transcended geography, being celebrated with equal vigour by the diaspora — from the US to mainland China.

Yam has cultural connotations in Igbo mythology. Photo: Gov Emeka Ihedioha/Facebook

"We have been celebrating this festival every year now for 11 years," Chief Godwin Anyaogu, president-general of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo in Ghana, an Igbo cultural organisation, tells TRT Afrika.

"Every year, we put a strong statement forward: that we are extremely proud of our culture and our way of life. The New Yam Festival is special to us Igbos because it represents an assurance of the reward of hard work. We spend months toiling and cultivating, and now we rejoice because we have a bountiful harvest," he explains.

Precious legacy

The festival surrounding yam, a staple of the region, is the most significant cultural activity in Igboland — a trademark event that cuts across communities represented by over 30 dialects, according to the International Centre for Language Technology.

In the mythology of the Igbo people, the earth (called Ala in the Igbo dialect) is a powerful goddess, a ruler of the underworld, and custodian of fertility. Legend has it that Mother Earth gifted the Igbo people in the form of a rich harvest of yam.

No wonder then that yam plays a critical role in the mythical Igbo palate. It is believed to have been served to kings, help lift curses, and presented as sacrifices in local polytheistic beliefs.

The yam festival is celebrated by Igbo communities outside Igboland. Photo: Gov Emeka Ihedioha/Facebook

Harvesting a rich yield of yam is also symbolic, signalling that the year will be fruitful for other crops to be harvested in the course of the season.

During the New Yam Festival, investors, good deeds and other accomplishments within the community are also recognised. Chieftaincy titles are given to deserving individuals, especially entrepreneurs who have built industries and created opportunities for the locals.

"Traditionally, the festivities should be on native Igbo soil, but most Igbos who build a life elsewhere don't usually come back. So, the festival has morphed substantially in its characteristics for it to be celebrated anywhere in the world," says Prof Chigozie Nnabuihe, a lecturer in Igbo language and culture at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

In the Igbo culture, failure to celebrate the annual event is regarged a grave offence, or an act of ingratitude that is believed to affect one's prospects of having a good year.

Western influence

Like many African cultural events, the New Yam Festival swims against a powerful tide of challenges.

There is concern over western influences affecting New Yam Festival celebrations. Photo: Gov Emeka Ihedioha/Facebook

While unpredictable weather systems continue to stun the world, credits of mythological narratives decrease. Whereas the first impacts the yam harvest yields and the latter the attendance to the festival.

"Yes, we have been feeling the impact of climate change on our yields. It is not peculiar to our land alone. This is happening across the globe," says Anyaogu.

"The rains do not come as strong as they used to, and farmers have recorded a gross reduction in their harvest yields. However, we remain hopeful that it will never get to the point of starvation for our people."

Another challenge is Westernisation making slow but steady inroads into African cultural trademarks. Many teens in the cities have heard of festivities like the New Yam Festival, but as much as they follow eurocentric entertainment world, interest in yam festival is dwindling.

Economic instability is another factor leading to hundreds of thousands of migrations every year, in turn impacting repositories of culture such as festivals.

Social media attraction

In 2022 alone, the Nigerian Immigration Service said over 1.8 million international passports were issued, the highest figure in a single year in the last seven years.

The yam festival is seen as a symbol of unification of the Nigerian people. Photo: Gov Emeka Ihedioha/Facebook

If this continues with such intensity, cultural events like the New Yam Festival could be in danger, say experts. This is particularly concerning following a 2012 warning from UNESCO that the Igbo language is in danger of extinction. There is an ominous ring to this as many young Igbos already struggle to fluently communicate in the language.

But Anyaogu sees the New Yam Festival playing a key role in helping keep the cultural embers of the region burning, irrespective of the challenges of the times.

"The erosion of tradition is a serious concern, and that is why we make an extra effort to heighten the celebrations around the yam festival every year. We need to rise above the noise that distracts our children, and continue to be visible and relevant to them."

Recent editions of the festival have met young people where they are: on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and every other major social media channel.

Patrick Adigwe from the Ibusa community in Delta State, Nigeria, never fails to stream the event on YouTube. "This (dissemination through social media) is important because we need to pass this tradition to the coming generation. The festival is beyond just a festival for us; it is our weapon for survival," he tells TRT Afrika.

Prof Nnabuihe has a more philosophical take on where tradition stands in the modern scheme of things. "New sprouts will always shoot from where a mighty tree has fallen. This is the natural course of life," he says.

"We continue to have a significant number of young people who are still very culturally minded, irrespective of the time and trends that they are in. They are the ones who will continue to be an influence and spread the message of the New Yam Festival and other African festivals."

TRT Afrika