Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of yam in the world accounting for about 70-76 percent of the general production. According to numbers supplied by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1985, Nigeria produced 18.3 million tonnes of yam from 1.5 million hectares, representing 73.8 percent of total yam production in Africa. This number has since doubled according to the figures in 2008. Still, with the same report, the value equivalent is as high as US$5.654 billion.
From all these numbers, it is clearly evident that yam is economically important but it doesn’t end there. Yam is also of massive cultural importance, making its way to the practices of various tribes in Nigeria. The cultural relevance of yam goes deep such that there are celebrations to usher in new yam around various tribes. Here are some of the most popular ones.
Iwa Ji Festival
The New Yam Festival (referred to as ‘Iwa Ji’, ‘Iri Ji’ or ‘Ike Ji’, depending on the tribe) is a popular feast for the Igbo people. Typically, it happens at the end of the rainy season. The evening before the day of the festival, all old yams are consumed or discarded. This is because it is believed that the New Year must begin with fresh yams instead of the old dried-up tubers from the previous year.
Usually, at the beginning of the festival, the yams are offered to the 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.
The Leboku New Yam festival is peculiar to the core Yakạạ speaking communities in Cross River: Ugep, Idomi, Ekori, Mkpani and Nko, and the international version is celebrated in Ugep once in a year. The three-week festival is the culmination of many events: the beginning of the yam harvest, a time to appease the gods and ancestors, a public parade of engaged maidens and a host of others. During the Leboku, people keep away from intense farming activities and exchange visits with their families. The Leboku is also meant to usher in peace, good health and prosperity.
The three-week celebration starts with the harvesting of new yams and beautifully attired women who parade the town with their harvests. Children are normally hosted to a feast of yam porridge and palm wine.
The people of Owukpa in Benue celebrate the New Yam Festival in a big way and it is called Orureshi. It is a celebration prominent among all the major tribes in Benue state. Like the Igbos, yams from the old year are disposed of or preserved for the next planting season on the night before the festival. Orureshi begins with everything new – from the fresh yams to the thorough washing of cooking pots, calabashes and the mortar where the yam is pounded.
Pounded yam with a wide variety of soups is the main dish and there is a lot of celebration within the families and their guests. The celebration is followed by various cultural dances with the display of masquerades from different clans or groups.
Every year, the people of Ile-Oluji in Ondo State celebrate Owe Festival, an annual traditional rite that signifies the commencement of the eating of new yam. Besides being an annual traditional event, meant to lift the ‘traditional embargo’ placed on the consumption of fresh tubers of yam on indigenes of the town, it also provides the opportunity for those indigenes to offer prayers for their wellbeing and that of the community. As part of the rites for this festival, the community market is relocated once a year indicating that the festival holds in 24 hours.