Every March or April, during Easter, the people of Arondizuogu in Imo State celebrate the Ikeji Festival, a four-day affair that has since spread to Aro communities across Igboland. It has been called the biggest festival in the Southeast of Nigeria and the biggest gathering of masquerades in Africa.
The people of Arondizuogu, descended from the slavery merchants of Arochukwu, have several origin stories for the festival. The first ties it to the traditional status of yam, planted only by men then, as the king of crops in Igboland. It suggests that “Ikeji” comes from the phrase “ike ji,” which means to tie yam in the barn. There have also been suggestions that it is taken from other meanings: “the power of the yam” and “the power that holds the yam.”
Another story links the festival to the slave trade, a system which made the Aro powerful. In cases when Aro men were mistakenly sold into slavery, they used a secret phrase, “aka ike jim,” which means “strong hands are holding me,” to bargain for freedom, else the slave merchant would be met with the wrath of the Ibini Ukpabi, the Long Juju oracle at Arochukwu. To remember the Aro people lost to the slave trade conducted by their own people, the festival was created, as something comparable to the Jewish Passover, and the name shortened to “Ikeji,” meaning “the power that holds.” Other stories are variations of these two.
The Ikeji Festival incorporates the Aro regard for Chukwu, God Almighty, and their Ndichies, the elders, and ultimately signifies their harnessing of this to project power across slave-era Igboland and to maintain influence in the present day.
The festival progresses with the four Igbo market days. On Eke day, people buy yam and oil, goats and fowls, in preparation. On Orie day, they make thanksgiving sacrifices to their ancestors, seeking blessings for the event, and also to bridge the gap between them and Chukwu. On Afor day, there is cooking and eating and all masquerades assemble at the village square. On Nkwo day, the main day, people go to the community square, watching masquerades perform. There, specialists engage in displays that defy natural and scientific logic, including testing charms on each other and, in a highly anticipated contest, untying a ram supernaturally bound by a string.
During the festival, young men are inducted into the mmonwu society of masquerades. As part of the expensive events, they are required to abstain from injustice, lies, sexual relationships, and food cooked by women.
The Ikeji Festival is celebrated beyond Arondizuogu and Arochukwu and is anticipated in major cities like Aba.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.