Each year, between August and October, the Igbo people in Southeast Nigeria gather to celebrate the New Yam Festival, also known as “iwa ji,” which means to cut yam, or “iri ji ohuru,” which means to eat new yam. The festival is marked to pay respects to the crop and to signify the end of a harvest season and the beginning of a planting season. Depending on the community, the festival may last only for a day or more than a week.
Yam, in Igbo lore, is considered the king of crops. An Igbo myth exists that during a famine, a king, Eze Nri, was instructed on what to do to end the hunger that plagued the land: kill his son Ahiajoku and his daughter Ada. The king obeyed and, afterwards, cut the bodies of his children into small pieces and buried them in mounds of sand. Later, on the spot where he buried Ahiajoku’s body, yam sprouted, and on the spot where he buried Ada’s body, cocoyam grew. Yam became the first crop to be harvested, sealing its place in Igbo mythology.
It is considered taboo to eat the new yam before the festival. A day before the festival, all old yams from the previous year’s harvest are either eaten or given away.
On the day of the festival, the new yams are presented before the deities of communities and either the king or the oldest man in the community offers prayers to the gods. They pray for favourable planting and harvest seasons, no illnesses or deaths, and the likes.
After the prayers, the yams are cut and cooked; either the king or the oldest man in the community is the first to taste the new yam.
For the occasion, the yams are boiled (or roasted) and served with palm oil or prepared as porridge. There is also entertainment: dance troupes, fashion displays, masquerade parades, etc.
The New Yam Festival is also practiced in Southwestern Nigeria and some African countries.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has works on Lolwe and Isele Magazine.