Insight

Ezza: Ebonyi community united by Okeaku Festival (1)

Bonded by a rich cultural heritage

Okeaku and Nnesweoha new yam festivals of Ezza Ezekuna and Ikwo clans in Ebonyi State have continued to be a unifying force for the people, promoting their cultures and traditions, writes UCHENNA INYA

The people of Ezza Ezekuna are the descendants of Ezekuna, the first son of Ekumenyi. They are itinerant farmers and warriors who run enviable traditional peace-keeping missions since their inception. Historically, the Ezza, otherwise known as Ezza Ezekuna, have no history of forcible conquest; they are the only major tribe in Ebonyi State with verifiable histories and records of wilfully defending weak minority tribes. The Ezza people generally believe that in the Bible, Ezza was spelt as Ezer. They hold that Ezza was among the tribes who helped David in the wilderness of Ziklag to overcome King Saul’s army.

They also believe that the Bible, in 1st Chronicles 12:8-9, describes a people (Ezza) as “mighty men of valour, whose faces were like faces of lions, and who were as swift as gazelles on the mountains”. Ezza people are found in great numbers in all the senatorial zones of the state, beyond their ancestral home of Onueke, Ezza South Local Government Area.

Ezza are also found in Enugu, Benue, Kogi, Ondo, Ogun, Cross River, and Anambra states, among others. The Ezza Ezekuna people are blessed with a rich cultural heritage which binds them together. This feature is further reinforced by their loyalty and positive disposition to their culture which has a lot of interesting festivals.

All over Igboland, months of July to September every year are usually full of feasts of New Yam. Dates for the celebrations are always indicated in the lunar calendar charts, specially adopted by every clan and determined by nature of soil, fertility, weather facilitating early yam plantation and duration ripe for harvest.

Traditionally, the lunar calendar mixed with the solar calendar for daily events, commands most widely acceptability globally. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism strongly cling to lunar calendar. Every period of moon appearance and spread signifies recognised events.

The inherent problem on the actual date the moon is sighted, has not removed the values. Various stages of traditions passed through in the past are no longer observed, presumably because of the preferred system offered by Western education and conversion to Christianity.

Western education replaced lunar with Gregorian calendar which runs from 1st day of January to 31st day of December (12 calendar months) and is easily understood and apt. Christianity picks Easter celebration on different calendars, since it is not enjoyed on a fixed date like Christmas, which comes up on every December 25th. According to a traditionalist, Amaechi Oken, tradition is always powered by culture and customs in societiesv- not in any way clandestine. “The first line of natural defence is culture because it creates a stimulating environment and provides a platform for every aspect of human conduct and attitude towards one another and in groups.

Its wonderful attributes are untapped as the list of traditional activities is endless. “Survey shows New Yam Festival attracts full participation, but other traditional values suffer procedural controversy such as marriage, child naming, age grade, title taking, burial, conflict and land dispute resolution pattern.

Truncated processes brew serious distrust, division, disenchantment, lack of confidence, for peaceful settlement of grievances. “Parallel assemblies sprout up in different places; disoriented audience pulled together and made to be loyal to share common belief.

Misleading indoctrination of Christianity has caused disaffection among people of the same tribe in Nigeria. People of the same clan are inadvertently driven into two blocks; one has watered down the value of the tradition to escape from the practice, the next group runs to the reality of traditions.

“Due to misplaced pride, Igbo people ignored the traditional dynamics of utilising opportunity to undertake a series of review/analysis to do away with unhealthy concepts and then retain newly revised versions. The gains have unfortunately eluded those of us who ignorantly considered tradition to be barren,” Oken said. However, two major events are embedded in the season of the New Yam Festival; the beginning of New Year, that out-rightly ends famine, and an inception into harvest of the first set of yam.

Slightly different events are observed in some clans. For instance, Ezza clan does Okeaku Festival to mark New Year; it heralds harvest, and eating of new yam. Each clan designs name for its own new yam festival. In Izzi in Ebonyi State, it is called Ojiji Izzi, Nefioha in Ikwo, Ikeji in Ehugbo, among others.

At the end of August, over 75 per cent of the 31 existing clans in Ebonyi State have celebrated. Okeaku, which means great wealth when translated into English, is the New Yam festival of Ezza Ezekuna people. The father of Ezza nation instituted the Okeaku festival centuries before the advent of westernisation. With the expanse of his only wife, Anyigor, and children represented by Amana, Amaezekwe, Ameka, Amudo, Amuzu, Ekka, Inyere, Nkkomoro, Nsokora, Ogboji, Okoffia, Umuoghara, Umuezeoka, Umuezekoha communities, the legendary Ezekuna instituted the new yam festival as a tool for the lubricating the harmonious relationship among his future generations.

Apart from the merriments associated with the celebration, Okeaku, the father or the head of the family, during the festival, prays over the items provided for the celebration, offering them to God and ancestral beings for protection, good health and blessing throughout the outgoing planting season and also asks for a prosperous new year.

Since it was instituted, Okeaku has continued to be celebrated annually; it was celebrated this year on the 4th of August. Okeaku is regarded as the greatest festival in the state for two major reasons: One, Ezza Ezekuna people are basically farmers, and yam in Igboland is unarguably regarded as the king of all crops. Secondly, Okeaku festival usually starts on the New Year day and it marks the beginning of the traditional calendar year and runs through the first traditional week of the year.

It is one of the most significant events Ezekuna left behind for his sons and daughters despite cultural and traditional festivities like Eke Okpoto, Onwa Eke, traditional age grade system, naming ceremonies, marriage rites among others. Okeaku stands out as a special event in the Ezza calendar as well as socio-cultural and economic life.

It has provided the people of Ezza Ezekuna an opportunity for the propagation and sustenance of Ezza tradition and culture. A typical Okeaku festival begins in the morning of Orie day of Igbo calendar with cross-fires of traditional greetings laced with good wishes and prayers for a prosperous and happy New Year. During the celebration, each family head is presented gifts by his wife/wives, adult children and other relations.

The man in turn prays for his family, friends and relations; and blesses kolanuts which he shares among his people who eat same with specially-prepared pepper-paste called “Uza Ukpara”. At the end of the kolanut ceremonies, the man shares remnants of old yam and palm kernels known as “Nsa Aku” among his family members, friends and relations.

This aspect of the celebration marks the passover from famine period (unwu), when old yam, palm kernels and other local snacks known as “Echa” are rationed, to the period of plenitude when new yam and other crops are harvested. Thereafter, the women go to prepare special dishes while the men source good palm wine and other choice drinks all of which will be enjoyed for the rest of the day. The rest of the days of the traditional week which are Awho, Nkwo, and Eke are used to visit in-laws, the poor and to pay homage to elders and constituted authorities. Orie, which is the first day of the second week in Ezza Ezekuna traditional calendar, is known as Orie Mbi-Eka by the people.

It is the grand finalé of the Okeaku festival. On this day, people go out to supervise and do minor works like uprooting weeds which might have sprouted in between the crops. These minor works in the farms are known as Mbi-Eka Ewu by the Ezza Ezekuna people. At noon, everyone is back home for refreshments.

Afterwards, people come out to the village squares to meet their friends or relatives and watch cultural displays. Monday Eze, an indigene of Ezza Effium, said the Okeaku festival is significant in many ways. According to him, it marks the transition from the period of scarcity of food symbolised by Nsa- Aku and old yam withered by long periods of preservation to a period of prosperity, represented by the mature and ready-to-be-harvested new yam.

He said: “Okeaku is also a period of stock-taking and redirection. Okeaku is a festival of love and peace; a period of reconciliation when wrongs are forgiven and broken relationships are mended. Above all, Okeaku festival is a time for thanksgiving to the Almighty and benevolent God for His grace over the ages and the previous year upon the people of Ezza Ezekuna.

“It is both the tradition and desire of the people of Ezza Ezekuna that every Ebonyian (an Ebonyi State citizen), nay Nigerian, will use the golden opportunity of this year’s Okeaku Ezza Ezekuna to genuinely forgive his/her neighbour; enlarge the circle of love and friendship; and promote collective interests above minor passions and personal ambitions.

“As Ezza Ezekuna people pray for a prosperous New Year. Ebonyi people and the rest of humanity expect Ezza Ezekuna people to stretch their love and unity beyond the sphere of culture to the sphere of politics which has been rightly described as a game of numbers and interests. This will give them a bigger and better voice as well as the golden opportunity to avail Ebonyi State and her people the benefits of the humongous goodwill, courage, intelligence, industry and natural commitment to the common good which are natural trademarks of Ezza Ezekuna people.

These should be the watch-words of Ezza Ezekuna people if they really want to continue in the eventful progress march of their forebears which took them across the sharps of many forests and distant lands and united them in love with people of diverse cultures. “As we celebrate this year’s Okeaku, there is need for the leadership of Ezza clan to play their role effectively in the proper guidance, propagation and sustenance of the legacies of Ezekuna and safeguard the reputation, industry, unity and corporate image of Ezza people.

It is imperative for all sons and daughters of the Ezza clan to embrace peace and look beyond the celebration of this festival, but the wisdom of the ancestral Ezekuna and his peaceful nature. The political class, traditional institutions, the academia, age grades, town unions, clubs and students should embrace the challenge of maintaining peace in their domain in the spirit of the celebration.” In his goodwill message during this year’s celebration, delivered with Ezza dialect and translated by Godwin Mkpuma Ezeaka, an indigene of the clan, the traditional Prime Minister of Ezza Ezekuna, His Royal Majesty, Nwali Ngwuta, described Okeaku Festival as the celebration of agriculture, industry and hard work.

Ngwuta urged sons and daughters of Ezza Ezekuna to love, unite, live in peace and harmony with one another while urging all Ezza both at home and in the Diaspora to take the rich Okeaku cultural heritage to an enviable height. He said: “Okeaku is a yearly event that marks the beginning of the eating of new yam in Ezza land. Our forefathers used the New Yam festival period to visit in-laws, friends, members of the extended families, and elders in Ezza land. In the course of doing this, they share gifts with one another and pray together thanking God for the gift of life into the New Year and blessings of the past year’s crops and ask for more blessings in the new year’s farm produce.

“As we celebrate the 2020 Okeaku Festival, I most happily felicitate with all Ezza people to use the period to make amends where necessary and reinvigorate the principles of love, brotherliness, unity, discipline and hospitality of Ezekuna to move Ezza nation forward. Okeaku festival which ushers in new yam in Ezza land is an annual event bequeathed to us by Ezekuna, the father of every Ezza man. “The way by which the festival is conducted depicts the unity and hospitality which our forefathers were known for. This generation and generations yet unborn must therefore strive very hard to preserve it.

I urge Ezza people to use the period to propagate the good virtues and morals among their children so that the virtues of Igbo culture will be maintained. Our children should be encouraged to eschew social vices and imbibe the good life for which Ezza people are known. “I appeal to Ezza people to use the period of Okeaku festivity and the New Year to forgive one another and allow the spirit of love and unity to be deeply rooted in them.

It is my hope, therefore, that this year’s celebration will spur us to more commitment and togetherness. “You must all dwell in peace and harmony with your neighbours. “There should be no animosity or acrimony into the New Year. Do not look for troubles where they are not. Do not oppress, suppress or repress anyone. Be peaceful.

Be happy. Love one another. Help each other. Eschew strife, hate and disunity. Do not be offensive to your neighbours. Ezza must unite. Ezza must integrate notwithstanding our political and religious differences. “I advise all Ezza Ezekuna sons and daughters in politics to imbibe the spirit of patriotism and not selfishness.

They must jettison every selfish motif. They must act in such a manner so as not to threaten the corporate integrity and the common good of the Ezza nation. Ezza people in politics must be as wise so as not to destroy our heritage and existence.

Do not antagonise one another. There must be order and discipline in Ezza land as an entity. Our culture, customs and traditions must be jealously guided. This will be achieved when no one is above the laws of the Ezza land. Ezekuna is greater than any Ezza man. So, the Ezza dream is greater than anybody’s aspirations.

Thus, Ezza Ezekuna people must embrace the principle of dialogue. When there is mutual understanding, then there will be no mutual suspicions again. “My wish for everyone is that you love and help one another. Let no one scheme evil plans against anyone.

When you have clean hands and clear consciences, all you do will be blessed and prosperous. It is my earnest prayer that God will grant everyone his heart’s desire in this New Year.” In his own goodwill message, a prominent son of the clan and former Secretary to the State Government, (SSG), Prof. Ifeanyi Odoh, commended the people for remaining steadfast in their pursuit of truth and equity in all things that concern them.

He said: “This has been the Ezekuna secret – Kamenu! Once we lose the spirit of Kamenu, we lose our essence as a people. God forbid!! This is our pride, and we must constantly remind ourselves that no matter what shade of social opinion, political affiliations, location, religious inclination, political philosophy or socio-economic class we may identify with, Ezekuna blood can never be diluted nor otherwise corrupted. Thus, neither the cacophony of political Babel nor the rancour of invidious divide-and-rule can ever exterminate the ‘ndulanu, olulanu’ bond of Unwu Ezekuna.

“It is significant that we must continue to show leadership by example as the eldest clan in our socio-political bloc in our state. We have to exercise caution and show exemplary responsibility in our utterances and actions for others to follow. To do otherwise will amount to utter betrayal of our ancestors and those that look up to us to light the way.

“I urge all our good people to be ready at all times to be part of the positive wind of change blowing across the globe. Sitting back and complaining will never return the hand of the clock from the daily improvement in digital technology to the ‘comfort’ of the analog era. For example, in Commerce, Education, Art, Science and Technology, changes are a daily occurrence. We must not be left behind or continue to be used by others to improve themselves!

“I appreciate our traditional rulers and all the custodians of our culture as well as all the sons and daughters of Ezekuna who have been excelling in their various callings. I appreciate our political leaders from Federal through State to Local Government levels whose leadership activities have impacted positively on our people and humanity at large.”

TO BE CONTINUE

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