The New Yam Festival marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.
The New Yam Festival is a holiday celebrated annually by almost all of the ethnic groups in Nigeria. It usually takes place around the end of June, and it is considered taboo to eat the newly harvested YAM before this date. The high priest sacrifices a goat and pours its blood over a symbol representing the god of the harvest.
Then the carcass is cooked and a soup is made from it, while the yams are boiled and pounded to make foofoo. After the priest has prayed for a better harvest in the coming year, he declares the feast open by eating the pounded yam and the soup. Then everyone joins in, and there is dancing, drinking, and merrymaking. After the festival is over, it is permissible for anyone in the community to eat the new yam.
Why is the yam so important?
An old Igbo myth says that during a severe famine Igbo (from whom the tribe takes its name) was told that he must sacrifice his son, Ahiajoku, and his daughter, Ada, in order to save his other children. After they were killed, their flesh was cut into pieces and buried in several different mounds. A few days later, yams sprouted from the flesh of Ahiajoku, while cocoyams sprouted from the flesh of Ada. Igbo and his other children survived the famine by eating them. The spirit of Ahiajoku became the God of Yam.
The myth of Ahiajoku
The myth of Ahiajoku is reenacted during the New Yam Festival each year. Each householder places four or eight new yams on the ground near a shrine. After saying some prayers, he cuts small portions off each end of the yams to symbolize the sacrifice of Ahiajoku. The yams are then cooked with palm oil, water, and chicken to make a dish that symbolizes the body and blood of Ahiajoku. The Igbo people consider the yam to be so sacred that at one time, anyone caught stealing it would be put to death. Today, such thieves are banished.
Yoruba New Yam Festival
The Yoruba people celebrate the New Yam Festival, known to them as Eje, for two days around the time of the harvest. They fast, give thanks for the harvest, and carry out special DIVINATION RITES to determine the fate of the community, and particularly its crops, in the coming year. Most of the festival activities take place in a sacred grove and at a sacred shrine, both of which are purified for the occasion. There are very specific rules governing how the new yams must be presented to the appropriate religious authorities.
The Igbo people celebrate what they call the Onwasato Festival in August, which marks the beginning of the harvest. There is a thanksgiving ritual in which the senior member of every family kills at least one fowl and sprinkles its blood on the Okpensi (symbol of the family), giving thanks to the family’s ancestors. The feathers are removed and spread on the threshold to demonstrate the family’s determination to forsake evil. One of the fowls is roasted and put aside, while the others are consumed during the day’s feasting. On the second day, the roasted fowls are shared by members of the extended family.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
A highlight of the New Yam Festival, particularly among the Yoruba people, is the divination rite that determines the destiny of the community and the likelihood of an abundant harvest. One of the recently harvested yams is taken and divided in two. The two parts are thrown up in the air, and if one part lands face up and the other face down, it is considered a very promising sign. If both fall either face up or face down, it is taken as a bad omen.
Yams are a staple of life in Nigeria, and a great deal depends on the success of the crop. Since it can be affected by many different religious powers, from the ancestors to the gods, it is essential that these powers be treated with respect and offered special prayers and sacrifices at the time of the yam harvest.
Among the Igbo, the yam is symbolic of a human being who was sacrificed so that other humans might survive. Ahiajoku (see “Origins”) is the only example of a human hero who is deified in Igbo mythology, since his spirit became the God of Yam