By Florence Ugbem
The Igede Agba new yam festival which is well known in Benue and beyond was first conceived in 1957 by an Igede elite group called Igede Youth Association and took place on the first Ihigile market in September. The Igede Youth Association IYA was founded in 1950, it is the progenitor of Igede Agba celebrations. The group later metamorphosed into Igede Development Association (IDA) and is now known as Omi’Ny’Igede-meaning the voice of Igede.
A senior lecturer with the Benue State University, Prof Mike Odey, opines that Igede people appear to be the poorest and, undoubtedly, the most neglected area in Benue state, stating that it is within this context that the yam culture should be conceived and understood along with a combination of other issues like how Igede people manage the hungry months of the year and how yams became the choice crop and a factor of unity among the Igede people”
As part of activities to mark the day, a week prior to the first Ihigile market day in September, activities towards the celebrations begin. The Igede people both at home and in diaspora especially the ones in villages, purchase new clothes, while some sew uniform to commemorate the day. The celebration is more heated in the villages thus the villages witness an influx of Igede sons and daughters from all parts of the country and beyond. The eve of the event men go to their yam farms and harvest the biggest tubers, especially the varieties that mature faster such as Ochinkpe,Ihuara and Ijibo for the feast while women visit the market to purchase soup condiments and meat as the case maybe for the event.
On Igede Agba day, women in every household start cooking early in the morning with assistance from their daughters and housemaids. The traditional soup mostly prepared for this occasion is Ehia ( benniseed) soup, Onno which is called monkey bread fruit and Ibehi (melon). These soups contain a lot of fish and fresh goat meat,beef and chicken in particular.
Prof Odey disclosed that, “even the poorest households have more than enough to eat during the occasion and to exchange to the less privileged such as widows, the aged and orphans. in fact apart from exchange of cooked food by women, men folks usually send raw yams, live chickens and other gifts to their in-laws and as many others as they possibly could before or during the day”.
After pounding the yam, family members sit together in circular form to devour the pounded yam. The food is served in traditional Calabash and earthen bowl for soup and eaten in a traditional way using both hands and in groups of all married women, men and others. The pattern of eating is that the eldest is the first to cut the food before the rest in the company of eaters. Men and women throughout the day wear Igede traditional clothes called Ogodogodo and Igbagiri made locally by women from pure cotton; though this practice is not strictly adhered to again. Also men gather according to age group to drink the locally brewed wine such as Apio,Ogbete,Oburukutu,Ogene made from either millet or guinea-corn. Also in the past women joined their female counterparts within the same age group as well as children to the village playground to dance in formations, although most of these practices have been transformed while some are no longer in Vogue,like the pouring of libation before eating, group dancing along the road with masquerades as well as dressing in the traditional clothes Ogodogodo and Igbagiri on Igede Agba day celebration.
The celebration of Igede Agba means a lot to the Igede people,it amounts to the consciousness and recognition of Igede National Day as a people with a strong sense of history. It is a cultural expression of Igede identity.
It reveals the culture and moral economy of the Igede people. It is a day that further strengthens the unity and progress of the people. The celebration is seen as a binding force for both the Igede people at home and in diaspora. It is a drive for the rejuvenation of Igede culture and also sustenance of the language.
The paramount ruler of the Igede people, the Adirahu Ny’ Igede, His Royal Highness CP Oga Ero (rtd) explained to The Voice in an interview that the Igede Agba Day is a yearly event where the people celebrate the harvest of yam which is the king of all crops in Igede land.
It is a time where Igede sons and daughters both home and in diaspora come together to eat, discuss on how to promote development in the land and peaceful living among the people. Igede has become a tourists centre because of the celebration of Igede Agba. During the celebration, we are marketing our culture to the rest of the world. Guests and visitors from different locations come to watch how we celebrate the day, which has brought about increase in revenue, as visitors come they buy food and other items from the people,” he revealed.
Even though the celebration may appear to be steep in tradition, it does not conflict with the Christian way of life. According to the Minister in charge of Trinity Methodist Church Makurdi, Rev Ezekiel Odeh Okwu, the celebration has nothing to do with idol worship or rituals.
“Igede Agba is our right, the celebration is a time to remind ourselves of God’s intervention when the Igede people moved from Ora to their present home, stating that in the course of their migration they witnessed a lot of barriers like the River Oyogo but God saw them through”, he said
It is believed that as the Igede people migrated from Ora after the war between them and the people of Ora,as they journeyed they were faced with the River Oyogo, it is however believed that just like the parting of the red Sea in the Bible when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, the River Oyogo parted into seven which enabled the Igede people to proceed on their journey.
“Our fathers didn’t tell us that it was idol worship. What made people feel it’s idol worship is because in the cause of the celebration in the past, they slughter fowl across the road the blood is to let people especially strangers know that that day is Igede Agba day,” Rev. Okwu explained.
He stated that the church saw the need to come together and appreciate God. Rev Okwu also disclosed that a Thanksgiving service is held in the Morning of Igede Agba Day to commemorate the day, the offerings collected on that day is solely for the welfare of the less privileged among the church members. Also the sermon on that day is on forgiveness, love and togetherness.
In his opinion, a lecturer in the Mass Communication Department at the Benue State University Mr. John Ogi Igede Agba transcends being a celebration of new yam festival as it is a rallying point for Igede Unity.
“A lot of things have divided us as a people such as politics, religion, clan and ethnic divisions. If we go back to our roots we have a culture that unites us. This is a platform that we can close the economic gap between the rich and the poor”, he maintained.
In time past Igede Agba Celebration was all about the coming out of masquerades, cooking, dancing and eating together ,but over the last few years new trends have continue to emerge in the celebration of Igede Agba,. According to Mr John Ogi, some of the new trends that have been integrated into the celebration is to Foster unity among the Igede people. Some other activities where added to the celebration, the coming up of the Ali’ iju club (yam farmers club),who showcase their yams and the farmer with the biggest tuber is crowned the winner .Also the introduction of beauty pageant Miss Adiya (Adiya means queen in Igede)in2015.the winner went home with a car though it was not sustained.
In 2016 -2017 variety night and bringing together of all the cultural group to perform was introduced. Then in 2018 the introduction of half marathon, which is usually held a day to Igede Agba, the youths both male and female participate, at the termination point free HIV testing was conducted. Also at the termination point there was tug of war game where the winning team also receives a prize. Star prize of fifty thousand naira was given to the winner of the marathon. Other activities include a novelty match between the home and away team, home meaning men residing in the state while away team comprises of those coming from other states or outside the country.
In 2019 a group of Igede women came together and had a health walk, cooking competition was also introduced last year, cooking of Igede local delicacies, cooking of soups that have gone into extinction like oho’nyi ikpamkpa, Ata aje, and others. Igede language competition of storytelling strictly in Igede language also was showcased last year.
For this year 2020, Covid-19 has affected plans but activities such as the half marathon, Igede night of comedy and music, Igede women dancing competition to is aimed at reviving the Igede music and dance in order to prevent extinction.
By Florence Ugbem