The origin of Ikeji Festival in Arochukwu is as old as the history of the Kingdom. The festival marks the end of the farming season, arrival of harvest, and beginning of a new season. The Ikeji Calendar is determined by the Arochukwu traditional council (OKPANKPO Aro) under the leadership of his Majesty the Eze Aro. Celebrated in the gregorian month of September every year,it is usually a 17 days event.
The Ikeji Period:
The Ikeji month is a special period when Aros are expected to observe strict adherence to norms, ethics, customs and tradition. During the period, neither burials nor mourning gatherings are permitted. All forms of violence are not tolerated, civil disobedience; public protests are strictly prohibited throughout the Kingdom. Death of any Aro within the period is largely viewed as a bad omen and therefore treated quietly with indignity. The period is devoted more rectitude, thanksgiving, entertainment, charity, philanthropy and recreation.
Ikeji presents a unique opportunity to celebrate Arochukwu tradition and culture in its pure and original form. It is also a platform for infinite entertainment, tourism and reunion with cultural delegations from affiliate Aro settlements spread in over 350 communities in Igbo land and beyond. The festival features seminars and lectures on Aro cultures, visits and homage to historic cultural sites, pouring of libation, exchange of kola-nuts and good will, paying of homage to Aro traditional institutions, masquerades, traditional dances, diverse cultural displays and so much more.
It is also a period to commune with the ancestors, reconciliation, peace building, conflict resolutions and self-help development projects. The era therefore witnesses influx of visitors and tourists into Arochukwu. Sons and daughters from all parts of the world return home to the Kingdom to be part of diverse cultural displays, merry making, exchange of visits, marriages etc. The Ikeji Festival is also a time for expansion of boundaries of business and friendship. It is another time to come close to nature, renew faith in Aro culture, connect with kith and kin and watch the original culture and tradition come alive.
Stage 1: AFOR OKPO NA-ZA AWADA
On this day, members of the Otusi (clan) of Amaja, a historical kith and kin in Aro mobilise to sweep Awada Aro. This event holds in Ugwuakuma village in Arochukwu. The Okpo family from Agbagwu has a leading role in the assignment with the support of Otusi Clan. During the brief ceremony, Awada Aro is opened; the environment kept quite clean, decorated and put in real festive mood. This event marks the beginning of Ikeji.
Stage 2: AFOR MBAPE AWADA
The stage of the Festival features members of the Otusi (clan) of the Amuze. The clan mobilises eligible sons to sweep Awada Aro. The ceremony brings together Otusis from other Aro Kindreds including Okennachi, Eze Agwu, Umu Nna Okwara Agwu, Bianko to participate in the ceremony. The attendants arrive at the ceremony wearing bells on their waist and carrying gongs, both instruments producing resonant sounds. It is usually a prestigious movement that carries the weight of royalty, honour and glamour.
Stage 3: AFOR NDULASA NWAEKPE
Nwa Ekpe, a symbolic representation of the royal ancestors is led home. This is an all day ceremony that keeps the town in real festive mood. All the nine Otusis (clans) in Aro go to Ugwuakuma, to offer sacrifice and pour libation to the ancestors in appreciation for a good harvest period. Each delegation wearing bells around their waists while carrying gongs on hands dancing to the admiration of all and sundry already soaked in Ikeji festival mood. The ceremony ends at night and the various delegations return with dances to their respective villages.
Later the same night the talking drums (uvie) are brought down. The drum (Uvie) left hanging on a particular spot since the last Ikeji celebrations are gracefully brought down, rolled out and played loudly. The loud talking drums are welcomed with loud ovation, excitement and jubilation by all, far and near. In the ancient days, the uvie (big talking drum) can only be sounded only in the compounds of great and outstanding men of each village. Uvie is a drum used to celebrate success, honour, achievements and bravery. Only the wealthy and influential in those days were in a position to host Uvie (the talking drum). This is because the ceremony itself attracts cost for entertainment and relevant materials for sacrifice. The sounding of the uvie put all and sundry on notice that Ikeji celebration has fully commenced.
Stage 4: NKWO NKU
Nkwo Nku is a day when women are expected to fetch firewood for their husband’s mother, their mistresses or close friends. The wood is meant for cooking while the Ikeji season lasts. It is indeed a friendly gesture of love and respect for elders. Nkwo Nku is intended among other to highlight the role of women in the family. It is also to promote the virtues of motherhood and cordial daughter in-law and mother-in-law’s relationship in line with respect of Aro culture.
Stage 5: EKE AGBA UDU
This is a day set aside for Aro Aristocrats from Amuze, a particular kith and kin in Aro kingdom to step out in grand style to offer sacrifice. The day is marked with loud festivities that bring out the best of Amuze peculiar culture and pride.
Stage 6: ORIE AWA
It is a day set aside to offer the sacrificial animals such as goats a special meal. The significance of this has been open to many interpretations and debate. While some claim that the exercise is to offer the animals their “last supper” for possible slaughter in Ikeji, others argue that it is to appreciate the importance of domestic animals like goat in Aro tradition. Orie Awa also features another round of fetching of fire wood to support the kitchen. This is an activity set out for young girls looking for suitors, the newly wed and young mothers. The road to nearby forests and farms to fetch the fire wood creates avenues for “toasting”, courtship by young boys in search of lifepartners.
Stage 7: AFOR AWA
Afor Awa is the expected deadline for all Aro sons and daughters, in-laws, friends and well-wishers travelling to the Kingdom from other Aro settlements and communities all over Igbo land to arrive in Aro. By Afor Awa, all cleaning up activities and preparations for Ikeji should have been concluded. The arrangements made by families and the community to receive Ikeji visitors and invitees should equally be concluded on or by Afor Awa day. The arrangements on ground by Afor Awa put everyone in full Ikeji vacation and festive mood. By Afor Awa, visits to the Farm for any hard work are restricted. Women especially young girls looking for suitors spend more time in body painting (ide uri and ide – nkasi ani). There is also special attention to coral beads andcowries which are usually won to complement the dressing. Afor Awa in Ikeji calendar is also a period that witnesses pressure on families to prepare their children and household for special Ikeji look like no other.
Stage 8: NKWO NZUKORO
Nkwo Nzukoro in Ikeji Calendar represents special market day set aside for Ikeji Shopping. On this day, Aros are expected to do the last marketing and shopping for the season. Although Ikeji is a yam festival, the eating of rice (eresi) has been introduced in recent times. Nkwo Nzukoro therefore also known as also known as Nkwo Eresi. In Aro traditional calendar that day also marks the end of the year. The midnight activities of nkwo nzukoro or nkwo eresi can be compared to activities at midnight of Christmas – New Year eve of 31st December; when Christians send – off an old year and usher in the New Year.
In the olden days, after dinner on Nkwo Nzukoro, Aro villages and kindreds usually keep vigil until midnight to usher in the New Year. For instance within the three villages that make up Umunna Okwara Agwunamely (Ugbo, Ugwuavor and Amoba) tough night masquerades called “Achikwu” take over the night. Achikwu masquerade strictly open to only male members who are initiated dance throughout the night of Nkwo Nzukoro to usher in Eke Odu. In some other villages and clans, it is Obono society that is used by men to mark the night vigil. In those days, the night of Nkwo Nzukoro is a night when women are neitherheard nor seen because of presence of night masquarades and other male dominated cultural dances.
When the New Year is born in the early hours of Eke Odu, there are spontaneous shouts of afo laoooo! afo laooooo! (Goodbye old year, goodbye old year). This is followed by lighted; smoking firebrands that run long distances to the backyard, waved above the head and thrown headlong along gutters, behind compounds to drive away the evils of the passing year. At the end of Nkwo Nzukoro, the Aro main market, Ncheghe, and the Eke Ukwu market, go on recess. On Tuesday 20th September, this ceremony was held as part of this year’s Ikeji festival.
Stage 9: EKE ODU
This is the day of the new yam. It features Ekpo Masquarade dances at Obinkita, variety of dances by the Ezeagwu & Umunna Okwara Agwu tomark the new yam. Eke Odu is the day Arocukwu eats the eat new yam.
Stage 10: ORIE EGBUGBU
This is the day the elders drawn from villages, kindred’s and clans commune with the ancestors through pouring of libation, killing of fouls, goats, cows and other sacrificial animals to appease the land. It is a day Aros make sacrifices to sue for peace, unity and love in celebration of harvest. The type of sacrifice is determined by capacity, affluence and need. This is the time when succulent plants known as OKPOTO is placed at the entrance of each onu ezi (compound). The eldest of the compound offers a sacrifice before the arrival of dawn.
Thereafter, about 7.00 a.m., every family offers sacrifice to its ancestors at Inyamavia located at Ulo nta (a small house but an ancestral assembly hall) where the family staff of office -Inyama Avia- is reposed. People are expected to ensure that their domestic animals are prevented from tasting the ofor left at the ulo nta. Any animal found tasting the ofor would be killed instantly. In the evening of Oriegbubgu, families begin to cook an Ikeji delicacy called osu. This delicacy is only prepared by women of proven purity and decency in character, birth and ancestory. The aboriginal status of women who can be involved in cooking and carrying Osu must not be in question. The end of the cooking is heralded with gun shots, each gunshot representing each goat used for the meal. The more goats killed the more gun shots into the air to celebrate success.
Stage 11: AFOR OSU
The osu meal prepared the previous day is now presented to friends and well-wishers on the Afor osu morning by women. Visitors are also entertained with the delicacy. Members of each family are summoned to the osu meal by the exclamation AFOR OSU OKO-O! The word Okoo is an exclamation used by the Aro to signal an emergency. The sharing of Osu from one household, family to another are usually carried out by young girls who are searching for suitors. It is an amazing day for special Ekpo masquerade performances at the highest level all over the kingdom especially at Obinkita. The journey from one family to the other provides huge opportunities for young bachelors to ask questions seek and fine. Ofor Osu in Aro calendar is a day of caring, sharing, exchange of gifts, pleasantries and good will.
Stage 12: NKWO EKPE IBOM-ISII
Nkwo Ibom Issi holds in Ibom square. On this day, Ikeji activities are centred in and on the Ibom village. All the villages that make up Ibom Isii assemble in Ibom to participate fully in the day’s activities other Aros attend as guests of Ibom Isii. Cultural displays and wrestling matches staged to entertain people from other villages of Aro. It is usually and avenue to market and celebrate talents, bravery, creativity and innovation in skills, dancing and wrestling. Many agile young men smile home with brand new love relationships that they never bargained for. This is Nkwo Ekpe Ibom Isii is also a special opportunity for girls to show their beauty apparently in search of partners. The various cultural displays feature good cultural displays. Respective villages drawn from Ibom Isii dance in style and excitement to the admiration before the Eze Aro and his cabinet sitting in majestic appraisal in Ibom square.
Stage 13: EKE EKPE AROCHUKWU
This is the climax of the Ikeji Festival. On the Eke Ekpe Day, Aros at home and in the Diaspora put on their best traditional attire, assemble in the ceremonial arena, Amaikpe to either participateor watch amazing diverse Aro cultures on display by the various communities. It is also a day set aside for delegations from Aro settlements drawn from communities across Igbo land to showcase Aro culture from the perspective of their host communities. These include dances and masquerades of all shapes and sizes and side attractions that speak eloquently of Aro heritage. Girls who have gone through puberty rituals in preparation for marriage are let out on this day to dance in the arena, from where they are expected to join their bridegrooms.
Eke Ekpe Day offers the Eze Aro another opportunity to address the kingdom, unveil new programs and set new agenda for Aros at home and in the diaspora. It is equally a chance for Nzuko Arochukwu to mobilise resources and opportunities for self help development projects. The Eke Ekpe is usually attended by dignitaries from the academia, politics, economy, private and public sectors including high ranking national and state government officials.
Stage 14: ORIE UBI LEE AVO
The event marks the beginning of the end of Ikeji. The process of winding down Ikeji commences with the ovor (family ancestral staff of office – Inyamavia ) earlier brought down for Ikeji festivities on Orie Egbugbu day in the ulo nta is then returned to original position until the next Ikeji. The Ceremony is restricted to only whom it may concern.
Stage 15: AFOR NDULA NWA-EKPE
During this day, Nwa Ekpe is ‘led back’ to Awada Aro. The ceremony on its own speaks volumes of the place of Nwa ekpe in Arochukwu customs and tradition.
Stage 16: NKWO NWUPU MMAI IBOM ISII
The day invites all aristocrats of Amuze and Ibom Isii to assemble at the house of Eze Ibom Isii who is head of Ibom Isii Kindred of the Aro Kingdom. The day also known as Nkwo Nzupu Avia (Nkwo market day) marks the re-opening of business of Ncheghe market. By this development, business activities earlier suspended to pave way for Ikeji resumes fully.
Stage 17: EKE NWUPU MMAI NA AMUZE
This last day of the event invites all the aristocrats” of Ibom Isii to meet those of Amuze and jointly move into the palace of the Eze Aro at Oror village. At the Palace, the final drinking; libation is poured in all ulo nta in Amuze. This ceremony brings the Ikeji Festival for that year to an end.
In conclusion, Arochukwu remains on ancient Kingdom in Igbo land, South East Nigeria where the culture, customs and tradition reign supreme. The Ikeji Arochukwu is one of such legacies that all generations of Aros hold sacred.
Reprinted (with edits) from AroNewsOnline