Yam festival

The Yam Festival is a popular holiday in Ghana and Nigeria, two countries in the yam belt in West Africa. It is usually held in the beginning of August at the end of the rainy season. The festival is named after yam, which are the first crops of the season to be harvested. It marks the end of one farming season and the beginning of another, a season of plenty.

Man with huge yam tuber. Photo by IITA.
Man with huge yam tuber. Photo by IITA.

In West Africa, yam cultivation is associated with a wide variety of beliefs and taboos which govern planting, harvesting, and consumption. Sacrifices are offered to the gods at various stages of growth from planting to harvest. These are also performed in various yam-growing areas of the Pacific.

Sometimes cocoyam substitutes for yam in offering food sacrifices to earth deities. Raw yam is also used for forecasting harvest prospects.

The New Yam Festival is a 2-day cultural festival in southern Nigeria. Dancers wear masks that reflect the seasons or other aspects of nature. It is chiefly celebrated by two large cultural groups: the Ibo or Igbo of the southeast, and the Yoruba of the southwest. The Ibo call the festival Iri Ji; ji means yam. The Yoruba call it Eje.

Various communities celebrate Iriji in different ways. But all have a parade, songs, dancing, and drumming. Because a good yam harvest is important for survival, the people give thanks to the spirits of the earth and sky. The New Yam Festival is celebrated by gathering, blessing, and then feasting on the new yams.

The Yam Festival is called the Homowo or “To Hoot at Hunger” Festival. The people hope for a good harvest so that no famine will hit in the coming year. This festival takes place in many rural communities. Women dig up the yam and carry them home in baskets on their heads. Villagers gather together as the women and young girls prepare the feast, with the yam as prized food. They choose a young boy to carry the best yam to the festival dinner, and another boy follows him beating a drum. Other young people from the village march to the beat of the drum and the sound of a woodwind instrument, and sometimes musket fire. Chiefs, under umbrellas and wearing robes made from the famous, brightly colored Ghanaian Kente cloth, follow the yam, and the young people dance. Other activities include singing, wearing animal masks, and displaying fetishes.

Outside Africa
In Indonesia, the traditional yam festival occurs once every 4 years. A big seed yam weighing 2-3 kg is planted near a tree which is stripped of its bark to provide the yam vine with sturdy support. The yam is watered during the dry season and harvested after 4 years for the festival. Similar festivals are celebrated in the Pacific Islands, especially in Papua New Guinea.

History and legend
The New Yam Festival in Nigeria also has religious meaning for those who still practice the native tribal religions. Although most Nigerians are either Muslim or Christian, many still honor the spirits of the land and the souls of their ancestors in their everyday lives and in their ceremonies.

According to Ibo myth, a man named Ibo, or Igbo, gave the tribe its name. A very old legend explains how the yam and the cocoyam, another starchy root vegetable, became such important foods for the Ibo.

During a time of terrible famine, a tribesman named Ibo was told by a powerful spirit that he must sacrifice his son Ahiajoku and daughter Ada to save his other children from starvation. After Ahiajoku and Ada were killed, the spirit told Ibo to cut their bodies into many pieces and to bury the pieces in several different hills of soil.

Ibo did these, and, in a few days, yam leaves sprouted from the hills containing pieces of Ahiajoku’s flesh, and leaves of the cocoyam sprouted from the hills where Ada’s flesh was buried. The spirit told Ibo and his living children to farm these two crops. They did so, and when the yam and cocoyam were harvested, they provided food that kept the family from starvation. Because of this, Ahiajoku is worshiped as the god of yam. He is greatly honored during the New Yam Festival.

Orkwor, G.C., R. Asiedu, and I.J. Ekanayake, editors. 1998. The importance of yams. Chapter 1 in Food yams: Advances in research. p. 10.