Ikeji cultural festival of Arondizuogu in Imo State is a popular festival that brings the Igbo speaking community around the world together. Its origin dates back to over five centuries and it is acclaimed as the biggest pan-Igbo cultural community festival with strong heritage, international recognition and is witnessed by thousands of people on a yearly basis. It is arguably the biggest cultural festival in Igboland. In contemporary times, each passing year has witnessed an increase in grandeur, display, dance, sophistication and an all inclusive participation of all Arondizuogu people and friends. The festival is marked with colourful display of different masquerades such as Ogionu, Mgbadike, Nwaaburuja and Ozoebune; prestigiously parading across the market square to the admiration of the public. The essence of the festival, which ranks among the best surviving traditional ceremonies of the Arondizuogu people, is to celebrate the harvest of the first yams. It serves to unify and foster ties among Aro people who are spread across the entire Igbo speaking states and part of Cross River state. It appeals to the entire Igbo speaking peoples both at home and in the Diaspora.
Ikeji is a four-day festival of propitiation, thanksgiving and feasting which is held annually in March or April. Reckoned with the Igbo calendar, these four days correspond to one Igbo week of four market days (Eke, Oye/Orie, Afo and Nkwo). Each of these days has a special significance and represents one of the several dimensions of Ikeji – a festival renowned for sumptuous feasting, fascinating masquerades, pulsating rhythms, and colourful performances. Traditional musical instruments used to accompany the masquerades are ekwe (wooden slit drum) of various sizes, ogene (metal gong), bells, maracas and oja (wooden flutes). The flutist is a very important element in the ikeji festival. He deftly communicates with the masquerades – weaving soulful melodies and blending esoteric messages into the intoxicating rhythm of the drums. Another interesting aspect of ikeji is the raconteur known as ima mbem – an imaginative tale delivered with a musical cadence that only the initiated can sometimes understand or comprehend. The importance of the flutist during Ikeji festival is very vital, for he communicates things hidden from the ordinary eyes to the masquerades, combined with soulful melodies, steps and gestures, “blending esoteric messages into the intoxicating rhythm of the drums” to the admiration of the crowd.
During Ikeji festival,ON THE LAST DAY, a ram is usually tied to a pole at a popular market square with a single thread.Somebody with the strongest protection from any juju of whatever type is expected to leisurely walk to the ram amids heavy attempt with juju from other people to knock him down, maim him or kill him.Only the brave can participate in, while the NOT SO BRAVE will either abstain from or remain with the crowd as spectators. Only the brave can stand forward from the crowd, one after another and approach the tree with a view to untying the ram. However, each contender will be attacked by forces which are beyond the scope of this article to explain, with a view to stopping him reaching the ram. If overwhelmed, he will beat a retreat back to his starting point. Until eventually, the bravest among the masquerades participating in the competition for that year’s festival, after overcoming all odds, will reach the ram and untie it and take it, to a thunderous applause by the spectators. This will be followed by visits to his house by fellow kinsmen with food and wine for elevating the status of his village. Each year this is used to commemorate the person in Arondizuogu and neighbouring towns with the strongest juju or voodoo power.
Arondizuogu is a group of sprawling communities, spreading across three local government areas in Imo State, with its largest area located in the land obtained from Umualaoma town. Historically, the people of Arondizuogu were known for their great strength, in terms of warfare and slave trade. As a result of this, they were predominantly migrants.
The history of Arondizuogu cannot be complete without highlighting the rich historical background of their great slave trade merchants and warriors. Mazi Izuogu Mgbokpo and Chief Iheme, in the mid 18th century, after the abolition of slave trade, founded the “Arondizuogu.” The former was a powerful slave merchant from Arochukwu; while the latter was Mazi Izuogu’s chief servant, who hailed from Isi-Akpu Nise, in Awka, capital of the present Anambra State. They both decided to kill their hosts in Umualaoma, where they and their soldiers normally rested, when going in search of slaves. This they did and thereafter settled at Okigwe to obstruct their movement.
At this juncture, Iheme and his master, Izuogu, fought the British colonial masters, using slaves, voodoo, as well as war equipment and conquered them. They also founded villages in the present Ideato North and Onuimo Local Government Area in Imo State.
Oral history has it that today, many people of the present day Arondizuogu are descendants of people, who faced different types of challenges and persecution and ran from their towns and villages to the present day Abia, Enugu, Imo and Anambra States. They are called the Aro-Uzos, that is, Aro’s in Diaspora.
The Ikeji Festival
The Ikeji Festival The Ikeji is an annual festival of thanksgiving, merriment and propitiation, which comes up either in the month of March or April every year. The Ikeji festival is very rich, in both historical and cultural festivities, filled with scintillating performances from masquerades, memorable sights, comic acts and magical dances from different dance groups. The festival began as a ceremony to mark the end of the planting season and the beginning of the harvest season.
The Ikeji festival is a four-market days’ (out-izu uka) festival, which is equivalent to one week in the English calendar. Each of these market days: Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo, has its own significance and represents a particular aspect of the Ikeji festival.
The first day is Eke. At each Eke market, farmers and individuals bring the best of their farm produce and livestock to the market and are sold at reduced prices. Orie is the second day, which is set aside for feasting and slaughtering of livestock in advance preparation for subsequent days. On the third day, which is Afor, there is more merriment and display of small masquerades and small dance groups’ performances.
Nkwo is the day for the grand finale. This day marks the end of the festival and, as such, it is the most colourful of all the days. On this day, Nnekwu Nmanwu (big masquerade) appears, dressed extravagantly in their most appreciated regalia and costumes, dancing in their unique dance steps.
Nkwo-Achi is everyone’s destination as it is the central venue of the festivities. This colourful day showcases dance groups from different places. Each masquerade moves the great panache, attracting people’s attention in different ways. Whips made from the young malleable branches of palm tree, known as, ‘mgbajara or akpata,’ that are twisted nicely, are used to flog members of the group, to test their strength in withstanding opponents and intruders. They are also used to scare opponents as they use the whip to display fetish-looking acts. Some of the masquerades and their followers are seen carrying water in baskets, which defies the rules of science.
The juju contest, which is one side attraction at the event, is a particular spot at the central venue, where the act of ‘ito-ebule’ takes place. Here, a big ram is usually tied to a tree with a tiny rope, which ordinarily, the ram could break loose from but cannot achieve that due to some magical (voodoo) power.
Among the participants or invited guests, someone is summoned to go and untie the ram. This can only be done or achieved by a man with the strongest or most powerful protection from any powerful ‘dibia’ (native doctor). He is expected to walk confidently to the ram and loosen it. As he does this, he is confronted by spiritual attacks from other participants, aimed at knocking him down, preventing him from achieving his aim, or even killing him. At the end of the day, whoever unties the ram wins the juju contest for the year. The winner takes the ram home for feasting.
The children are not left out of the festival as they make small masks and sacks and wear on their bodies and faces to attract visitors and get small money (dash) from them.
The ‘Nkwa egwu’ (musical instrument), which accompanies the big masquerades is a sight to behold as the instruments bring out soulful melodies as well as beautiful rhythms of sounds. The ‘Ekwe’ (wooden gongs), ‘ogene’ (large metal gongs), ‘oja’ (wooden flutes), ‘igbirigba’ (bells), and ‘okom’ (drum), and so on, put together sonorous enchanting traditional sounds that encourage the masquerades and dancers to bring out the best in them.
This Ikeji festival, which holds in the ancestral homeland of Arondizuogu, is usually a forum to bring back the sons and daughters of the land from within and in the Diaspora. The festival has survived high measures of antagonism and has come to be accepted as an intangible cultural heritage, worthy of preservation.
The importance of this festival lies in the fact that organizing the festival is vested on the traditional council, which schedules and hands over to the Arondizuogu Patriotic Unions, and in turn, they promote and organize the event.
Reference; Wikipedia, http://www.nico.gov.ng/index.php/cultural-events/37-cultural-events/475-ikeji-festival-in-arondizogu