African religions hold reverence for ancestral spirits, through whom they extend worship to the Supreme Being.
The New Yam Festival usually celebrated in August or September just as the rainy season is coming to an end, and crops are ripe and ready to harvest. It is a festival which has religious meanings as many still honour the spirits of the land and the souls of their ancestors every day, as the Daily Trust reports.
According to Igbo legend, a man named 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 Igbo people.
During a time of terrible famine, a tribesman named Igbo 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 Igbo to cut their bodies into many pieces and to bury the pieces in several different hills of soil.
Igbo did as he was directed, and, in a few days, yam leaves sprouted from the hills containing pieces of Ahiajoku’s flesh, while leaves of the cocoyam sprouted from the hills where Ada’s flesh was buried.
The spirit told Igbo 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.
Amongst the Igbos, on the first morning of the celebration, families make an altar in honor of their ancestors, the earth god Ala, and the yam god, Ihejioku.
Village men go out to the farms to dig up the new yams, and give thanks in the village square. Yams must be carefully dug up as they bruise easily.
In their homes the men make an offering to the ancestors of new yams, some white chalk, and a chicken. The chicken is for slaughter, and the chalk symbolizes purity and well-being. Some of these traditions are changing now, as Christianity becomes stronger in the region. A feast with family, friends and neighbors follows.
On the second day, the villagers gather to watch young men in wrestling contests. In the morning the wrestlers eat roasted yams, which they believe will give them strength, and village elders are chosen as judges.
The harvest of yam and the celebration of the God of the land through the New Yam festival is an epitome of the people’s religious belief in the supreme deity. The coming of the new moon in the month of August marks the preparation for the great “Iri Ji Ohu” festival, but the time and mode of preparation differs from community to community.
For Mbaise people in Imo State, Nigeria August 15 is annually set for the Iri Ji festival. Usually at the beginning of the festival, the yams are offered to the gods and ancestors first before distributing them to the villagers.
The ritual is performed either by the oldest man in the community or by the king or eminent title holder. This man also offers the yams to the God, to the deities and to ancestors, showing gratitude to God for his protection and kindness in leading them from lean periods to the time of bountiful harvest without deaths resulting from hunger.
After the prayer of thanksgiving to God, they eat the first yam because it is believed that their position bestows the privilege of being intermediaries between their communities and the gods of the land.
Palm oil is used to eat the yam. This event is important event in the calendar of Igbo people all over the world.