There is a folklore in some part of Esan Land in Edo Central that talks about a beautiful damsel, the most beautiful in all the land under the Ogiso rule, who got attracted to a man who was deaf and dumb and went ahead to marry him because of the regular sound from yam pounding in the house of the physically challenged. The man had six wives already but she went ahead to become the seventh wife. The beautiful damsel told her parents that she would prefer to be a well-fed seventh wife than to be an only but hungering wife.
Sadly for her, the other wives conspired against her and made sure all she got was peelings from their kitchens and she bore the pain in silence for fear of being lynched. Their husband being a hard working farmer was hardly at home during the day and it was difficult communicating with him at night. Ironically, the other wives all married the deaf and dumb because of his wealth in terms of yam and other farm produce which was a viable measure of wealth in their time. Her sorrow was not to be forever as a palm wine tapper watching the compound closely from his trees soon revealed the ordeal she was made to face everyday. Though the watch was initially kept by the palm wine tapper out of lust and admiration for the beauty goddess it later paid off in good coin when he reported the young woman’s ordeal to the husband. The dignity of the young wife was soon restored as the husband’s youngest and favourite wife and she got the biggest and largest hip of yam tubers at the family’s weekly ration. From this event, a song evolved among maidens which became their favourite moon light play chant and the day the first harvested tubers were brought home reminded the people of the “Beauty” who got “married to yam” as the event was described and it became a time for great merriment.
The story is not the same through out Esan land, but the yam crop is central to all Esan people. They take pride in their yam farms which they tender with utmost care and devote attention. Till date, the Yam crop remains one the highest income earner for Esan farmers. Yam meals such as pounded yam, Yam Porridge, boiled or roasted yam are always a delight to the people. And so it is said that an Esan man would not admit to have eaten unless he was served a yam meal which to his delight should be Pounded Yam with Ọgbọlọ, Egusi or black herbal soap.
In early times, it was forbidden for anyone to eat the new season yam until after the celebration of the New Yam Festival which was observed between the full moon of the ninth lunar month and the tenth lunar month. The movement of the feast depends on how early or late the rains came that year. In the celebration of the New Yam Festival, fourteen days were expended in preparing the community and homes for the festival. General clearing, sweeping and cleaning of the villages were carried out by the middle age groups with the elderly but none title holders supervising. Canopies were built with palm fronds in public places around the community and the masquerade chiefs put finishing touches to masquerades that would appear on the festival day. The young maidens and boys took the last two weeks before the festival to put finishing touches to new dance steps and tunes.
The festival is well attended by sons and daughters of the land abroad. Many of them come home each year amidst a large company of friends anxious to experience the festival which today, moves weekly from one community to another across Esan Land beginning in September and running through the third week of November just before the Igue Festival activities begin in Benin City.
Less work is done during this period and frequent bath and polishing of the skin with traditional coconut oil or palm kernel oil is encouraged to repair whatever damage the tropical sun must have done to the skin. This is evidenced in the robust and shining skin of dancers on the great day. For the palm wine tappers however, this period is most busy as they work extra hard to meet the high demand occasioned by the festival. Significant to the festival is the public roasting of yam tubers on which prayers are offered and everybody in the community eats a piece. Thereafter, Pounded Yam served with Ọgbọlọ soap is brought to the elders at the village square or shrine as the case may be and it is eaten after prayers have been said and the symbolic feeding of their ancestors was done with two mussels of pounded yam rubbed in soap and thrown away. These ceremonies pave way for the seven day festival and eating of the new yam.
The advent of Christianity many thought would weaken the people’s tenacity to the events marking the festival but as it turned out, many Christians bought it and had it placed on their Christian calendar as the Community Harvest Thanksgiving. The festival has been able to accommodate people of all religion and the celebration brings all together as one family. Population explosion has made it impossible today to gather everybody to a central feeding point, rather special ceremonies connected with the day according to the peoples’ culture are observed at the extended family units.
The first day of the festival mostly Saturdays begins very early with the slaughtering of domestic animals such as goats and sheep that would be used as complements to the assorted dry fish and dry bush meat which are the main constituents of the day’s cuisine. As the women embark on cooking, the young men engage themselves in communal sweeping, putting finishing touches to sun shades or canopies. Among most families who see themselves as custodians of the peoples’ heritage, the traditional roasting of yam is still done for breakfast. This breakfast period is exploited by teen cultural groups to showcase themselves from one family compound to the other. In large communities, designated locations are chosen for this breakfast parade by the young who soon disperse as the morning masquerades “salute” to the elders begin. Only masquerades coming out for the first time ever take part in the outing. At every house, the masquerades call on the elder member of that family who comes out to give his praise and blessing. The masquerades in turn do little dance to the admiration of all which is sometimes appreciated by members of such family by throwing money on the ground which is picked by the men following the masquerades. This outing terminates in a brief dance that morning by the Igbabọnẹlimhin masquerades at the public ground.
The dancers retire home to face mountains of pounded yam served with Ọgbọlọ Soup or Egusi Soup. This meal is generously available to anyone who stops by and choice drinks are available to wash down the mussels of pounded yam. As is customary to the people, so much more than the immediate family can consume is prepared and friends and well-wishers from other communities not yet celebrating come to help out with the excesses and the host shows his gratitude by ensuring a free flow of palm wine and other drinks as may be requested by the much appreciated guest.
Amidst the eating and drinking, the Asonogun dancers rally themselves to one point which may be their leader’s house, the Ọdiọnwele’s (Head Chief) house or any other point where a continuous flow of wine is guaranteed. The gathering which begins with a few singers and dancers soon attract other performers and a crowd of spectators. As their voices serenade the atmosphere, quick and vigorous steps follow the rhythm. The Esan Asonogun dance is so powerful and demanding as it requires a lot of strength to sustain the tempo and continued performance.
The Asonogun dancers continue to entertain their audience well into the night and in return spectators freely paste currency notes on the fore heads of dancers. However as the sun sinks lower in the west, other groups begin their performances which gives spectators varieties to choose from. These sunset groups include the Kokoma and Kpegbegbe dancers. The Kokoma group is dominated by women and their main instrument of music is the bongo (drum) and ukoese which is a musical piece close to the maracas. It is a whole calabash with stringed beads on its body. The dance steps are not so fast like in Asonogun dance but it follows a pattern in its back and forward sways. The entire movement is so rhythmic and patterned that it can pass for a choreographed performance.
Kpegbegbe on the other hand is a circus group of the Esan people. This group comprises young children some about seven years old, teenagers and young adults. They build human pyramids and sky scrapers; they walk on ropes, walk like crabs and so many other supposedly impossible actions. Unlike the Western circus where they have foamed floors when climbing, all these performances are done on the hard brown earth which leaves onlookers shivering from fear of a fall. Nightfall eventually puts an end to the Kpegbegbe performance and later the Kokoma group leaving the Asonogun Group to claim monopoly of the night.
The entire community wakes up to great entertainment on the next day. Rising early, the acrobatic Igbabọnẹlimhin masquerades go about a sort of promotional dance giving the people a hint of what to expect in the evening. Most importantly the cooking, eating and drinking continues. The evening of this second day is the high point of the festival when the main Igbabọnẹlimhin dance takes place. It is the chief cultural attraction of the Esan people and the display leaves every on looker electrified. Guests visiting for the first time without their video cameras have always regretted it.
Beginning at about 4.00pm, all the Asonogun groups congregate at the house of their most ranking leader and there they change into their Igbabọnẹlimhin customs and the music and dance train moves slowly to the town’s square which is an open public ground that also serves as congress ground for the community. It is said that to be a good Igbabọnẹlimhin dancer, you have to begin with Asonogun where flexibility is learnt. As the dance group which consist mostly singers and instrumentalists draw closer to the square, masquerades begin to emerge from different directions with each displaying some thrilling acrobatic moves. This multiplicity of view overwhelms the crowd and they burst with excitement as the masquerades coming out from several directions in their beautiful new costumes make daring moves with some doing triple somersault and landing yet on their feet.
After the initial thrill, the dance becomes more organised as the masquerades take turns to display their unique dance steps and gymnastic abilities with great flexibility. The experience is truly exhilarating and can never be described in words. The Igbabọnẹlimhin dance comes to a close at about 7.00pm when the sun finally goes to sleep in the West. The entire town then relaxes for a moment as dinner is served. Before the meal could settle in, earth shocking sounds from various loud speakers across the town mostly from Bars and venues for open air parties take over the airwaves. This is where the Western touch to the festival begins. Compared to the New Yam Festival in Esan Land especially among the people of Ahia in Ubiaja, Esan South East Local Government Area, Edo State Christmas is only a work free Sunday.
The Festival has become a major event in the tourism calendar of Edo State and it attracts tourists in their thousands to the State in the ten weeks that it runs. Many are attracted to the cuisines which they are generously served wherever they go and others are cut in the web of the people’s rich culture.
The New Yam Festival is a living legacy amongst the Esan speaking people that will remain as part of the spiritual and material content of their culture forever.