Recently, the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Adetokunbo Kayode (SAN) launched the much expected Tourism Master Plan, an event that he described as ‘ground breaking’ for the tourism industry. Since this development, public expectation has been high that with a stronger framework, tourism will receive a much needed boost in Nigeria . This expectation is not without basis. If there is anything that Nigeria has in abundance aside from oil and gas, it is the myriad of rich and diverse cultural festivals, historical monuments and tourism destinations that abound in this country. Some of these have been developed and promoted such that they attract the attention of the global tourism community. Many others are yet to become popular international tourism destinations. One festival that enjoys wide popularity among domestic tourism enthusiasts in the south-east and which has the potential for international marketability is the Ikeji (pronounced ikeeji) festival which holds annually in Arondizuogu, a sprawling rustic community in Imo State spread across three local governments areas: Ideato North, Okigwe and Onuimo.
Historically, ikeji began as a ceremony to mark the end of the planting season. ‘Ikeji’ is said to be a shortened form of ‘ike ji isi’ (to detach the tendril of the yam) which is usually done in preparation for preservation of seed yams in the yam barn. In Arochukwu, the ancestral homeland of Arondizuogu, ikeji is held in the month of September. In Arondizuogu owing to local convenience, Ikeji is held in March or April. Early Christian missionaries could not understand Ikeji and in typical European style ascribed it to paganism in order to discourage their adherents from participating in the festival. However, Ikeji survived and came to be accepted as a cultural heritage worthy of preservation. Today, even the clergy participate in ikeji. The 2008 Ikeji Festival is scheduled to commence on April 9.
Ikeji is a four-day festival. Reckoned by the Igbo calendar, this is equal to one week which corresponds to the four Igbo market days of Eke, Oye (Orie), Afo, and Nkwo. Each of these days has a special significance and represents one of the several dimensions of ikeji. Eke is the day when livestock are purchased at various Eke markets. Oye is the day of slaughter and feasting. Afor is the day of more merriment and masquerade displays. And Nkwo is the carnival day when all new, old and ceremonial masquerades assemble at the central arena. From all the towns and villages of Arondizuogu hordes of exotically dressed masquerades and their exuberant followers trudge out towards Nkwo Achi, the central arenas of the carnival. Some wield whips made from the lighter end of the branches of palm or coconut trees wringed or twisted at the tip.
The masquerades are of five main types: Abuuja – a comically accoutred masquerade whose forte is entertainment of women and children; Ojionu – a whip wielding and fearsome masquerade; Mgbadike – a dumb, energetic masquerade that wields a wooden facsimile of an axe or cutlass held back by a restrainer; Ogba igbada – a dancing masquerade that electrifies any arena with nimble and harmonious dance steps; and the ceremonial masquerades which are often massive, majestic and expansively decorated. Each masquerade goes by a specific name. A masquerade group consists of the masquerade or masquerades, the umu nkwu (followers), and okwa oja (flutist).
Aside from masquerades, there are non-masquerade acts that add colour to the carnival. Some carry earthen pots belching with smoke on their heads. One group dances with a very large tortoise which one of them carries on his head. Some acts consist of a man carrying palm wine in a small basket from which he occasionally takes a sip in defiance of scientific logic. Sometimes, fetish looking acts are seen. But most of these are comedians and make-believe artists who try to conjure fearful images to create an aura of magic around them.
The musical instruments that are used to accompany the masquerades are wooden slit gongs (ekwe) of various sizes, metal gongs (ogene), bells of all sorts, and 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. The flutist warns the masquerade of any impending danger and is capable of inciting the masquerade or individuals to heroic acrobatics and demonstrations. Another important aspect of ikeji music is the poetic raconteur known as ima mbem. This is a deeply imaginative narrative delivered with a musical cadence.
Omu nkwu (palm fronds) are the traditional symbols used to deter the incursion of masquerades. Along the roads, in front of households, business places and the several make-shift eateries that spring up around the ikeji festival arenas, palm fronds are used to mark off the limits between the “spirits” and humans. No masquerades encroaches beyond the limits and cheeky young boys and girls often run into such encircled spaces knowing that they would be safe from approaching masquerades.
Ikeji festival is an annual homecoming. Many relationships are structured within the ikeji period some of which end up in marriage. For thousands of domestic and foreign visitors, ikeji is enthralling, fascinating and spectacular:they always find themselves staring in wonderment at the astonishing scenes. The bonhomie, friendliness, happiness and unabashed celebration are so strong as to border on mass delirium. Compared to similar events among other masquerade loving Igbo communities, this cultural fiesta which dates back many centuries is probably the greatest carnival of masks and masquerades in Africa . It was partly for this reason that ikeji was catalogued and gazetted by the Federal Ministry of Commerce, Tourism and National Orientation as a national tourism event.
For anyone who has witnessed it, ikeji is an awesome carnival filled with pulsating rhythms, and colourful performances. No other festival provides the same array of masquerades, enchanted participants and excited spectators. Just as Maltina has been consistent in showing it’s presence in sponsoring the Argungu Fishing and Cultural Festival, telecom giants MTN has been making in roads into ikeji. Last year, MTN showed some presence at the Ikeji festival. The Federal Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation and the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation will need to do more to showcase this compelling festival. The thrills and frills of ikeji are such that no one that ever attends the festival ever forgets it. That is the magic of ikeji festival.