The New Yam Festival is an annual feast celebrated by almost every ethnic group in Nigeria, yam being a staple food not just in Nigeria but also in West Africa and other regions. It is 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 meaning as many people still go honour the spirits of the land and the souls of their ancestors every day.
Here’s the rationale for the New Yam Festival, called Em ‘Orho in Edo land. It is generally recognized that farming is a highly risky business. Each activity of the farming cycle has to be undertaken at specified periods of the year. The climate has to be right – the required amount of rainfall, sunshine and dry spell – to guarantee a bountiful harvest. Also, the harvest itself is the reward for human effort expended on the land. More specifically, the farmer has to engage in the following activities during the farming year: Ifie (clearing the bush), egbo (felling of the trees), ekhuen (ground preparation), egua (planting of the yam), ikpesi (staking of the yam), iviema (training of the yam tendrils), ohie (weeding), and ikpen ema (general harvesting of the yam).
In view of these considerations, a good harvest is reason enough for celebration with family, friends and neighbours, some of who may have lent a helping hand at different stages of the farming cycle. It is appropriate that a farmer and those who consume farm produce give praise and thanks to ‘Osanobua’ for blessing the efforts of farmers in their task of ensuring food security for the community. In periods of food famine as occurred during the reign of Oba Ogiso Arigho, only a few that were lucky with their crops could celebrate. Em ‘Orho is a festival of harvest and first sale of fresh yam and its consumption by the people. It is a festival during which the Omo N’Oba, the heads of families (Erha – fathers), the head of extended families (Okaegbee) and Odionwere (village or community heads) play leadership roles. These leaders, where the resource permits, organize and finance the feast. In the Royal Palace in Benin City, the Ague festival where the
monarch goes into seven days of seclusion immediately precedes the Em ‘Orho festival. In that seclusion, the monarch embarks on a fast for seven days.
The Ague festival is thought to derive from the Christian Lenten season of fasting, prayer and abstinence, learnt from the first coming of Christianity to Benin some 500 years ago. The Omo N’Oba will select some persons to fast with him. These persons will not have eaten or had any contact with the year’s new yam. Each one of them will wear the Umanague on a thread round their necks.
The Umanague is a motif made of brass by the Igun Brass Casters. The Ohen Osa’ n Akpakpava (The Chief Priest of the Edo Traditional Religion) will hand them out to each participant before the Ague begins. These chosen chiefs will tie them round their necks with a string of beads.
When the Oba emerges from the seclusion of the Ague, the New Yam Festival immediately begins. The first meal using the new yam tubers can then be pounded and eaten but not necessarily in all homes at the same time.
The Edos celebrate Em ‘Orho with Ema (pounded yam), goat meat, bush meat, among others, when farmers of the land start to harvest their yam crops. That takes place about the 11th lunar month of each year. Em ‘Orho provides good opportunity for Odionwere, Okaegbee abi and family heads to feast relatives, friends and neighbours; to promote social solidarity and a sense of belonging among the people. It’s also a chance to reduce hunger, at least for a period of merriment. There is no doubt that the name Em ‘Orho (fresh yam) signifies that the festival is agricultural. Yam, which is classified as a tuber crop, for thousands of years has been the stable food in Edo land. Em ‘Orho festival is therefore celebrated as a thanksgiving to Osanobua who makes the harvest possible and who, in doing so, guarantees food security and sustains life in the land.