Chinedu Agulu expatiates on the legendary Anam New Yam Festival popularly called Otite Anam and in Anam dialect-Ọ̀ọte Anam. We learn new terms line onwa ntuvi, Mgbabo Oku, Ibana Mmanwu

The Igwe of Umuoba Anam celebrating Ọ̀ọte Anam

Anam is a town in Anambra West Local Government Area of Anambra State in Nigeria and comprises of eight distinct communities: Iyiora, Mmiata, Oroma-Etiti, Umudora, Umuenwelum, Umueze, Umuikwu and Umuoba. Each of these communities can be made reference to in an independent manner with “Anam” as suffix, for example, “Umuikwu Anam”. There are also some parts of a couple of these communities that can be found in Anambra East L.G.A like the Umuoba Anam that is one of the three major communities that make up the town, Otuocha, which is the Headquarters of Anambra East L.G.A, with the other two being Aguleri and Umuleri. There is also a small part of Mmiata Anam referred to as “Mmiata Ovianwagbo” or Mmiata II attached to the Aguleri side of Otuocha. Anam can further be subdivided into Ezi-Anam and Ifite-Anam; the communities that make up Ezi-Anam include Oroma-Etiti, Umudora, Umuenwelum and Umuikwu while those of Ifite-Anam are Iyiora, Mmiata, Umueze and Umuoba.

Anam is surrounded by water bodies; in fact, the ‘omambala’ river also referred to as Anambra river encloses Anam and flows into the River Niger which separates Anam(Umuikwu) from Onitsha and Asaba on either side while ‘mmili Ezichi’(Ezichi river) which flows across Mmiata, Iyiora and Umuoba Abegbu meets the ‘omambala’ river at Umueze Anam/Otuocha beach. Littered amidst the communities also are several water bodies in the form of ponds and lakes. Therefore, the Anam people were and still are predominantly farmers and fishermen which is why Anambra west L.G.A is referred to as the food basket of Anambra state.

Blessed with a rich cultural heritage, Anam observe many cultural festivals which include ‘Nzireani’, ‘ibana mmanwu’, ‘tigolo tigolo’, ‘Otite Anam’ to mention but a few. In this write-up, however, we will be focusing on the ‘Otite Anam’ as that of this year comes up on Sunday, the 5th of August, 2012.The ‘Otite Anam’ dates back to the origin of Anam. It is their New Yam Festival. It marks the beginning of harvest and surplus after passing through famine/dry season for the year. Before the advent of Christianity in the area, what was recognized in Anam and the whole of Igbo land was a market week which has four days and counted thus: Orie, Afor, Nkwo and Eke. Pre-Christianity era, ‘Otite Anam’ was celebrated on an eke that fell into the middle of their sixth month (August). It is pertinent to note that August was their sixth month because January and February didn’t count and consequently, their year was made up of ten months; they referred to January and February as onwa ntuvi (wasted month) and onwa uluru (month of laziness) respectively since it was difficult to achieve anything significant in Agriculture within these months. The celebration must be on an eke day since it was the only sacred day of the week. It should also be noted that it was an abomination to go farming on an eke day once Nzireani had been marked. It was only after Otite that one had to do whatever he likes on an eke day. Nzireani, usually marked around the last month of the year (December), signifies the bringing down of the ‘Ani’ (god of earth) deities that were hanged in stilt houses when the floods came in the rainy season. Also, after the Otite festival, the several ponds/lakes belonging to different families, clans and communities could no longer be fished in; this was to allow the fishes grow for mgbabo oku, the fishing festival, done around late March/early April.

From a market week before the D-day, children including the sons and married daughters were required to bring gifts to their parents to show that they had a good planting season. This was referred to as ‘ikwaje ive otite’. Minimally, four tubers of yam, fish, kolanut and money for drinks were meant to be taken to the fathers but the wealthier children could bring more; for the mothers, it was basically the same but clothes went for the drinks. Sons-in-law were also obligated to do the same.

On the festival day, the head of each family used to do ‘ilo mmuo’ first. This is a thanksgiving ritual to their ancestors in respect of the year’s harvest; lumps of pounded yam touched in soup with sumptuous pieces of fish were dropped for the deities to feed first before others could now begin the feast. Young men and women, dressed in their best clothes, walked around in the community according to age groups while visiting each of their families in turn to have meals of pounded yam with nsala or egusi soup with different kinds of fish; okro soup was hardly used for Otite, it was also almost a sacrilege not to use palm oil for your soup on that day. It was also during Otite that potential brides went to their future husbands’ houses, accompanied by their would-be brothers-in-law. The grown and elderly gathered round and feasted with dry gin and occasionally, palm wine while their wives brought food for them; they sang (iti abu) and did some rhythmical movements while hitting their legs on the ground in a strong and fanciful manner referred to as ‘izo oka’. Other activities followed until dusk. After Otite, it was then the season of plenty and people then ate mostly pounded yam and went less to the farm until ‘udummili’, the rainy season passes away.

Like most other cultures and traditions, there has been a tremendous decline in the involvement of people in the festival; this is mainly due to globalization/civilization coupled with the religious orientation that now sees most of the rituals as heathen and not of God. There are, therefore, a few amendments to it. Succinctly put, there are two major amendments to the festival which has unconsciously but steadily become the norm; the first being the date of the festival. It still falls into August and an eke market day but now has to be on a Sunday referred to as ‘uka eke’. Therefore, the ‘uka eke’ of August of every year is ‘Otite Anam’. However, in the case whereby two ‘uka ekes’ occur in August, the first one becomes the date; this rarely occurs, though.

Secondly, the ‘nkwaje ive otite’ is now hardly respected as it is only a few that presently send stuffs to their parents during the festival period and when done, the gifts do not come in the original manner as they monetize them. Also, during the festival, people now consume more of lager beer drinks than local gin and palm wine; some families even cook rice and stew with chicken, turkey and goat meat replacing fish. Of due significance, also, is the fact that people now hardly observe the ritual of ‘ilo mmuo’ as they are now predominantly Christians. Rural-Urban migration is also a factor affecting Otite Anam’ in particular and Anam cultures in general as there are presently many Anam sons and daughters born and bred outside Anam.

Considering the fact that there’s a steady decline in our cultural orientation, which is about to get worse as exploration activities have already begun in the area, there is an increasing need for a total cultural rejuvenation so as to retain the identity of the people and harness the tourism potentials of Anam. This has to start with the community leaders creating more awareness about the festival. The traditional rulers should, as a matter of urgency, make it a public event when they are doing their ‘ilo mmuo’. They should be able to use that medium to address the public on the natural endowments of the community and what the state would gain from the untapped tourism potentials. For example, the government can key into the fishing festival referred to in Anam as ‘mgbabo oku’.Also, the various presidents and the entire EXCOs of the Anam People’s Assembly (APA) at home and in the diaspora should always mark ‘Otite Anam’ festival in grand style wherever they are and if possible, send down representatives annually to mark it at home.

With these and a few other strategies, the public/government attention will be drawn to the neglected area that houses most of the farm produce in Anambra State and as discovered recently, part of the hydrocarbon base of the state.

I wish everybody ‘Happy Otite Anam!’

Chinedu Agulu