The Meaning and Significance of Otite Anam Festival -By Chief Emma Nnachor

Chief Emma Nnachor's brief exposition of Otite Anam pronounced as Ọ̀ọtè in Anam dialect. Otite Anam is the new yam festival of Anam people of Anambra State in South Eastern Nigeria.

The Meaning and Significance of Otite Anam Festival -By Chief Emma Nnachor
The Meaning and Significance of Otite Anam Festival -By Chief Emma Nnachor

"As you all very well know, I am not a lecturer, and as such, this paper is not an Inaugural Lecture or a Seminar Paper. What I have tried to highlight in this address is to tell our young ones and friends here, what they ought to know concerning the Meaning and Significance of the yearly Otite Anam Festival. May I, therefore, crave the gracious indulgence of this august gathering to oblige me with the favour of your very esteemed audience.

1. The Meaning of Otite

This five-letter-word “Otite” in Anam is the synonym for “Iwa ji” ceremony elsewhere in Igboland which is popularly referred to as “The New Yam Festival”. The origin of Otite in Anam is as ancient as the evolution or fusion of the entity called Anam town or clan as some people may choose to call it. It is a yearly festival celebrated simultaneously in all the eight villages of Anam namely: Iyiorah, Mmiata, Oroma-Etiti, Umudora, Umuenwelum, Umueze, Umuikwu and Umuoba (i.e. going by the alphabetical order listing of all the villages in order to respect their status of equality literarily, as it were). Until about two decades ago, when Okpokolo” Anam, the Executive Arm of the Council of Elders mandatorily fixed the first Sunday of August, (the sixth month -onwa isii- in our local chronological time) that falls on Eke day, as the date for the yearly Otite Anam Festival, it was formerly celebrated on any chosen Eke day in August. In fact, it is only Otite of all the festivals in Anam that has a fixed date which is not affected by the vagaries of weather or season.

2. What is being celebrated?

It is an incontrovertible fact that Anam people are the greatest producers of big yam tubers throughout south-eastern Nigeria. Whether it is Onitsha yam, Otuocha yam, Okoti yam, Ochuche-Umuodu or Ani-Eze yam, the producers of about 80% of these yams (to be very modest) are Anam people. Therefore, just as farming is the chief occupation of Anam people, the chief product of our people’s occupation is the Yam. Otite Anam Festival consequently, is the celebration of the chief product of our people’s occupation. Today, all communities in Igboland celebrate the new yam festival yearly, beginning from the same month of August. But the irony of the new yam festival elsewhere in Igboland is that all the other communities visit the markets in all the places mentioned above to buy either Onitsha yam, Otuocha yam, Okoti yam or Ochuche-Umuodu yam to celebrate their new yam festivals.

But Anam people celebrate Otite Anam with yams produced by them in their farms and with fishes killed by them in their rivers, lakes and streams. Therefore, it is no exaggeration but a statement of fact that Anam people, through our main occupations of farming and fishing, provide Igboland with the material food items for the yearly celebration of the new yam festivals.

3. The Mode of Celebrating Otite Anam

Because farming is the main occupation of the people, our fathers used Otite Festival day to offer sacrifices to their ancestors thanking them for the bumper harvest of the year or, in the year of scanty harvest, sued for the reversal of the harsh year in the following years ahead. The sacrifice used to be in form of offering kola nuts, food and drinks to their ancestors ilo mmo imploring them to intercede for them through their deities (gods) to the Almighty God (Chi-Ukwu).

On Otite day, pure and unadulterated pounded yam with ove-mmanu, agbonor or egwusi soups thickly garnished with dried fish would be prepared by every family in the village. No matter how impoverished any family was, Otite day used to be a day of plenty as far as winning and dinning were concerned. At that time, fish was abundant in our waters and fishes like aja, usolo, alila, egbili, okwo, etc, would richly adorn every pot of soup. In today’s world of shallow waters in and around Anam, which scenario has accounted for the extinction of many fish species, fish is now very scarce during Otite Festival and its use has almost given way to fowl and goat meat on Otite day.

Since the inception of Otite Festival up till today, Otite Festival day, has been a day of giving gifts and alms to the less-privileged, the infirm, widows and the aged. Today, no matter wherever any married daughter of an Anam man is, it has become a sacred obligation for such a daughter to send to her father and mother (whoever is still alive) mainly, four tubers of yam, fish or (money in lieu of fish) and drinks at least a day, before Otite Festival day. Some well-to-do daughters even buy goats in addition to yams and drinks as well as some items like clothes, bed and beddings, etc, and send to their parents during Otite Festival. Otite Anam Festival therefore, is a very great festival in Anam as it accords recognition and honour to the main product of our people’s occupation of farming – the Yam.

4. How Otite Festival is Celebrated

In the morning of Otite day, it is the oldest man in each village of Anam called “Diokpala” that kick-starts the festival. He does so by inviting the Members of the Council of Elders to his house. He thereafter, starts off with bringing down his omo-oku usually from a high elevation in his house like igbara in olden days but now table, and commences igo-ovo  (Otite prayers) with kola nuts, local gin and nzu (the white chalk with which the ogbuevis adorn their eyes). He also brings eight to ten biggest yams from the stock presented to him by his sons, relations and villagers as nruu together with fish or goat as the case may be, and places them in front of his omo oku. He prays and thanks our ancestors for the bountiful harvest of the instant year, or if the reverse (poor harvest) is the case, sues for the reversal of the bad omen in the years ahead. After this, the alo mmo commences. In the olden days, the house of the Diokpala paraded a very sizeable stock of yams and fish he received as nruu during the period of Otite. As the preparation of the alo-mmo meal is in progress, the Diokpala shares out some dried fish from the stock presented to him as homage (nruu) by his villagers to members of the Council of Elders present. The dried fish shared out is eaten with red oil prepared for that purpose, while dinking the local gin until the real alo-mmo meal is ready. After the Diokpala’s alo-mmo, other members of the Council of Elders follow suit and the festival commences in earnest. In those olden days, homages were paid to the Diokpala by his villagers during Otite Festival. In fact, all heads of big fishes like: aja, usolo, alila, egbili, eevi, okwo and even ekwum, belonged to him if killed by any of his villagers.  

The roasting of the new yam as is the vogue elsewhere in Igboland during the new yam festival is alien to Anam culture and does not form part of Otite Festival mode. During ikpa unwu, a mini cultural ceremony performed by the Diokpala in the presence of members of the Council of Elders with the stock of old yams (ji okpoo) remaining unconsumed, about a month before Otite Festival, the end of the previous year’s farming products especially yams, is signaled. After ikpa unwu ceremony, the Diokpala could begin to eat the new products of the instant year’s farming season like new yam, corn etc. The new yam could then be used to offer sacrifices to idols, and anybody wishing to roast the new yam is free to do so. At this period the old yam (ji okpoo) could hardly get dawn if cooked.

In the late afternoon of Otite day, mgba otite (local wrestling competition) was organized for teenagers between the ages of 15-20 years as sports and entertainment. This aspect of Otite programme is no longer in vogue due mainly, to the fact that members of these age brackets are now students who view the art of coming out bare-bodied in public to engage in wrestling as primitive. Whether that view is correct or not, the truth of the matter is that age-grade wrestling used to be part of Otite highlights, which form part of the culture and heritage of Anam people.                                                               

Before the outbreak of the Nigeria Civil War (1967-70) there used to be a customary type of marriage in Anam called nwunye o-oba. By this method, a father could betroth the daughter of his friend or of any person whose family possessed good character traits for his son. The girls so betrothed could be in their infancies or in their teens. Such betrothed girls when they reached the age of ten and above, started visiting the homes of their future husbands during Otite in what Anam people called ije oku. Before a betrothed girl visited the home of her future husband at Otite, he (the future husband) would send two boys from his family to bring his future wife in what was called izute-oku. Then oku lasted for four days starting from Otite day. On arriving the home of the betrothed girl whether within the same village or at any other village in Anam, one of the two errand boys sent by the future husband of the betrothed girl as proxy, would hold a pestle (akosi) which he turned up-side-down hitting the reverse side on the ground as they marched along in the village of the betrothed girl and in their own village on arrival. The significance of the pestle was to assure the parents of the betrothed girl and other villagers that the future husband of the girl was capable of feeding his future wife and to fend for all her needs. As the trio marched on, the boy holding the pestle and hitting same on the ground would be in front with the betrothed girl following him closely while the second boy carrying the girl’s box of cosmetics and clothes kept the rear. Within the four-day period of oku the betrothed girl would be lavishly entertained with unadulterated pounded yam served with soups – nsala, ove-mmanu, agbonor or egwusi- richly garnished with fresh or dried fish. It must be pointed out here succinctly, that the future husband of the betrothed girl was mandatorily prevented from sleeping with his future wife whether she was mature or not, let alone having sexual intercourse with her until they were formally joined in marriage after the girl’s onine ezi ceremony.               

In the year of ine ezi ceremony of a betrothed girl, she attended the last Oku referred to as oku nchebi at the home of her future husband. It was at this last oku that the future husband of a betrothed girl spent lavishly on his future wife both materially and in kind. In that same year, the future husband in company of one or two of his friends or family members offered one full-day free job at the farm of his future father or mother-in-law as the case may be. Also, while departing from oku nchebi, the betrothed girl was given many gifts. First, her box would be loaded with clothes, soaps and cosmetics. Other family members of her future husband (males and females alike) would each, be offering her money for soap, with some contributing dried fish – all to impress her parents that their future in-law and his family members would be able to take good care of their daughter when finally joined in marriage formally. All these would not prevent anu kwa yim (I will not marry you) from occurring, if it must.

However, marriages by betrothals are no longer in vogue in Anam in view of the perils associated with this type of marriage. One of such perils was that many of the girls betrothed in their infancy or early teens grew up to develop dislike for their future husbands or vice versa. When such a thing happened, the future husbands who had spent fortunes to fend and provide for their wives to- be, were at the loosing ends. Such a development meant that all fishes, clothes, yams, and free jobs given out, not only by the future husbands alone, but also, by their family members to impress their future in-laws, had gone down the drains. At such instances, the only option available to the men engaged in betrothals was payment of dowry by the eventual husbands of the girls (and scarcely men) who adopted the slogan anu kwa yim (I will not marry you). But such dowries calculated customarily in monetary terms were so infinitesimal to compare with what the short-changed husbands and their family members actually expended both materially and in kind, to win the hands of their betrothed wives. So, it was the men who lost out eventually in all such cases and that scenario was responsible mainly, why that type of cultural marriage waned into insignificance in Anam today.

5. The Significance of Otite Festival in the Lives of Anam People

Otite Anam Festival ranks next only to Nzideani amongst all the festivals in Anam. This is because while Nzideani is the commemoration of the ancient origin of Anam town or clan, and celebrating the recession of the flood water that forced our ancestors to live on bamboo decks in their thatched houses from the end of September – early November each year, Otite Festival is the celebration of the product of our people’s occupation, farming - which sustained them after the fusion of the different people that teamed up at Odah to form Anam Ogbe.

Secondly, the period of Otite Festival is the only period in the year when Anam people boycott working in their farms for four consecutive days in honour of the pride of the ancient tradition of our forefathers. This point is now so widespread that yam traders who patronize markets in the abovementioned places where Anam people sell their yams, stock-pile yams in other to forestall scarcity during the four-day period of Otite Anam, before the festival starts.

Thirdly, Anam people use the period of Otite Festival to assess the success or failure of their hard yearly toil at the farms. As a result, all their major financial projects and commitments are scheduled after the harvest period which starts before Otite Festival. Any wonder then that one often hears the following statements from their creditors mainly from Nteje and Umueri: “ O’ kwa unu etechewo Otite unu avu nini? Kwuo m ugwo m”. Indeed, Otite Anam occupies a prominent position in the lives of Anam people as well as being the pride of the product of what Anam people know how to do best – Farming.

6. Otite Anam Festival – To be or not to be?

At page 69 of my book, “The Anam Clan” you will find, “The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines Culture as “the arts, customs beliefs and all the products of human thoughts made by a people at a particular time” and Heritage as “something which is passed down over many years within a family or nation”. From the above definitions, it is deducible that Otite Anam Festival which originated after the fusion or unification of Anam as a town or clan and handed down to us by our fore-fathers, undoubtedly, forms a rich part of our culture and heritage. As a rich part of our culture and heritage therefore, Otite Anam Festival will not only be sustained, but strengthened and modernized to make it more responsive to the dictates of modernity. This is because, Otite Festival as part of our culture and heritage is not at variance with education or civilization. Even the advanced and sophisticated countries of the world retain their cultures and heritage while developing education and civilization to the highest achievable levels. We in Anam cannot, but emulate them. As far as I am concerned, the only modernization that Otite Festival needs is for the Christians to change the alo mmo aspect to sacrifice of masses and thanksgiving in our churches otherwise, Otite Anam Festival should remain intact as the pride of the Anam man.

At this juncture Ladies and Gentlemen, you would have noticed that this address is silent on “Otite Mba”, a miniature Otite festival in Umueze Anam. The reason is that while all Anam villages celebrate Otite Anam, Otite Mba was peculiar to Umueze Anam. Infact, it was Ogbuevi Mba Nwaja who initiated the festival which he celebrated a couple of days – say four to eight days – before the actual Otite Anam. Apart from this scanty information, our contemporaries outside Umueze Anam do not know much about this particular festival. May be that will form part of next year’s Otite Anam Festival Adress/Lecture preferably by an indigene of Umueze Anam where this festival originated.

7. Finally, this Otite Anam Festival 2012 Address cannot be complete without seizing the opportunity to thank His Ezcellency, The Executive Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, for appointing our daughter Mrs. Okoye Ngozi Benedicta as the Hon. Commissioner for Finance, and our son, Hon. Okafor Fidel Uchenna as the Special Adviser to the Governor on Political Matters, respectively. While assuring the Governor that the two appointees will never betray the confidence he reposes in them, we all the same, like Oliver Twist, will want some more. Since re-writing the wrongs of the past has started with his Excellency for the first time in history, appointing two Anam persons to positions of authority in Anambra State in one single administration, in addition to the excellent road construction work embarked upon by his administration in Anambra-West LGA, we cannot but quote the words of the proverbial tortoise. Hear him,“He who has started picking-up, will continue to pick-up” (Onye butavali ni, e eji n’ abuta).

To our worthy daughter and son, I welcome you once more to this occasion. I have no doubt in my mind that you will discharge your duties creditably and as such, urge you to prove like few appointed and elected sons of Anam in the past did, that we too, are performers. I wish you fulfilled tenures.    

To our youths – males and females alike – I enjoin you to be hardworking, dedicated and committed to your educational pursuits for therein lies your greatest surety to remain relevant in the scheme of things in this jet age. That all employers of security labour in the state and beyond turn their drag-nets to our youths is not a good omen. Otherwise, how many sons of governors, senators, commissioners, etc, including those who couldn’t do well academically, were so recruited? Only acquisition of sound education and knowledge will reverse this unpalatable trend.

To the leadership of Anam People’s Assembly (A.P.A) Awka Branch, and the Organising Committee of Otite Anam Festival 2012, I thank you for adding value and colour to this year’s Otite Anam at Awka. I also thank you for finding me worthy to deliver the Otite Anam Festival 2012 Address. This is what it should be because, since all of us live within the Capital Territory of Anambra State and what is more, with the greatest concentration of highly educated Anam people any where in Nigeria, (I stand to be corrected) expectations from us cannot be less colourful. We all know that it is hard to ascend to the top, but even harder to remain on top. Therefore, if A.P.A Awka Branch will sustain the momentum of this year’s Otite Anam Festival 2012 and build on its successes, we must work harder.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I have, in my own estimation, tried my level best to do justice to this address. But if my best failed to meet your yearnings, please forgive me the mistakes of the head rather than those of design.  

When the time comes for you to depart to your various destinations, may the Mighty Giver of all that is good and great, grant you all journey mercies, in Jesus name, Amen.

Thank you and God bless."

This post was originally posted on our blogger version in 2012.