AMONG all the festivals of Awka people in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State, Egwu Imo Awka is the most celebrated. In recent time, the celebration has gained wider recognition. Except for the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, the festival brings major roads in the city to a standstill on the grand finale day, which by design or default falls on Sundays.
Many shops close for business on the last Afor Market day, five days before the Egwu Imo Awka, considered the most important day of the festival as it honours women with procession from Amaenyi quarters through Zik Avenue to Umuokpu, Awka and usually on Nkwo Market day.
The chief priest is the driving force behind the Imo Awka festival. He is the mediator between the Imo Awka deity and the traditional Awka person. Awka may be rocked with some socio-political issues but the institution of the Imo Awka is unaffected.
National Light sought audience with the Chief Priest. The trip took National Light to Amachalla Village, Awka. The village is the custodian of the Imo Awka deity. Locating the chief priest’s house posed no difficulty for such a prominent figure. National Light learnt that the man was having his breakfast and was asked to wait.
A young man, probably in his thirties emerges and was introduced as Onyebuchi Ikegbunam (Aka Ji Ofor Imo Awka), the Chef Priest, but National Light was expecting to see a much older person in his 60s or 70s. The young man emerges the second time, this time refreshed but set out for the Obu, thus indicating that National Light’s mission would be conducted there. The Obu which is a stone throw from Ikegbunam’s house is the administrative home of Imo Awka deity. The Obu is a square shaped building with a ceiling less roof. The front entrance, likewise the back was designed without doors with half curtain and half rafter.
By tradition, people don’t enter the Obu bare footed and before that, the person cleanses himself with alligator pepper placed in a plate at a corner of the Obu’s entrance. Inside the Obu, Ikegbunam made the libation in front of his seat. The second libation was performed at a corner opposite the chief priest’s seat to a bigger deity. After that, he offered kolanut and alcoholic spirits to those present to commence the day’s business.
As the Chief Priest, Ikegbunam serves as the mediator of Imo Awka to Awka community. He points out the significance of the festival to the people, noting that it has been a blessing to the community. Besides its spiritual influence has healed many people.
Ikegbunam couldn’t take National Light on the history behind Imo Awka Festival, stating that it is older than what anyone can relate, besides citing secrecy to it “What you have just asked even our forefathers can’t explain it because it did not start today. If everybody knows everything about Imo Awka there is nothing to be hidden. It is spiritual which shows that not everybody should know details about it, until you get close to it,” he said.
“No one can give detailed history of the festival. If there is anything, you heard about the festival, the person was not there. He can only tell you what his forefathers told him about it. I can’t tell what I’m not sure of, what I wasn’t there when it happened. You know the history wasn’t something written and handed over to somebody.”
Ikegbunam refuted claims in some quarters that the festival is fetish. He maintained that if such exists, he would hand over to someone as the Chief Priest. “The way I understand it, it is not fetish. Supposing it is, you wouldn’t see people coming close to it. Something fetish wouldn’t be after the posterity of its people.”
The chief priest states that the festival date is not fixed but it falls between certain months of the year. It starts proper on an Afor market day, by going to Umuokpu for Ikata Agba. On Nkwo market day, masquerades go to market. “It has no fixed date when the time for the festival approaches the spirit tells me the date and I announce it to the people. Imo Awka doesn’t exceed the month of May and June.
“Some people believe that the men’s day, which is on the last day of the festival is the Imo Awka proper, but it is not, rather it’s a day before, which happens to be on women’s day – the day women take to Opu-Eke dance.”
Each year complaints of extortion by celebrants always accompany the festival, leading to fight or injuries unleashed on some people. National Light sought to know why people in merriment mood should engage in such acts that lead to death sometimes and the chief priest was quick to condemn such scenario, but added, “in a multitude, you will always find some who will sabotage the system. It is not proper to flog people not involved in the festival, how much more non-indigenes. Some even flog people of their father’s age. That is not the practice here. You only flog those willing to participate in the challenge.
“You don’t flog non-indigenes. In the real practice, non-indigenes don’t participate in Egwu Imo Awka. In the past, once Imo Awka is announced, non-indigenes return to their various towns and villages. All non-indigenes around lock themselves up throughout the duration of the festival.
“The festival is not meant to chase away non-indigenes but serves as reunion with fellow Awka persons. If you look at those involved in the dastard by acts, more than half are non-Awka indigenes. Awka people are hospitable. Fighting, stabbing, and killing of people is not the practice of an Awks person during Imo Awka. You know in the past it is machete that we use instead of canes but it was banned and replaced with canes.”
Former chairman Awka Central Vigilante, now with Anambra State Vigilante Intelligence and Operations, Christopher Nzekwe, blames Awka indigenes for bastardizing Egwu Imo Awka, because they allowed non-indigenes to participate. “Where no such room exists the festival won’t be faced with these challenges. We used to chant in those days that a visitor should stay clear from Imo Awka festival. The flaws associated with the festival lies with us because. We encouraged it. If we decide today that non-indigenes will not carry masquerades, it must surely stop. These days, some youths celebrate Imo Awka under the influence of cultism, alcohol and drugs, which not part of the celebration,” he said.
National Light TV