Monarch of Umueri Kingdom, Igwe Benneth Izuchukwu Emeka, who traced the origin of Umueri to Eri, the forefathers of Eri race stressed the importance of New Yam festivals and the effort of his kingdom towards projecting Umueri’s rich cultural heritage, such as the Ijele Masqurade, among other sundry issues. He spoke to EMEKA CHIAGHANAM . Excerpts:
WHAT makes Iwaji significant to Umueri Kingdom ?
Yam is significant to Umueri. It’s not just to us, but vital in Igbo culture where we regard it as king of crops. Umueri is an agrarian community, one of the communities that supply Anambra State, by extension Nigeria, agricultural produce, especially yam.
In the olden days, you measure someone’s wealth by the number of yam barns he owns, besides the number of his wives and children. That was how yam became popular and synonymous with Igbo culture. Umueri is not exceptional, so we take to upholding our culture. Umueri Kingdom specifically uses this period to thank God for bumper harvest and ask God for rains and bumper harvest for the next farming season. That’s the significance of the festival to Umueri.
What benefit does it portend for Umeri people and non-indigenes alike?
It’s a period that we use to display our rich cultural heritage, highlighting women dances, traditional wrestling, among cultural displays indigenous to us. It also serves as reunion for our people, as well as those in Diaspora, who come home to celebrate with us. Some of these children who have not had the opportunity of coming home use the period to experience the rich cultural heritage of Umueri.
Some of them, who have not seen the Igwe, also use the opportunity to know their Igwe and get acquainted with our people and culture. You recall that our last Igwe, the first Eke Ebo of Umueri died 22 years ago and the second is myself. Their experience of the festival will definitely leave them with the impression of rich cultural heritage of Umueri.
What’s it about Umueri Kingdom that makes it significant?
Without mincing words, I will tell you that Umueri is one of the oldest cities where some non-Africans settled in on arriving in Nigeria? When you hear Umueri, it means sons of Eri and that dates to biblical Eri. They are Israeli settlers who settled in Umueri. That is one of the things that we don’t throw away. It’s historically documented, people know about this. The last time some Israelis came here, they scooped sand from Umueri, collected saliva from some of our people, and came back with result to show that we are really part of the Israeli family. I think it’s significant to Umueri that we are the Eri people, the first son of Gad.
What are you doing to project the heritage?
Remember that I told you that the first Eke Ebo died 22 years ago. After him, we have not had any monarch, until I ascended the throne three years ago. When a community stays that long without a monarch, it’s like a sheep without a shepherd. Now that I’m on the throne, we have started setting agenda on how to promote our rich heritage and things like the settlement of the Israelites in Umueri and other important cultural issues.
Gradually, we have started doing something. There is a synagogue in Umueri, which is revered. Many Igbo people know that. Like the question you asked, it has not been long I ascended the throne. The moment I settled in, we will do other things that will also project our community. We have started and that means we have started. Before now, Umueri is not as popular as it is. I’m committed to projecting Umueri to greater heights.
Umueri is home to Ijele masquerade, the biggest in Africa, perhaps in the whole world. When people hear of Ijele, they see it as Igbo masquerade, they are unaware of its origin. What are you doing in that regard?
It boils down to the same thing that I told you. As a community that had no monarch for many years, we are now beginning to show all this things. It’s on record that at FESTAC 77, the Ijele masquerade, the biggest of all masquerades powered by Umueri community won the first prize, defeating every other masquerade.
The federal government and the organisers of FESTAC 77, gave Ijele first prize. That cannot be taken away from us. We have the history and the documentation of that. Gradually, all these things will begin to come into limelight. Ijele masquerade is still around with us. Just as you know, civilisation has brought in so many things. In those days, when you see Ijele, it’s as big as a house but now, they have reduced it that it looks sizable.
But don’t you think that cutting down Ijele’s size reduces it essence?
Like I said, let us not dwell much on the issue of Ijele masquerade because it is a thing of the spirit. The custodians knew why they reduced the size and the rest of it and it didn’t start under my reign, it was there a long time ago.
You have reigned over this kingdom close to three years. What has your reign brought to bear on Umueri Kingdom?
I’m not supposed to blow my trumpet. There are people out there that can do that. But for the benefit of this discourse, I will tell you that Umueri people have witnessed tremendous infrastructural development under my reign.
One of them is attracting government presence. My good relationship with the state government has attracted the construction of over 12 kilometres of roads constructed in Umeri. All these are under Governor Willie Obiano’s administration. Though there are more roads that beg for rehabilitation, Umueri community will always be grateful to Gov. Obiano for being a governor that remembered Umueri.
Then coming to Governor Obiano’s N20 million chose your project scheme, Umueri was the first community to complete her project in the state. It was a good development. At the State’s Exco meeting, Umueri was commended for achieving that feat. Again, the second phase of the programme, Umueri was the first to complete her project, while some communities have not finished their first phase. The third one is coming and I’m sure Umueri will also finish first. This can be attributed to good leadership.,
Above all, there has been peace and tranquility in Umueri since my reign. Peace between Umueri and her neighbours, Aguleri, Umuoba Anam and other neighbouring communities in Anambra East and Oyi, LGAs. This can only be attributed to good leadership. You know when the righteous is on the throne, people rejoice. You will remember that this area had been volatile in Anambra State.
Remember the Umueri, Aguleri and Umuoba Anam communal war. There has not been any war since I became the Igwe, because we now have a rallying point where people come together and say what they have in mind and relay their anger and it is sorted out through a round table. This is what I have been able to achieve just to mention but a few.
In addition to so many other things, like human development, we have been able to ensure that our youths are empowered through skill acquisition and empowerment. We have been able to secure government appointments and civil service jobs for the people of Umueri. A leader with no good relationship with the government won’t draw government’s attention. This is just to mention but a few. Umueri people will tell more on what my reign has come to bear on them.
What impression do you want people to take home from your Iwaji Festival?
I would like them to take home the culture in Umueri; how we celebrate our new yam festival. We do it differently. I rule with the fear of God. That’s why I don’t associate myself with fetish things. I begin my new yam festival with church service and follow it with other activities according to tradition but devoid of anything fetish. As it proceeds, my wife attends to widows and less privileged in the community.
Many people came and saw how I handle the elderly. Last year, I recognised people in the community who were 80 years and above and gave them medallion to appreciate them and they were here in their attires. People should be doing these things in their communities. It’s not about roasting and eating of yams. They should use the opportunity to recognise the elders and others in their communities.
Nowadays, people confer chieftaincy titles on those that they consider well to do in the society. Here in Umueri, we recognise everyone. That’s why we have five women in my cabinet, which is uncommon in Anambra State, even in the Southeast and it means that I’m gender sensitive. I want people to take this home, so that they can also introduce it to their communities. An Igbo adage says you sell wisdom and buy from others.
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