Of new yam festival, pagans and the Church

I was in the east for several weeks, having travelled there for an emergency family issue. Since it was in August many would have concluded that I was there for the ‘August meeting’ or new yam festival. These are the notable events for which the month of August is renowned in that part of our country. 

Indeed, Easter (April), New Yam (August) and Christmas (December) festivals are the times when easterners rush home to partake in these festivities. ‘Abroad people’, easterners living abroad, also plan their home-coming vacations to coincide with any of these periods. Needless to add that family, village, community meetings of all sorts as well as fund raising events of various kinds are fixed for these times, when many people would be home. It is usually a beehive of activities there at aforementioned periods, replete with cultural festivities.

Two of the festivals, Easter and Christmas are associated with Christianity. However, apart from the perfunctory church attendance they are both now being overshadowed by the accompanying social and cultural jollifications, relegating to the background, the kernel of the Message of Christ linked with them which essentially points the way upwards to the Kingdom of God.  The New Yam festival had however, been with us, from time immemorial, long before Christianity officially birthed in Nigeria. It can be regarded as the foremost festival in these parts.  Christianity is a little over a century old here whereas our homelands had been in existence before then. 

Hitherto, the New Yam festival was associated with ‘Pagans’, ‘traditional worshippers’. If in referring to them as pagans, we mean that they did not ‘believe’ in God, we are wrong. It is just that our ancestors like other ancient people  in this our world had a ‘limited’  recognition of the Almighty Creator and sought to approach Him in the way they saw that which they considered as the highest at the time but deviated in the outward symbolism. 

Inwardly, they may be likened to children. Each human being on earth being  fundamentally a human spirit, has implanted in him/her the longing to recognize God and His Will that permeates all Creation. In accordance with the law of development, our recognition of Him proceeded step by step to the highest point. 

Beginning from our earth which is gross matter, the broad outline of Creation (upwards to the feet of the throne of the Almighty God)  is  Ethereal matter – substantiality – primordial Spiritual Creation. Ancient peoples were permitted to ‘see’ up to the realm of Substantiality, whereby they perceived the lords of the elementals (lords of the nature beings), their ‘fastness’ and ‘power’, exhibited in the elementals of water, fire, earth and air, whereby they regarded them as gods. 

They classified them according to their kinds as god of fire,  goddess of water, etc, etc., and they devised their own earthly  representations (effigies)  of  these  lords of the elementals  in the substantial realm  and worshipped them; they regarded these as supreme beings, being the furtherst  they could ‘see’ and perceive at the time. We thereby labelled them ‘idol’ worshippers. Now in our continuous development, our spiritual horizon has been expanded, higher recognitions of  the Almighty Creator has been mediated to us by Messengers and Envoys  of God, whereby we now know of the one God, that the ‘abode’ of God lies far, far higher than the  plane of Substantiality, even above  primordial spiritual Creation (heaven), that it is  in the divine realm…

Yam was/is considered as the highest crop of the soil. And so, ancient peoples, our ancestors instituted a festival whereby they brought before the nature beings, harvests from the soil (symbolised by yam) to thank the ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in charge of these nature beings for a bountiful harvest  and besiege them  to bless the soil for more bountiful harvest in the next season. Thereafter permission is given to start eating newly harvested yams, followed by feasting and festivities. It may be compared to the way we give thanks to God and ask for his blessing before eating any food. 

Nevertheless, our ancestors, ancient peoples erred when they viewed lords of the elementals as gods and sought to worship them through earthly representation of nature beings. By doing so, they contravened the supreme commandment of God, which is, “Thou shall not have no other gods but me”. This simply stipulates that we should not accord divine honours, veneration to any other (being or thing) than the Almighty Creator who created everything from the highest in primordial spiritual realm through the spiritual realm (heaven) down to this earth plane of gross matter. 

Besides, lords of the elementals, nature beings are no more than little servants of the Almighty God who make use of His Power for their works — development of what we term nature in their various elements. They are not gods. With extension of our spiritual knowledge, came the knowledge of the One God. We now know that there is only one God and one Power, primordial power that rests in the Almighty, God, and that streams throughout the creations for all creatures therein, big and small.

Alas, times have changed. For where previously, the Church viewed the new yam festival  as a pagan feast which Christians should not associate with, it has now come to the realisation that it is no more than fundamentally a festival of thanksgiving to God for harvests of the soil while also praying to Him for his continued blessing on the land for future bumper harvests. They now participate in it officially. 

After feasting on new yams on the first day of the festival, community folks converge the next day, (after Sunday services for thanksgiving too) at the square or school field to be entertained by cultural dancers and masquerades. It was a welcome sight to see reverend fathers (priests) seated on the  high table, watching and apparently enjoying the  cultural troops’ and diverse masquerades’ dance steps. There has been a debate about whether masquerades are part of ‘pagan things’. The emerging consensus is that they are part of our tradition, that they are not the exclusive preserve of ‘traditional worshippers’. All traditions are subject to change over time whereby the good  would be retained while those that are bad or wrong would eventually be thrown off into the dustbin of history.

Ikeano writes from Lafia via [email protected] 08033077519

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