Traditional dancers during the festival
The ancient Ihiagwa Community is one of the communities in what is traditionally known as Oratta clan, which now encompasses Owerri West, Owerri North and Owerri municipal Local Government Area of Imo State. Ihiagwa is located after Nekede Community in the South West of Owerri, the capital city, and bounded on the east by Amaze Obibi Ezena, west by Obinze, north by Nekede and on the South by Eziohodo and Okolochi.
Onunu is a yearly Festival, which marked the traditional calendar of old Uratta clan. Ihiagwa is the custodian of the traditional calendar of the old Uratta clan and the Onunu festival is the instrument with which this traditional calendar is established. The Onunu Ihiagwa also establishes the yam season. Before the celebration of Onunu, no new yam enters into the land of Ihiagwa. After the Onunu Ihiagwa, the people of Owerri nchi ise celebrate their Oru Owerre and new yams can then be sold in the markets.
The Ngu is the material used in the counting of the season to arrive at the appropriate dates for the Onunu. The Osunkwo family of Ishiuzo village, Ihiagwa is the custodian of the Ngu counting material. They have done this for a long time and the tradition passes from one member of the family to the other.
The Onunu festival is an age-long tradition of the Ihiagwa people approved by the community. Ihiagwa, regarded as the center of excellence among her neighbouring community within Owerri, which are popularly known as the Uratta clan, is the calendar keeper of then clan. The Onunu festival is the instrument with which this calendar was established.
The Onunu Ihiagwa establishes the new yam season. It is the new yam festival of ancient Ihiagwa.
The Onunu festival is all about the period whereby, a deity of Ihiagwa called Opara-ogu, the son of the chief deity of Ihiagwa, Otamiri, goes to farm to inspect and harvest farm proceeds before any one will start harvesting, especially that of new yam. This period is reserved for Opara-ogu deity and none is expected to go to the farm. It is believed that whosoever that goes to farm during this period of Onunu will have a serious encounter with the spirits and that might result to death or any serious calamity to defaulters household.
The Onunu is a yearly pilgrimage, a journey embarked on by the Otta’s and Opara-ogu chief priest. It marks farming season. After the journey every other community surrounding Ihiagwa community can now pick a date for their own celebration hence Ihiagwa is called Aguzie Afor (calendar keeper).
The Beginning Of The Festival
Before the Onunu festival begins every year, there is always an inter-visit between the Ibuzo kindred, particularly the Osunkwo family with the Mboke, the chief priest of Opara-ogu otamiri.
This visit is to remind the chief priest that the time of Onunu festival is very close. After that first visit, the chief priest will also in return visit, the Osunkwo family as they deliberate on the issue of the festival before any further steps could be taken. During these visits there is usually enough food to eat and drink, in fact, it attracts attention from passers-bye.
Another important step taken before the Onunu festival begins properly, is what the people call Okukoro ngu (hanging of Ngu). The name ngu has no English affinity, rather, it is a material that is used in the counting of the season to arrive at the appropriate dates for the Onunu. This assignment is done by the Osunkwo family of lbuzo kindred of Ihiagwa. When the materials are brought, they are kept on a particular tree in the forest. The tree believed to be over five hundred years old still remains as though it is the youngest tree in the forest. It does not grow fatter or taller than it has been.
Then Ngu is hung on this particular tree. The spirits always do the hanging of Ngu, while the osunkwo family provides Ngu and the Eze-aro goes to come back after a period of four market days to get the outcome of the Ngu that was hung.
The Period And Duration Of The Festival
The Onunu festival of the Ihiagwa marks the end and beginning of New Year traditionally.
During this period of Onunu festival, nobody is expected to go to farm or even to the stream to fetch water. It is considered sacred and every farmer is expected to be at home, all allow the deities, especially the chief deity of Ihiagwa, Otamiri to have time to move in various farmlands to bless them.
It is believed that anybody that goes out to farm will encounter one danger or the other as the case maybe. Before it begins properly the “Ottas” must have gone round the community to give out the information, warning people ahead of time to avoid being a victim of the deities anger. The duration of the festival is not determined by any human being, rather the chief deity, and this can be done by the family head of Osunkwo family, who goes back to the forest to view the Ngu that was hung by the deity. The number of the Ngu hung determines how long the Onunu festival will last. If four Ngu’s are hung, that shows it will not take a long time, the Onunu will only last for four market days, which is traditionally one week in local calendar.
At times, it hangs eight. This will demand everyone to be at home for about eight market days and it could be more than that. The date and number of days vary and have never been static and no human being takes decisions on how long it lasts, It is the initiative of the deities to do that, while the messenger goes to get information and delivers it the way he got it without adding or subtracting.
The Purpose And Significance Of The Festival
The purpose for which the Onunu festival is set up is not farfetched, it involves within the conferment of peace and orderliness in the land/community of Ihiagwa. It helps to protect the aged long customs and tradition of the community and setting out days of rest for the hardworking farmers. Thus, the need to instill fear into the life of the members of the community and also to show great respect to the Opara-ogu deity whom they said celebrates his own new yam festival during this period. More so, it contributes to peace, togetherness and unity among the people. The Onunu festival is likened to the way Christians celebrate Christmas and New Year. It is a traditional retreat of the Ihiagwa people that signifies the end and beginning of the year in a local calendar. This period of Onunu festival is regarded as sanctified and should be kept sacred. Ihiagwa people still practise it till today.
• Agnes Odokporo writes from National Museum, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.