By MUSA JIBRIL
Onitsha in Anambra State is a city with feelings of pride. Once the renowned literary capital of Eastern Nigeria, it is perennially popular for its main market. And also, the vaunted hospitality of her people. In the last few years, it has become famous for its Ofala festival, a noble celebration that enthrals lovers of tradition and culture.
At the just concluded 2017 edition, people who poured into the town besieged the Ime Obi, the king’s palace, to revel in the celebration that is arguably the biggest festival of the Ndigbo race.
This year’s celebration, from October 10 to 16, was marked in grand style. Formally kicked-off with Oraeze International Arts Exhibition at the palace of the Obi of Onitsha, a youth carnival followed two days later, with the main Ofala staged on October 13, a day capped off with an evening cocktail party, Eze Onicha. Azu Ofala on October 14 was followed by a music concert on October 15 and the Miss Ofala beauty pageant at the CJ Patterson International Auditorium, Onitsha. The festival rounded off the next day with a royal banquet in honour of the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe at the Dolly Hills Hotel.
Onitsha’s litany of traditional ceremonies is endless––from coronation of Igwe or Eze to chieftaincy installation to initiation into the masquerade cult; from Ozo title-taking to initiation into Otu Odu cultural group to burial rites and what have you––but the once-a-year Ofala festival, an Octoberfest, is top-of-the-range, the most important and impressive of all the ceremonies performed in Onitsha.
A festival dating back to about 700 years ago when the city’s first monarch migrated to the area, Ofala is a sort of rites of renewal of the Obi (king).
Ofala used to be the king’s day of public appearance. These days, the Obi makes three appearances on festival day, each time, heralded by trumpets.
The first time, early in the morning, he appears in his royal regalia with his royal crown (Okpu ododo), holding his bonze sword, and acknowledges the crowd by waving in all directions and then returns inside.
Second outing: he sits on his throne and receives red-capped chiefs (Ndi-Ichie), who, resplendent in their attires, appear in groups, in order of seniority and according to their village music, kneeling and bowing as they pay homage. The king then performs the Iwa-ji, (literally, “the new yam eating”) to mark the official declaration of the harvest season.
After this, he returns into the inner chambers.
His third appearance ignites a festive mood, eliciting cheers and praises from the crowd as he dances in the arena, in succession with his first wife, his first son and first daughter and thereafter, give way to a parade of dances by a succession of groups that include titled men, the Otu Odu association, age-grade groups, friends and well-wishers, who all come dressed in colourful traditional apparels.
For Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, Ofala 2017––his 16th––was colourful and classy.
Ofala festival is to the Onitsha people a means of preserving their cultural heritage as it epitomises the celebration of the new yam.
The festival, a social get-together of a sort, brings home indigenes from nigh or near, including foreigners. For the king, it is an avenue to socialise with his subjects and well-wishers.
Notable Americans including Tito and Marlon Jackson (of the world-famous Jackson Five), Hill Hampton, Mayor of Inkster, Michigan, as well as Hollywood actor Walter Jr., were in Onitsha to witness the 2011 Ofala festival.
Two factors are responsible for Ofala’s growing status as a top-notch tourist attraction in recent years. One, innovations such as music and visual arts exhibition called Oraeze introduced by Igwe Achebe made the festival more exciting. Two, the clout it derived from the sinew of Globacom sponsorship since 2011, which has brought an infusion of colour and grandeur. Globacom Yeoman’s job over the last six years is directly related to the festival “growing bigger each year.”