KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
Houston's New Yam
Ugorji Okechukwu Ugorji
Saturday, August 25, 2007
I went; I saw; I ate!
The kolanut did its usual travel, with the attendant genealogical narrative of those present in the hall, starting from the epicenter of Mbaise and spreading out with dignity and reverence to the concentric circle of the Igbo commonwealth. Following its consecration, a couple of young men took up the precious task of splitting the lobes of the kola, so that as many as the over 500 people in the hall could partake of this most profound of the Holy Communion rituals that dates back to antiquity.
With the communion shared and all welcomed in the peaceful nature of the Igbo, the guest of honor was ushered in. I saw a yam tuba, but it was one that someone, out of excitement and exuberance, had raised in the air ahead of the procession. Then I saw a barn on wheels, surrounded by initiates – all men of various professions who had returned from their places of work in honor of the harvesting of the crop of kings or the king crop. The women, decked out in stunning attires that would make Cleopatra jealous, cleared out of the path of the moving barn. Without instruction, the hitherto boisterous boys and girls who had accompanied their parents to this unique gathering found tranquility momentarily. The guest of honor was on its way.
In front of the mobile barn, on both sides of it, and for several yards behind it, it rained men. Maazi Collins Olorondu, the soft-spoken servant leader of the Mbaise Family Association of Houston, headed the procession, accompanied by all former presidents of the same organization. I saw that organizing, founding spirit of the World Igbo Congress, Kemnagum Okorie, in the procession. I saw the cerebral presence of Dr. Tim Oparaji. The philanthropic aura of Chief Blaize Kaduru was there. The irrepressible spirit of Chief Israel Iheanacho was present. Aka ji Aku Chief Nick Ihekoronye was also in the procession, as was the dignified presence of Chief Chibuzo Amaefule. The tall, stylish presence of Maazi Vitalis Onu was remarkable in its obviousness. There were scores of other men, each with at least a yam tuba in his right hand; some had one in each hand. Most of the men danced; some moved in measured gaits; and yet others simply trotted, as the procession meandered like the Nri River. More than the music, more than the clothes, it was the triumphant spirit of the king crop that registered in the bright faces of the men and their women. And the guest of honor was yet on his way.
The Disc Jockey, who went by the name Ichaka, provided an orchestra of sounds that mixed the ancient with the contemporary. Suddenly, the men, still in dance steps, pushed the barn aside, formed a circle in front of the dais, and waited for the guest of honor. His dance steps had particular spring and pep to them. A couple of men with handcrafted fans pushed air towards him as he moved and danced. His uhbu, made of what looked like raffia, had some stripes of the red color of Amadioha in it, some hints of the green, fertility color of Ala (Ani) and the straw mat color of Ume or Ikuku. Spraying was still legal in this part of the global village, so the dollars were generous in landing at the masqueraded dancer. There was no Njoku written on the program of the evening, but as the Abigbo troubadours would say, onye anyi kawa amarala. This great spirit of the king crop seamed well pleased with the offerings as he danced in rhythmic fashion. The initiated knew that you could not harvest the new yam, let alone eat it, even in far flung America, until Njoku (Ahianjoku or Nwanjoku) had been accorded his due. On this day, the dollars stood in for the chicken, and with the guest of honor given his place, the festival of the new yam could begin for mortals.
And so it was, that on Saturday, August 18, 2007, three days after the people at Alaigbo had done so, Mbaise people and the extended family of the Igbo commonwealth in Houston celebrated the Iriji (new yam) festival in grand style. I was invited by Maazi Olorondu and given the yet-to-be-deserved role of serving as the ceremonial chair of the occasion. It was a most humbling experience to sit in the company of such greatness as were the men and women who occupied the dais and the audience. The event was colorfully and masterfully moderated by Maazi Wilson Iwu, the Vice President of the Mbaise Family Association of Houston. Texas.
The People's Hall
The Iriji that Olorondu and his crew organized this year was laden with significance that transcended the mere eating of yam. For the first time since Mbaise people started carrying on with this spiritual activity in Houston, the event took place in a hall the Igbo had built. The hall is part of a multi-million dollar home for the All Saints Anglican Church of Houston, Texas, an Igbo congregation – their story deserves a separate, dedicated article. The gentlemen's gentleman, my erudite comrade in letters, Professor Chris Ulasi, who is a member of the building committee, was present to partake of the new yam; as was the architect of the building, Maazi Emmanuel Nnadozie. This Igbo community had bought a land and is building a church and hall from the ground. It was a thing of joy to be taken around the entire structure by Dr. Okorie, just before the ceremony began. The message in the air that says "this is ours," even without verbiage, was inspiring.
The labors of our warriors
An elder gentleman who sat on a table with me just before I was called to the dais took one look at a particular page in the program booklet and said: "this young man is wise." He was referring to the page on which the photos and names of all prior presidents of the Mbaise Family Association of Houston were presented. His statement was a testimony to the grounded consciousness of the current leadership of the association. In honoring those who had come before them, Olorondu and crew brought back men and women who had stayed faithful to the community; men and women who had made tremendous sacrifice for the common good.
If there were disagreements and misgivings between these men and women in the past, one did not see it on this night. The legendary umunna concept of the Igbo registered authoritatively on the faces of all who had gathered; it was after all, a harvest, a new beginning, and a loud statement that the labors of our warriors (particularly those who have remained faithful to umunna) shall never be forgotten.
The organization also honored three in-laws who have shown tremendous love and support for Ndi Mbaise in the past years. They included Chief Dr Lucius Akuchie (Ofokaaja 1 of Obiangwu) married to Lolo Virginia Akuchie (President of Ada Mbaise Association in Houston); Chief Dr. Uche Eze (Ihediohanma of Obowo) married to Lolo Henrietta Eze (Treasurer of Ada Mbaise Association); and Chief Jude Akuechiama (Eze Chukwuchiri II of Ofekata III Awo-Omamma, Ogenne Mbaise) married to Lolo Ebere Akuechiama (Secretary of Ada Mbaise Association).
Anyone who is worried about our children being lost in America should have seen the children's traditional dance performance. This was beyond the usual choreographed dance steps that make everyone feel good that our children are trying. The Otu Umu Oma Dance Group interpreted their dance routines in a manner that convinced me that they understood and claimed the motif, aesthetics, and ethos of the culture of their fathers. It was not just an effort at entertainment on their part – the young men and women were living the experience of the performance. It showed, and the proud parents showered them with praises and a harvest of dollars. I left Houston eager to take my children to the basement of our house and work some more on those Abigbo dance steps.
Umu nwaAnyi anyi
I once told our people that the most beautiful women in the world were either born in Alaigbo, reincarnated from Alaigbo, or married to Igbo men. The wives (and in some cases daughters) of the men who brought in the mobile barn full of yam tubas took over the dance floor following the presentation of the yam. Some were born in Mbaise and married in Mbaise, some born elsewhere and married in Mbaise, and yet others were born in Mbaise and married elsewhere. The Agbachaa Ekurunwa dance is always a call to hips with swagger and attitude; this night was no exception. The women's outfit was colorful in its uniformity and their dance steps were as regal as ever. I emptied my wallet at the dance floor, at their feet, before I could get hold of myself.
Greetings from AFOMA
For me, the concept of umunna was long ago codified in the American Federation of Mbaise Associations (AFOMA). It was this entity and activities surrounding it that brought so many of us across the American landscape together some ten years ago. I had been to Houston before under the auspices of AFOMA. This current trip of mine to the Mbaise Family Association's gathering in Houston was much more pleasant, and as would be expected, I brought greetings from the umbrella organization. The Houston family was a founding stone in the umbrella compound and remains an essential obi or ovu in our collective efforts at community building.
For our brothers and sisters who live in the Northeast, which is where I have resided for over twenty years, I recommend a week or two weeks' vacation to interact with our brethren in the south every now and then. There is a sense of community and support system and laid back demeanor that one finds in the air there that contrasts sharply with the cut throat competition that permeates the air in the Northeast. Maybe it is the vast land mass in Texas that allows room for sharp elbows to exist without much damaging contact. My brother Bruno Onwumere and his lovely wife, who used to be the first family of the Mbaise Association in New York, had relocated to Houston . They were looking more relaxed and more prosperous than I had ever seen them. Same thing with Architect "Migel" Michael Okonkwo and his princess (Ugochukwu) wife, who had relocated from New Jersey! Whatever it is, the notion of brethren getting mad at you for sleeping in a hotel room, when they expected you to come and share their homes, was refreshing.
I was picked up at Houston's Hobby airport by brother Joachim Odom from Umuokirika in Ekwereazu and taken to my hotel. Delays at the Airtran schedule out of Philadelphia had prevented me from arriving in Houston as at when planned. However, being sandwiched in seat 16B, between two damsels (one with braids, the other blonde) who seamed fascinated at the audacity of my isi agu post-911, made up for the cancelled flights. Of course, as they played tag-team for my attention, I limited the discussion to the Iriji festival. Seriously! I swear!
Shortly after my arrival, Dr. Okorie came and took me to a fundraising diner for the All Saints Anglican Church, held at a Marriot joint in Sugar Land. I met Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini, the Rwandan Primate who had provided spiritual cover and protection for the Igbo church – he was the guest of honor. And I met the five young offspring of Okorie and Lynda, three of whom share the same names with three of my four boys. I also reunited with Maazi Muoneke who explained to me that he was not related to Mrs. Muoneke, my principal at Ekulu Primary School, Enugu in 1975.
Before I was allowed to leave Houston on Sunday, Maazi Olorondu decreed that I had to come home. Home was in Richmond, Texas , a suburban enclave of Houston, in an estate far removed from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. For the privacy of this humble young man, let me just say that the environment was welcoming and comfortable. His lovely wife, Julie, outdid herself with the ofe owere special. I was indeed at home.
Onyeisi Ndiigbo in Houston, Sir Festus Okere, President of the Igbo Peoples Congress (IPC), honored me beyond my age by bringing kola to the hotel before I departed from Houston. The man on whose cocktail I had entered into an alliance with the Coalition for Change in WIC in 2005 warned me that I owed an explanation to his wife over why I could not come to eat the food she had prepared. I assured him, as the Governator would, that I shall be back.
Sometime before I left the hall on Sunday at the Iriji, to take a ride back to my hotel in Maazi Olorondu's car, a brother came to me. He was as sober as he was direct.
"Are you Ugorji?" he asked with half a smile and half a frown.
"Yes, sir," I responded.
"Ugorji O. Ugorji?" he asked to be sure.
"Yes sir!" I assured him.
"You mean you don't have two heads and four horns?"
"Two heads? Yes, but no horns."
He gave me a bear hug and said:
"Go safely, my brother. Go well!"
© Ugorji Okechukwu Ugorji, 2007
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