By Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia:
Aju festival is a Rite of Passage, performed every three years to mark the transition from adolescents to manhood for males between the ages of 19 and 23. Aju festival is one of the major cultural landmarks in Ugbo traditional calendar and a significant process in, not just Ugbo, but also in many Igbo societies. The celebrants are males between the ages of 19 and 23. The rite of passage, called Iwa Akwa (clothing) is the most cherished festival in the life of every Ugbo indigene.
Aju festival dates back to Ugbo history. Our ancestors conceived it as a classificatory process of grouping males into specific age-grades for smooth and effective communal administration. On the other hand, both seniority and age grade are seriously emphasized such that in Ugbo, old age goes with honour, dignity and gerontocratic rights.
Iwa Akwa involves various social processes aimed at initiating the adolescents into manhood as well as bonding the members of the age-grade across the entire hamlets of Ugbo. Three days are usually set aside for the major processes:
Day 1-Orie Day: All the celebrants from the kindred would converge with pomp and pageantries at their hamlet square before they proceed to the village square specifically for the purpose of Iwa Akwa. The major hallmark of this day is that almost all the daughters (Umuada) of Ugbo, both far and near are obligated to appreciate the celebrants from their own kindred with various kinds of gift.
Day 2- On the next day, Afor, all the celebrants are inducted into the Ugbo cosmology through the Mgbaheishi. By this orientation, all the celebrants are compelled to trek through the ancestral foot paths, round the major hamlets in Ugbo; ascending and descending the Ugbo hills, crossing the rivers and streams, etc . Most importantly, they are expected to lavishly display vigour, enthusism and agility in about 15 hamlet squares in Ugbo. Their flutes and songs would always indicate their location at any particular time. This is strictly arranged such that the celebrants of Ugbo Okpala do not meet and clash with those of Ugbonabo, neither would Ugbonabo encounter the Ngene- Ugbo celebrants. The parents and relatives would wait anxiously until their sons return from Mgbaheishi.
3. The grand finale, called Ozuzugboligbo comes up on the next Orie market day. It officially and publicly unites all the celebrants of the three components of Ugbo at Ugbonabo, the ancestral centre of Ugbo activities.
The initiates are in the process, fully incorporated and enculturated into the core Ugbo spiritual essence and cultural heritage. Apart from impacting the Ugbo consciousness in the initiated, the Iwa Akwa confers on the celebrant all the privileges, rights, dignity and profound sense of belonging in the Ugbo society.
Iwa- Akwa also goes with some challenges. The celebrants are reminded as in Corinthians, 13 Vs 11: “As a child, I spoke, thought and understood as a child. Now, as a man, you must put away all the childish things’’. It is the occasion for the central message: Go ye into the world, tread cautiously as an Ugbo indigene with an achievement ambience. Put differently, any male who has not performed the Iwa Akwa ceremony is considered a minor in the Ugbo world view. Going by the standards of Ugbo custom and tradition, such a minor may not only be allowed to marry but will not be entrusted with serious responsibilities in the community.
Expectedly, every Ugbo parent looks forward with emotional excitement; to a day his/her son will perform the Iwa Akwa ceremony. It is considered a thing of immense joy for a parent to witness the rite of passage of his/her son. It is greeted with enormous fanfare, gunshots, feasts, dancing groups, etc. Because of the relevance attached to the Aju festival, all sons, daughters and friends of Ugbo both at home and in the Diaspora usually strive to participate in the festival.
The Exemplary Ugbo Culture in the Global Context
Professor Manu Ampin corroborates that there are five major African initiation rites. They are the rights of birth, passage, marriage, eldership and ancestorship.
Rite of Birth
The rite of birth is the initiation of the child through a naming ceremony. A newly born child is a canvass of diverse possibilities. The Ugbo ancestors had long realized that names have spiritual vibrations upon the life of the bearer. In the traditional African cosmology, names are verified to determine their impacts on the personality, talent and mission in life before they are pronounced on the child by the eldest man, in the presence of the relatives. The person grows up to assume the roles and expectations of such name. In Ugbo, this is called Mfuta Omugwo, equivalent to the Christian baptism. In each case, a form of mystification is involved. The name of the child thus pronounced, becomes the essential part of his personality for life.
Rite of Passage
The rite of passage as observed by Professor Ampin, is the Ugbo equivalent of Iwa akwa, performed to mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The equivalence of the rite of passage in the Western culture is the university convocation. It is often between the ages of 19 and 23. The persons so initiated are reminded that they have become adults and thus expected to fulfill roles that are incumbent on adults. On the Aju grand finale, a new set of boys matriculates, in what we call Ibanakwa. The occasion witnesses both matriculation and convocation as it obtains in the western culture.
Rite of Marriage
This is the joining of the two missions of two separate persons into a soulful unity, as a couple (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is not only for procreation, it helps the couple fulfill their missions and objectives in society. The unmarried persons are not taken seriously in the Ugbo world view. And for this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. (Matthew 19:5). Just as cutting of the cake is observed in the western culture, the Ugbo people use Egusi cake, Iho, to consummate every marriage.
Rite of Eldership
The rite of eldership is performed in all parts of Igbo land with little variations. In Ugbo, it is the title taking. It takes the form of Okotalukwe or jiebine, Ogbuefi, Onyioha (Ozo) and Mazi.
After the ceremony, the celebrant is looked upon as a model worthy of emulation. He is seen as a man of distinction. In every gathering, his views are sought. He is not easily challenged on account of his status and most times, wisdom. Among the Christendom, knighthood and other forms of recognition are used to express such distinction.
Rite of Death & Ancestorship
This is the rite performed to enable a dead relative transit fully into the spirit world. The African philosophy believes that to perform the required funeral ceremony for the deceased who lived well on earth would facilitate his integration among the ancestors or ambassadors in the spirit world. And, thereafter, he would come back to life through a new born baby. This phenomenon called reincarnation (Ino Uwa) is fundamental in Igbo conception of reality.
Another striking Ugbo cultural universalism is the concept of Nnam and Nnem as names reserved for the father and mother in-laws respectively. In England parents of one’s wife are referred to as father and mother in laws, just as they are called Nnam and Nnem in Ugbo.
The Benefits of Aju Festival
There are several benefits which the Ugbo derive from the Iwa-akwa/Aju ceremonies. Some of them include:
a. It helps in the re-invocation of Ugbo spirit. This is the only ceremony that gravitates all the Ugbo sons and daughters from far and near.
b. It enables the members of the age grade to know themselves. It is noted that the bonds created among the initiates last for life. All members by obligation refer to themselves as jianyi.
c. It is a classificatory process by which the conflicts in age are resolved. This is because dispute on seniority is resolved through the process of Iwa-Akwa.
d. It helps to assign values and functions to the age groups in the community development projects.
e. Age grade system serves as an agent of social change in Igbo land. In various communities, community development projects are carried out by the age grades, the Azubuike Age Grade of Ugbo for instance, built the bus-stop at the Ugbo/Owelli Junction.
f. It is an enculturation and socialization process. The initiates are fully incorporated and enculturated into the core Ugbo essence.
g. Aju festival impacts Ugbo consciousness thereby infusing in the initiates the Ugbo pragmatic communalism.
h. It helps in peer group review mechanism among the age mates. By monitoring the process attained by one’s age mates, self-evaluation becomes very imperative (Ogbogu anuonwanyi, Ogbogu aluo uno, etc).
i. Aju reconciles the initiate with the innermost foundation of his being. It re-enacts one with his roots thereby reinvigorating the innermost soul of his personality.
j. The Mgbahe ishi component of the Aju is an orientation task for the mastery of the vital tracks that connect the Ugbo villages. The major hamlet squares (obodo) in Ugbo are covered in this exercise. We are reminded that our forefathers passed through the same tracks. This will enable the initiates pass through Ugbo and also for Ugbo to pass through them.
k. Age grade system in general is a platform for leadership training. Leaders such as His Excellency, Sen. Professor Ike Ekweremadu, PhD, CFR, Ikeoha Ndi Igbo, Onwa Ugbo, the Deputy President of the Senate and the Honourable Speaker, ECOWAS Parliament was the chairman of his age grade at Mpu.
l. Aju festival is used as an authentic Ugbo calendar. Most events are recollected using Aju as a reference point. It is also easy to determine the age of every Ugbo man or woman by recollecting the year he (or her age mate) performed the Iwa akwa ceremony. (See the chronology of Iwa Akwa below)
The virtues of Igbo stoicism is embodied in Aju festival. In the past, the celebrants were taken to a river, Oji, where they swallow stone pebbles thereby reminding them the salient manly virtues of courage, perseverance, stoicism and industry.
n. Iwa-eze, the tooth gapping ceremony reminds the celebrant that “whatever comes out of the mouth must be truth, you are now an adult”.
o. The Ugbo adult male population can easily be determined going by the number of celebrants in every Aju Festival.
p. The Aju Ugbo helps us to know among the daughters (Umuada), those that still keep faith with their roots. Every Ada, both far and near, is expected to answer ‘the Aju roll call’.
Aju Festival and Christianity
The Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) came into Igbo land with Bishop Ajayi Crowther through Onitsha in 1857, while the Holy Ghost Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church arrived in 1885. Since then it has been a continuous Battle for the African Mind. Similarly, Anglican Church was the first to arrive Ugbo in 1919.
Most indigenes of Ugbo are against any culture or custom that derives its values from other gods or arusi and strongly uphold and promote such cultures that recognize Christianity as the last bus-stop. In several Igbo communities, efforts are made, as much as possible to divest culture of its primordial totems. In the past, the Ugbo Okpala celebrants for instance, were hosted to a retreat in the Anglican Communion; and they were expected to attend a Thanksgiving Church Service on a Sunday after the event. This form of evangelization is transcendental and effortlessly enthrones Christian values in the Ugbo corpus. This is cultural Christianity paradigm that has remained a potent tool for evangelization not only in Igbo land, but in all parts of the world. Aju therefore becomes a potent force in the Christian recruitment process. Every community or tribe has its predominant cultural attributes for which it is known. For instance, the distinction between the Igbo, Yoruba, Ogoja, Bini, Igala, etc is not located in the universal Christian religion but in their diverse cultural values.
Therefore, since Aju Festival has nothing fetish, any suggestion that it should be proscribed on account of religion should be strongly resisted. I, therefore urge the Ugbo to strive to uphold, protect and be proud of their culture; our culture is our identity.
The Chronology of Iwa-akwa since 1919
1919- Onu Okwu, David Udeopkala
1922- Okechuku Agwu (Ogbo Agwu)
1925- Mark Udeagwu, Michael Udeonu
1928- Chime Udekwe, Simon Udeh
1931- James Omeh, Daniel Udekwe, Gebriel Okechukwu
1934- Reuben Onu, Daniel Ogbonnia, Moses Anukwu
1937- Chukwunta Nwaudeocha
1940- Udeokpala Ogbonnia, Ajanu Ocha
1943- Ilogebe Ogbonnia, Augustine Okechukwu, Eze Ogonogo
1946- Isaac Ogbonnia, Okonkwo Okeke, Emmanuel Udeoyiba
1949- Ositadinma: Thomas Ogbonnia, Okeke Ogbanu, Joseph Chukwunta
1952- Nwadike Udeokpala, Eugene Ogbonnia, David Ogomegbunam Agwu
1955- Ndiogazilu: Paul Okechukwu Agwu, Vincent Ogbonnia, Augustine Okeke, HRH Igwe L.U. Chime, Nabo 1 of Ugbonabo, Etc
1958- Njikoka:Stephen Okechukwu, Simeon Omenta, Etc
1961- Crusaders: Clement Ogbonnia, Hyecinth Aneke, Etc
1964-Oganiru: Felix Okechukwu Agwu, Denis Chime, Fidelis Chime, Etc
1967-Yagazie: Emmanuel Udeagha, Emmanuel Ogbonnia, Vincent Udeokpala, Japheth Anua, Etc
1970-Udoka: HRH, Igwe J.A. Okeke, Ngene 1 of Ngene, Emeka Dan Udekwu, William Omeh, Josephat Ani, Etc
1973-Ugochukwu: Benjamin Kama, Jonathan Udeokpala, Emma Udekwe, Etc
1976-Ochomma/Emenike. Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia, Innocent Obichukwu, George Chukwu, Alfred Mgbeji, Barr. Toby Nwani, Etc
1979- Uchechukwu: Anayo Okoli (Rogers), Eze O. Eze, SKC Ogbonnia, Pius Chukwunta , Etc
1982- Azubike: Toby Okechukwu, Clifford Ogbonnia, Nnaemeka Agwu, Etc
1985- Ofuobi: Onuora Ude, Monday Udeokpala, Nduka Eze, Etc.
1988- Chibuzo: Obi Ogbonnia, Damian Chiude, Ogidiga, Etc
1991-Osondu: Stan Ebem, Gab Okafor, Etc
1994-Ifeadigo: Gideon Udeokpala, Etc
1997-Chinyelugo: Ogor Udeopkala, Etc
2000- Chiemerie: Olisa Ogbonnia, Etc
2003-Chidera: Chibuike Igbo, Chibuike Eze, Amechi Omenta, Etc
2006-Usonwanne: Obiora Ogbonnia, Nonso Chime, Okechukwu Udeagha, Etc
2009- Uwaoma: Okezie Kama, Ndubuisi Okechukwu, Abel Chukwu, Ejike Chukwu, Etc.
2012-Ihuoma: Mbamalu Ikenna Ogbonnia, Emeka Udeh, Chukwuma Okafor, Ebuka Chukwu, Ugochukwu Eze e.t.c.
2015-Chiagozie: Chimaobi Ogbonnia, Ikedi Okechukwu, Abumchukwu Chime, Kingsley Arokwu, Etc
2018- Munachimso: Lotachukwu Ogbonnia, Nnamdi Toby Okechukwu, Chisom Eze, Izuchukwu Enome, Chinedu Orji, etc
2021- Ifechukwu: Kenechukwu Okafor, Onyedika Ogbonnia, Collins Hojoli, Emmanuel Uzor, Etc.
Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia, Department of Political Science, Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu.
National Publicity Secretary, Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worlwide & Chairman, Ugbo Committee on Culture & Tourism