The Aro festival also called the *Igu aro* or “*Ogugu aro*” is the oldest surviving Igbo cultural festival and one of the most colorful and celebrated festivals in Igboland, particularly in Umueri . The festival, which has been in existence for so many centuries has survived various cultural erosion, that includes the Igala influence, Bini conquest, Christianity adventurism, and British colonialism.
The Festival has a prime position in the life of the average “Onye Umueri” due to various factors that include, the divination that comes out of the festival. This divination depicts what would take place in a given year – the oracular utterances of the priest in regards to what to expect during the harvest season: If there will be *Ugani* (famine), *Nsogbu* (problem), *Ogu* (war), *onwu* (death), etc. it was a sort of annual divination, revelation or prophecies on what to expect in the incoming season. The over all-importance of divination lies in how it prepared the people to embrace the new year. If the prophecies turn out favorable, the people tend to work tirelessly hard so as to reap bountifully, the fruit of their sweat during the planting season. But on contrary, they tend to be cautious and careful during the planting season starting with the first moon of the new season.
The ancient town of Umueri, located in Anambra Valley of Anambra State is one of the few communities in Igboland that engaged in the Aro festival. While there are other communities with such festival, Umueri town regarded as the cradle of Igbo origin remains the only community, whose festival is directly tied to *Aro Deity* – a deity of divination, power, and wealth.
In Umueri, the deity “Aro” is supreme and devoid fetish and peganism. The deity is located at *obuga* *Mmanoma Nneyi* The administration of this all-important deity lies in the hand of *Umu-Asajonwu* royal kindred. It’s this very family kindred that’s assigned by tradition to produce the priest of the Oracle, known as “Ajieh” in local parlance. According to Umueri oral history, the present priest, *His Majesty Nnazoba Kingsley Uchenna* is amongst the hundreds of persons to have climbed unto the exalted seat – meaning that the institution has survived many centuries, including so many natural and human crisis that haf hit the community, which includes the numerous inter-tribal war involving the Igalas, jukun, Ohaofia etc, the Bini conquests under the Oba Ovanrenwem Nogbaisi, the European colonialism and Nigeria civil war and yet still standing so tall.
The Historical Origin
It’s still debatable & a subject of great interest to scholars, on where exactly the Iguaro festival emanated from, with various many having diverse views. Agukwu, Enugwu Ukwu, and Umueri have variously taken center stage on any discussion concerning the “Iguaro festival”. However, the mere fact that *Umunri clan* (a cultural group that both Enugwu-ukwu & Agukwu belonged) have consistently linked her origin to Anambra valley, a place where Umueri dwelled (Onwuejeogwu 1979), it’s therefore right to assume that their ancestors might have migrated from the valley with that culture to their newly found abodes. The task of administering this all-important festival in both Enugwu-ukwu & Agukwu lies in the hand of their traditional rulers – the system that was not aboriginal to Igbo people, unlike as its obtainable in Umueri. It’s therefore pertinent to state that the celebration elsewhere in Igboland is mere ceremonious without any spiritual attachment as been practiced in Umueri.
Historically speaking, both the Ezenri & Igwe Enugwu ukwu dynasties are products of Igala and western civilization respectively. While the Igalas that invaded Omambala during the 16th century met our ancestors – the “Umueri Igbo” as republican without any kingship culture. There are school of thought that believes that it was the invading Igala that invented the ‘Eze” dynasty which met limited success in Umueri. This Eze stool succeeded in Agukwu as “Eze Nri” while the British Indirect rule system that produced warrant chiefs birthed the Igwe Enugwu Ukwu stool. It’s therefore safe at this juncture to say without any fear of contradiction, that such borrowed institutions have no right, whatsoever to lay claim as the ‘originator’ of this festival.
Traditionally, there are pieces of evidence that *Umuasajonwu* kindred- the royal kindred that’s in charge of the great Aro deity Umueri and to large extent the custodian of *Iguaro* festival was the Emissary of the Oracle in entire Igboland. They administer, coordinates and control the festival beyond Umueri, as the kindred are found in some other communities of northern Igboland that include, Enugwu ukwu, Agukwu, Ogbunike, Awka, etc. This obviously, seems to suggest that in traditional ancient Igbo society, that this family that’s scattered around these villages, were wholly responsible for “Iguaro” in the mentioned communities and that they are directly related to the *Umuasajonwu* Umueri, until the traditional rulers, came onboard and usurped the functions. According to Umueri oral tradition “Umuasajonwu Nneyi Umueri” is directly related to the *Umuasajonwu Ugume*” in Ikenga Umueri- the very place that the founders of the modern-day *Umunri clan* (that include Enugwu ukwu, Nawfia, Enugwu Agidi, and Agukwu) migrated from (Ifediorah Citizen 1979). Research on their current habitat pointed out that they live in close affinity to the *AgukwuNri* tree that’s still visibly located in Ugume Umueri unto this very date.
From the foregoing, it’s unequivocally clear to state that *Mmanoma Nneyi-Umueri* known for ages as “holy city”, due to its “mecca” status, amongst the traditional worshippers , that frequent and thronged the place as pilgrimages to commemorate the festival of divination, power, and wealth, is indeed the indisputably ‘nexus’ of the origin of this much cherished, colorful & important festival.
The Significance of the Festival in Igboland
The Igbo Lunar calendar is based on 13 Lunar months *(Onwa Iri na ato*) each of which is made up of seven Igbo weeks *(Izu asaa*), each of which is made up of four days ( *Ubochi ano*); Eke, Oye,Afor, and Nkwo. The right of the proclamation of Igbo lunar calendar, from year to year, falls on the shoulder of *Ajie* who is also the custodian and priest of Aro Oracle.
The festival also called the ” *oriri ede*” feast (feast of coco yam) coincides with traditional Igbo New year – usually during the first or second week of February or in some cases in january, depending on the citing of the moon. So the Umueri calendar calculation, which shares semblance with what is obtainable in china and Isreal is shorter than the western year of 365 days, with the extra 29 days on the conventional calendar, now regarded as the 13th month.
The festivals also usher in a new planting season in Igboland. As its during the festival that the *Ajie* will prepare the mindest of the people on how the season would look like. During the festivals, prayers are offered to God (Chukwuokike Abiama) and other gods, notably to “Ifejioke” (goddess of the harvest) for a bountiful season. As earlier stated, the proclamation of the Priest-king tends to make people work harder or be cautious depending on the outcome of the divination. For instance, in a season in which the priest foresees flood, farmers tend to be cautious with their way they go about their season. But in a situation, where the priest-king foretold about a great season of a bountiful harvest, the people tend to work extraordinary harder to reap the good harvest.
By performing the symbolic travel of “Iba na Ovia “, which is similar in nature to the visit of biblical Moses to the wilderness, to receive covenant while the people waiting patiently, the priest undoubtedly becomes not just, an emissary of the gods but the overall spiritual leader of the entire Igbo nation, as all the people that includes representatives of various communities wait patiently for his return from the ‘land of the spirit’ to communicate the messages of the gods to the people. These messages vary and not limited to only the host community. In some cases, communities that are committing sacrileges are warned and solutions are given on how to appease the land.
The festival is also a season to project , promote and showcase the rich Igbo culture. This includes the culture of extending hospitality to guests known as ” *Iziokwu*” in the Umueri dialect, which entails hosting guests and visitors from far and near – showing love and treating them exceptionally during the period of their stay, and also lavishing them with various gifts. People with means also invite cultural music and dance to entertain them during the festive week. Masquerades of all classes also add color to the festival, more especially during the climax of the feast. Great Masquerade like Ijele, Izaga, Isator, Ogolo, otiokpokpo, and so on and so forth have been used variously to entertain and showcase that Umueri have the best of masquarade in sub-Sahara Africa, little wonder why it was so easier for Umueri ‘Ijele masquerade troop’ to win accolades in Festac 1979.
The ” Igba Ada Masquerad” feast that takes place immediately after proclamation day, which also brings the festive week to an end, signifies the victory of Umueri over every external aggression. According to the oral story, umueri been one of the communities that withstood the Edda invasion of Omambala in the late 19th century, use such a symbolic feast to celebrate her victory, over every odds in the past year. The numeric strength of the “Ada” masquerade that floods Nneyi during the festival, emphasis on unity ( *Igwebuike* ), that there is no obstacle that is too big to overcome. During the masquerade parade, there is no star masquerade amongst them. All, identical- same size, shape, and status, there is no doubt that the ‘smaller size” masquerade added color to the festival.
The festival also serves as a ritual of reunion between Umueri and most of the ancient communities in the Northern part of Igboland, particularly amongst the communities that are directly related to Umueri. Amongst the legion of the communities that thronged the ‘holy city’ of Nneyi include almost all communities in Omambala, the Umuiguedo, the Umunri clans, Anam Mkpaisa, Olu, and Igala communities that have cultural ties with Omambala people. Other communities like Amanuke, Achala, Awka have always maintained their usual presence in the festival. Particularly of interest was the last year’s festival that had in attendance, people from Abatete, Asaba, Ogwuashi, and far away from Isukwuato Abia state. At this juncture, it’s good that I commend the effort of last year’s organizers for making the festival a very unique one, as we believe that this generation will do more to advance this culture that was almost abandoned years back.
Apart from the feasting & entertainment that goes with the festival, the people of Umueri hold the festival in very high esteem due to the fact that, according to history, the divination that goes with the festival has never failed but rather gives accurate divination on what will happen. Notably amongst the previous proclamation or divination that took the world by surprise includes the 1995 edition in which the priest foretold that many houses would be burnt down and that he saw blood flowing. The rest as the saying goes is now history, as Umueri witnessed unprecedented mayhem and destruction of their houses and properties by her neighbors! Another recent prophecy took place last two years (2019), as the current priest-king foretold of a pandemic that will deal ruthlessly with the human race if we fail to retrace from the sinful life that has become the norm and order in today world. Alas, nobody understands the gravity of what the priest said until the deadly COVID 19 that is presently wreaking havoc in the world broke out. That was why during the olden days, an average Umueri man that worth his salt, must know what the future holds for him in the incoming year. Therefore, when next you see an Umuerian going home for Christmas/New year celebration don’t waste your energy, demanding to know when he would return back because he will definitely not return back until the Iguaro festival has been concluded.
To sum up this piece, it’s vital to apportioned blame to where it ought to be placed as a result of the recent decline of this festival, which was once the pride of our ancestors in the days of the old. My research carried out over the years, which pointed towards the emergence of “Whiteman religion’ as a major reason for the decline, also have a fair share of blame to Umueri elites, traditional religious worshippers, and elders as a result of their nonchalant attitude towards our culture due to their so much attachment to western civilization. While this neglect was taking root, other communities particularly Agukwu Nri took the center stage and over-hyped their festival, that today while her festival is receiving attention and coverage from scholars, anthropologists, and government ours seems to be in a comatose situation. *Taani ka bu gboo*. Let’s wake up and reclaim the lost glories, as nobody else will do it for us. The saying ” *that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter*”.(Achebe 1994), came readily to mind.
Comrade Biafra Buchi Diboh,
An Entrepreneur, Blogger & freelancer based in Malaysia was the President Ohaneze Ndigbo Malaysia between period of (2015-2017), Ex Deputy President Nigeria in Diaspora, Malaysia Chapter (NIDOMY) 2016-2018.