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By Bassey Inyang / Calabar
A visit to Igoli, the headquarters of Ogoja Local Government Area of Cross River State within the month of September every year could be quite interesting to visitors and lovers of African festivals.
For those conversant with the mores of the people, the month of September represents a very unique period when they celebrate the annual Bakor New Yam Festival.
The celebration which takes weeks to complete is set aside to thank the gods of the land for granting them bountiful harvest of yams, regarded as the king of all crops.
One of the immediate indicators to the commencement of the celebration of the Festival is the announcement from the palace of the Ntol, Paramount Ruler, of the Bakor people that harvest of yams, which is regarded as the crop for men and the king of crops can commence.
Given the significance of the New Yam Festival to the Bakor (Ejagam) people that straddle across Ogoja and Ikom Local Government Areas of Cross River State, to the Qua of Calabar Municipality and other Southern parts of the state, the fanfare for which the celebration attracts is usually unprecedented.
So, mid September every year, the Bakor ethnic group holds its new yam to appreciate God for a successful yam harvest for the last farming season.
The 2013 edition of the celebration, which held last Saturday commenced with majority of the people trooping to their various for thanksgiving for their first harvest.
Those who subscribe to traditional religion, trooped to their various shrines in the various localities, clans, villages that make up the Bakor nation to offer sacrifices and perform other rituals as a form of thanksgiving to the god of harvest of the land.
At mid day, the elders of the communities released the “Atam” and “Irom” masquerade to display in designated areas where the Bakor people from various communities converged to celebrate the arrival of the new yam.
This had been the pattern for years. But for this year, the major highlight was the role played by a Catholic Priest, Reverend Father Agantem Eworo , whose sponsorship and participation in the celebration with his people opened a new dimension in the relationship between the church and tradition in the promotion of the culture of the people.
Ordinarily, for the “Born Again Christians”, the mingling of a man of God with “ unbelievers” in a traditional festival such as the celebration of the New Yam would be considered satanic and a taboo that should be condemned.
Perhaps, Eworo decided to take to the recorded biblical practice where Jesus Christ dined and wined with sinners, such as Mathew, the tax collector, who eventually became one of his disciples.
Thus, Eworo , popularly regarded as the “Spiritual Father” of the Bakor people wined, danced and celebrated the Bakor New Yam Festival with his people some of who are arch practitioners of African Traditional Religion, practiced by their forebears.
The event drew notable personalities; politicians, entertainers, clerics, business merchants, from different parts of the country to jolly with the priest in a grand style.
The festival also had on display a beauty pageantry and award of honour on the state Governor, Senator Liyel Imoke as “the father of unity of the Bakor people” as well as the conferring of chieftaincy title on musician and Cross River Carnival Ambassador, Sunny Neji as Ntol Ashe 1 of Ekajuk.
Top Nollywood stars, among them, Charles Awurum, Francis Odega and Peace Odoh and some comedians based outside the state were also in attendance, courtesy of the invitation of Neji who is a Bakor indigene.
At the venue of the ceremony, the Bakor Central playground, where the elders and people from all walks of life from and outside Bakor nation converged, it was celebration galore with Eworo who made it to the event from his base in the United States of America (USA).
After the event at the Ishibori playground that witnessed conferment of the chieftaincy title of most of those who attended, the dignitaries retired to Eworo’s residence in his ancestral home at Igbong community in Ekajuk Clan, Ogoja Local Government Area for a grand reception staged at his instance where people were entertained with food; pounded yam and local soups and many brands of drinks amidst hilarious dancing to different brands of music.
There, speakers commented on the significance and importance of the New Yam Festival and were full of good words for Father Eworo.
One time Deputy Governor of the state, Dr. Matthias Offoboche, said; “it is a day that our people celebrate all the work they did in the farm; it is the celebration of all the achievements for the year. This festival is in line with the state’s agenda for tourism. One of the things that attract people to celebration like this is culture; the way they dance, dress, sing. So, many people who have come here from far and wide may have their motive of coming to celebrate the festival here. We appreciate the role of Father Eworo who despite his calling as a priest has shown that Christianly promotes love and unity by the way he has not only participated but has feted thousands of people on a day like this”.
Also speaking, Patrick Otu, Chairman of the Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission, CROSEIC, said; “the people of Bakor are kind and hospitable. They do everything in common with the Ugeps where I come from. So that is why I so much respect them and I am here today to celebrate with them”.
One of the traditional rulers in the area, Chief Francis Ndoma, explained that the 50th anniversary of the festival was also aimed at bringing the people together to share ideas on how to take Bakor to greater heights.
Ndoma also spoke about the yield from the farms, saying “the harvest was better when compared to other years, but much has to be done to revive the soil for better yield.”
The representative of the Northern Senatorial District in the National Assembly, Senator Ben Ayade, remarked; “I am here to celebrate with my people. I know the Bakor people to be people with a long tradition of heritage, a very strong and organic united force in the Ogoja province. I am here as the Senator representing this very constituency to also fellowship with them in their joyous moment. Rev. Father Eworo is my spiritual father and strong man of God who works directly with his people”.
Chairman Ogoja Local Government Area, Ebi Makpan said; “the new yam festival is the period when people come together to appreciate God for harvest of yam”. He advised the youths to embrace agriculture as the sure way to put food on their tables. The youths, he stressed, should emulate Father Eworo who has led an exemplary life in the service of God and humanity.
Head of Anambra community in Igoli, Ogoja, Chief C.C Ilokwuma, described the people of Bakor as friendly fellows. Ilokwuma said; “in all our stay in Ogoja, we have not been marginalised by the Bakor people. My people have been celebrating the new yam festival with our hosts every year and the celebration of this year’s festival is significant as a man of God has shown us how to love and live in peace with one another whether we are Christians or not”.