On the Overground from Dalston in East London to the outskirts of Essex one Saturday evening in late October, party-goers in Halloween costume depart the Eastbound train and are gradually replaced by families and groups of friends wearing traditional African attire. The glances and head nods suggest that everyone is headed in the same direction: the annual Iri-ji New Yam Festival.
People of postcolonial African countries such as Nigeria are often misrepresented as one homogenous group, despite nearly all African nations being home to scores of tribes and ethnicities with distinctive languages and cultures. In Nigeria alone, there are hundreds, including the Hausa-Fulani of the north and the Yoruba and Efiks of the south. Founded by the Igbo Cultural and Support Network (ICWN), a London-based non-profit organisation, tonight’s Iri-ji New Yam Festival celebrates the food of the Igbo tribe. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the event, and sees nearly 1,000 people in attendance at a large hotel ballroom in East Ham.
“Iri-ji” translates roughly as “eating yam” and is a harvest celebration of the yam crop in Igboland, which in today’s Nigeria would exist in the southeastern region of the country. The ceremony marks gratitude to the gods, particularly Ahia Njoku, goddess of farm productivity for a fruitful harvest, and hopes for a better harvest in the coming cycle.
Outside of Nigeria, the Igbo diaspora stretches to almost every corner of the Earth, from other African nations to Scandinavia, North America, and Australia and as such, Iri-ji festivals can be found in all of these places. Events are usually held at the end of the rainy season in Nigeria, which is between August and October. In Britain, Iri-ji is often celebrated in October to coincide with Black History Month.
“Growing up, I used to eat [Nigerian food] regularly at home—multiple times a week,” Eji, a young Londoner in attendance tonight. For him and many other young British Nigerians, the dishes served tonight are usually reserved for traditional weddings or other special occasions.
“Now I’ve left home and my culinary skills don’t extend to egusi soup preparation, I eat [Nigerian food] more rarely and I think as a result, get more excited about it when I do,” Eji adds.
Ife, another young guest, tells me: “If you don’t live in area of the UK with lots of Igbos or go to many of the local meetings, it's hard to connect so this event is great.”
At East Ham’s Iri-ji New Yam Festival, the buzz stretches all the way from the hotel lobby, where men in traditional Chieftaincy or Isiagu with beaded neckwear and Okpu Agu hats pose alongside women elaborate lace dresses with Gele headgear. Soon, everyone finds their seats and after a ceremonial entrance and standing ovation, community leaders sit in front of them at high tables and are presented Kola nuts, a ritual of all Igbo events.
In an opening speech, Ikechukwu Aniebonam explains that the ICSN founded the Iri-ji New Yam Festival 20 years ago “as the result of the love and passion of a few individuals who wanted to bring young Igbos in the diaspora together.”
While Americans are familiar with yams, thanks to the candied form served at Thanksgiving, the vegetable is less well known in Britain. In Nigeria, however, the yam is a prized staple crop and star ingredient in many Igbo meals. Yams also signify the ability to feed one's family and therefore, wealth. It’s little wonder, then, that the Iri-ji festival is one of the move revered in the Igbo calendar.
After tonight’s inaugural prayer, the opening of the buffet is announced. This immediately sends the room into a frenzy, as people head towards tables laden with jollof rice, fried chicken and fish, and yam pottage—a dish of boiled Yuna yams blended with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and spices. Elders are given preferential service, while everyone else forms a long and patient queue.
The food at East Ham’s Iri-ji festival shows the versatility of the yam as an ingredient. Alongside yam pottage is “Peppe’s fish soup” (with boiled yam chunks) and the melon seed-based egusi soup served with pounded yam. Knives and forks are forgotten, as most people tear into cloudlike balls of pounded yam and use it to scoop up meat and juices on their plates.
As guests enjoy the many yam dishes on offer, a band playing traditional music plays and dances are performed by tribal groups and the Mmwanmu Masqueraded Spirit, which shows the acceptance of the event from the Gods. This colourful yet daunting figure moving to the bells, shakers, whistles and drums of an entourage charges at those standing by. There is also the sacrificial cutting the edges of yam by the Igwe, a leader seen as a medium between gods and community.
For some British Nigerians, tribal and even African national tradition become consumed by the Western side of their identity. For others, however—especially those at tonight’s event and of course the ICSN, whose motto “Igwebuike, Udo na Oganiru” means “unity is strength, peace, and progress”—gatherings like Iri-ji New Yam Festival preserve an important part of Nigerian heritage.