The second-day event of the grand Awka cultural festival, Egwu Imoka, commenced amid ambient uncertainties but it passed off without incident and even ended up, by the accounting of its adherents, an undiluted success. This, despite the prohibitive stance of the Anambra State government against such cultural events due to the risk of coronavirus.
By Chudi Okoye and Ndu Chris Nwannah, ATM Guest Writer, with Stella Nzekwe and Adumonye Nwiyi
Amid a massive overhang of dread and coronavirus-related uncertainties, the adherents of traditional religion in Awka town, the capital of Anambra State, celebrated Day 2 of their three-day annual festival, Egwu Imoka, as scheduled on May 29, 2020. The event took place against the backdrop of a prohibitive stance by the Anambra State government which earlier, on May 10th as the famous Awka festival impended, had issued an order suspending the Awka carnival and all such events, citing the risk of Covid-19 contagion.
Egwu Imoka is a month-long event with three ritual dates calibrated through the Igbo lunar calendar. The first of these important dates is the Umuokpu Day, also known as ‘Okikagba’, when the 32 villages of Awka send a processionary emissary of humans and masquerades (Osonogba) to inform the non-contiguous 33rd village, Umuokpu, that a date has been picked for the annual cultural festival. The remaining major days of the festival are the Opu Eke Day, held on Afor market day and the Masquerade Day, which takes place on Nkwo market day when masquerades engage in transactions. Opu Eke comes four full market days after the Umuokpu Day, while masquerades perform the day after the Opu Eke Day, bringing the ceremony to a concluding climax.
In the wake of the suspension order issued by the Anambra State government, celebrations on the first day of this year’s Egwu Imoka festival, held on May 25th, were inspired but tentative, as adherents tested the rigours and contours of the suspension order.
On the second day of the festival, the Opu Eke Day, security forces were out in significant numbers and the day had started with marked unease, as observed by Awka Times reporters. But the security forces proved unobtrusive; no one was impeded, no one was arrested or challenged. In the end, the second day of Awka town’s Egwu Imoka 2020 sailed off to a resounding success.
The site of the second-day celebrations was the Nkwo Amenyi market square, a hallowed arena located very close to Olulu Imoka, the shrine of the Imoka deity, on to which the deity emerges once in a year to be venerated by the faithful.
The rituals of Opu Eke Day have mythic meaning and are at the core of the Egwu Imoka celebration. Opu Eke is said to epitomize the actual Egwu Imoka celebration, and some believe that without Opu Eke there would be no Egwu Imoka celebration.
Opu Eke is an exclusive preserve of the womenfolk, a day in which the female faithfuls troop out to pay obeisance to the Imoka deity. Awka cultural mythology characterizes Imoka as a female deity and so a day for the women has deep significance.
Opu Eke is a dance for the Imoka deity heralded on the preceding evening of Oye market day to draw attention to the fact that the Opu Eke event is imminent. The drum of Opu Eke continues into the following day, Afor market day, to mark the arrival of Imoka into the scene. The Imoka chief priestess, Eze Nwanyi, usually leads the Opu Eke dance procession.
On this 2020 Opu Eke Day, the female adherents of Egwu Imoka came out in unexpectedly high numbers. They surged forth bedecked in gorgeous costumery, some sporting traditional attires of intricate designs and variegated colours – a blaze of red, white, yellow and other colors. With a throng of onlookers cheering them on, the women worshippers shuffled towards the Imoka shrine performing their mythic dance in a dignified frenzy, the wistful acoustics of the Opu Eke drum carrying them along. Nkwo market square was a beehive of activities, filled with women, men and youths, some watching with bemused curiosity, others regaled by the pageantry, all seemingly unperturbed by the coronavirus menace.
Chief Patrick Nwekemezie Onwudinjo, a native of Amudo village Awka, has been in charge of the delivery of the Opu Eke drums for the past 25 years. He claims that the mastery of the drums was handed down to him by his forebears. He noted that his father was a great friend of Imoka due to his dexterity in the playing of the drums. Speaking further, he stressed that, Opu Eke is the only dance known to Imoka.
“Opu Eke is the only dance performed by Imoka,” Onwudinjo told Awka Times. “The deity is the only one that engages in the dance with women. This is the reason that on the day of Opu Eke, the deity must perform live. Once it performs, the deity withdraws only to come out the next year.”
The acting chief priest of Imoka, Eze Imoka, Mr. Mmaduabuchi Ikegbunem, speaking to Awka Times immediately after the Imoka deity went into recess, also alluded to the fact that Opu Eke is the real day of Imoka celebration. According to him, “without the day, Imoka celebration cannot hold.”
Going down memory lane, the Imoka chief priest said he was unhappy that successive governments in Anambra State had not made efforts to improve the cultural fortunes of the festival, which he said has huge tourism potential.
As he had told Awka Times previously, Mr. Ikegbunem affirmed that the Anambra State government did not make any effort to reach out to Awka stakeholders before coming out with its statement suspending the annual event. He claimed however that awareness of the risk of Covid-19 meant that measures were put in place to follow government guidelines during the fiesta.
The Eze Imoka reiterated the importance of prayers in the affairs of human beings, asserting that prayers were offered to guard against the spread of coronavirus in the area. He charged celebrants to be law abiding and avoid acts capable of negating the objectives of the ceremony.
The chairman of Egwu Imoka 2020 organizing committee and chairman of Ikolobia Umudioka Village, Mr Anayo Obiakor, told Awka Times that his team was fully cognizant of the global Covid-19 pandemic in planning the ceremony. As he did in an earlier interview with Awka Times, Mr. Obiakor again lamented the failure of the state government to reach out to Awka citizens to fashion a path for the hosting of the programme through observance of standard protocols. He averred that with proper consultations, the community and state government could have taken a decision on how best to go about the event in the most acceptable way, just like markets and churches which the government had allowed to re-open. Mr. Obiakor revealed that his team had made elaborate plans to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Awka to the global community during the 2020 Egwu Imoka festival. But he said due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these planned would be shifted to future years. Nevertheless, he observed that this year’s Egwu Imoka was proving to be successful even with the impediments of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the women who participated in the ceremony, Mrs Okechukwu Okoye, an Enugwu-Agidi woman married to Umuzocha village in Awka, also accounted this year’s Opu Eke a huge success and expressed happiness that she had been part of it.
Also, an elderly woman from Ifite Awka, Madam Ifeoma Nwammadu, said the ceremony was of immense benefit to the people of Awka. She prayed for good health upon the people, and urged the youths not to engage in social vices.
Another participant, Ezenwanyi Ukamaka Ibegbunam Nworah from Umbelle village, said she was thrilled with the success of festival, in particular the number of people that graced the occasion. The wife of the late Eze Imoka and mother of the current acting Eze Imoka, Lolo Obioma Ikegbunem, told Awka Times that she was overjoyed for being part of this year’s festival. She said she was full of gratitude to Imoka for the blessings bestowed upon her family. She showered praises on the deity, even as she prayed for more successes. Lolo Ikegbunem underscored the importance of the Opu Eke Day, saying that it was to reverence the deity for the beautiful things it had done for them in past years.
The menfolk were not left out of exhilarations about the festival. Chief Igboemeke Nwammadu, from Agbana Ifite Awka and the treasurer of Otu Omenana Awka, noted in a chat with Awka Times that the festival was an ancient one which had fostered the propagation of Awka cultural heritage.
Another Imoka faithful, Mr. Ifeanyi Nzekwe from Igweogige village Awka, noted that Opu Eke was central to the celebration of Egwu Imoka Awka. According to him, adherents use the occasion to pay homage to the deity. He said the beautiful values of the programme must continue to be preserved to showcase Awka culture to the outside world.
Day 2 of the 2020 edition of Egwu Imoka concluded without any known incident, with government indulging an insistent cultural event whilst seemingly keeping an eye on proceedings. It is to be seen if a similar accommodation will attend the grand finale of the Egwu Imoka pageant which is an altogether more boisterous affair.