Mgbidi, the headquarters of Oru West Local Government Area of Imo State is a town that almost every visitor who visits Imo State from the Niger bridge must be familiar with because she is the gateway into the state from that route.
However, not all visitors are aware that Mgbidi, one of Imo’s lively suburbs is arguably one of the most traditionally rooted towns at this age. The history and origin of Mgbidi are not only told orally as usual in traditional Igbo society but also documented.
As written by Patricia Diaku in her book, “Socio-Cultural History of Mgbidi, Oru West Local Government Area, Imo State, Nigeria, From Pre-colonial, Pre-Christian Period to the Present”, Mgbidi is one of the twenty towns that make up Oru clan of Imo State.
According to Diaku, Mgbidi and other nineteen towns claim ancestry through one woman called Oma. Their common father was known as Nnam Okara. Oma and Okara who are the progenitors of Mgbidi came from “somewhere on the bank of the River Niger.
The history according to Diaku noted that the founders of Mgbidi claim that their last remembered abode was Okija, (now in Ihiala Local Government of Anambra State) From Okija they came to Ibi (Ibiasoegbe) from where they came to Mgbidi.
Diaku said that after Mgbidi migrated from Okija to Ibi after a long sojourn, they instituted a kinship annual festival called Ara Nne Oma. Oma (their ancestral mother) was said to have set up or instituted a clay water pot on the birth of each of her eight sons at the original Ara Nne Oma shrine at Ibi (The present site of the Oru Native court, established in 1929).
Today, that festival is popularly known as Aranumu, a corrupted version of Ara Nne Oma. Oru tradition identifies the true sons of Oma as Ele, Aji, Egwe, Egbu-Oma, Mgbidi, Otulu, Umuobioma Ozara and Umuoma Uli.
Today, the entire eleven villages that makeup Mgbidi: Imeoha, Ihite, Uzinaumu, Umuoji, Okwudo/Umuekwe, Ugbele, Umuehi, Umuabiahu, Eziali, Umuokpara and Umuaguma are known for many traditional festivals with Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival as the most ancient and untouchable among many.
The origin of the Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival as of today is not known by some elders in the town apart from a few and even some young men who are deeply rooted in the traditional history of the ancient town.
One common thing however about Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival is that it is performed by teenage girls who had reached the puberty stage, who have seen their menstrual periods, who are not yet engaged and the ceremony is where they are celebrated by their families for being proud virgins.
Comrade Madu Ogochukwu Gabriel, Youth leader of mgbidi autonomous said that the Ikwezi-Mgbidi tradition or culture which started centuries ago when a virgin maiden, is celebrated by family members, friends and well-wishers has remained.
According to Gabriel, it is a time when Mgbidi growing girls have to tell the world “now I am a woman, an adult, and has reached puberty stage as a virgin.”
He said that Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi is always celebrated in all Mgbidi eleven villages except for the Aro people that are attached in some of the villages in the Mgbidi clan. And he said it is celebrated from January to June every year.
According to Gabriel, “it is a period of merriment, celebrations, dancing, singing and indoor stay of our maidens/virgins, they are decorated with uhie local makeup, and wore her beads.
“The virgin is always with her small Udu (clay pot) for playing music, telling stories etc.
This occasion features a virgin, her maidens living together for two weeks, the maids who are relatives serve the virgin and provide what she needs.
“A local house with palm leaves and sticks is built (ulo akirika) after the first gunshot on Eke farming day night to inform people of the occasion, the next day being Orie farming day is the first Udu ego, which is done at night where family members, friends and well-wishers gather to eat, drink, sing, dance and go home with gifts like dry fish, coconut, matches etc.”
He said that the next Eke day which is a non-farming day records another dinner, organized by the virgin and the people called Ibu Oyo, which is always another night to celebrate with the virgin with merriment, sharing of the above-mentioned gifts items, dancing, singing, drinking and dining.
“Next Orie farming day the virgin house is pulled down after another round of gunshot. However, some things are now optional like, on Afor day as of old early, in the morning the virgin and her maidens will visit the river and dip their feet there and give a yam to the river goddess Obana Eze Nwanyi.
“The next Eke day the virgins are prepared with a yam to give to Eke Obana from where they proceed to the market half breast naked for the people to see if they are pregnant or not to satisfy, if she is pregnant she will be disgraced, her feets swept and banished from Mgbidi as a cursed one and will never return in her life and any men born of hers will never eat anything from her or he dies.
“Note modernization has taken away this segment” in concern to going to the river, markets etc.”
Gabriel said that Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi has come to stay as a culture and preservation of their daughters. Adding that although lots of modernization has taken place to fit into the modern lifestyle, the culture continues.
Despite Gabriel’s simple narration about the Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival, News Echo went deeper to find out the origin of this ancient festival that is very old, preserved, revered and uncompromised in one of Imo’s most developing suburbs.
An oral history of Mgbidi has it that before the advent of the Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival, there was a festival called Ahia-Ichi usually done during January in a period when farming is not too serious. Diaku also corroborated this oral history in her book when she said that Ahia-Ichi was celebrated during a period called “Oge anon nnaa”- in January of every year.
According to Diaku, “It was a time of rest for those girls who usually helped their mothers during the farming season. It was observed for eight days. Every such girl had a special girlfriend with whom she observed the eight-day rest festival. Such a friend was dearly
referred to as Nna Ahia Ichi meaning “Ahia Ichi friend”. Note in the Mgbidi dialect, the Igbo word “oyi or enyi” which means friend is called “nna”.
Diaku said that during those eight days the friend whose turn it was to host the other would host her. “During the next year, this host would be a guest at the friend’s house. During those eight days, both girls ate, drank and played together and did practically no job. They primarily engaged themselves in the traditional beautification in preparation for marriage. They prepared Uhie-camwood paste with which to decorate their skin daily,” she said.
History has it that on the ninth day was the day of outing- Izu Ahia Ichi when the girls trooped to Eke Obana market square where they danced to their satisfaction rejoicing because that day they went to show themselves, as it were or advertise their coming of age, ready and expecting to be spotted by would-be suitors.
During this Izu Ahia Ichi, people trooped to the dancing arena to give those girl celebrants money gifts. It was usual for suitors who made their intentions for marriage known to be identified by the girls’ parents as their daughters’ husbands to be because at this outing or Izu Ahia Ichi such men featured in the period of giving monetary gifts.
This festival was more of a celebration of the virginity of the girls and their avoidance of Ime-Okwa (Marriage without husband) as Mgbidi traditionally attached evil to bastard
The taboo attached to getting pregnant without an identified husband seems to have sprung from the evil effect of bastards in the community observed over the years.
It was believed that children who had no identified fathers were known to have misbehaved because they lacked early paternal surveillance. It was therefore to avoid family disgrace which such children would bring that occasioned the taboo.
Stating the origin of the Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival, Diaku narrated in Ahia-Ichi days, girls preferred to choose husbands youths of their age-grade bracket, but at some point, a wealthy, Ozo titled married man approached a very beautiful girl and daughter of a poor man for marriage. The Ozo titled man was not only old for the girl but was already married, so the girl refused to accept his hand in marriage.
“The wealthy influential man because of his wealth and social status felt slighted and nursed a grudge against the girl and was therefore eager to find a way to punish the girl in retaliation.
“So during the Izu Ahia Ichi of one year later, when the girls went to Eke Obana market square, as usual, it was suspected that the particular girl who had turned down the rich man’s marriage proposal was pregnant and that investigation had revealed that the man responsible for her pregnancy could not and had not been identified.
“It must be stated that girls of those days went about nude or at best, semi-nude because only chains of beads (Akara) round their waists covered their nudity, leaving the breast area bare. It was therefore easy to detect early pregnancy by mere looking at the breasts.
“As the news spread, the rich man found his opportunity for vendetta against the pregnant girl who had earlier on slighted him by refusing his hand in marriage. At his instigation elders of the community held a meeting to discuss the issue.
“It should be noted that before this incident no standing rule existed as to what to do to any girl who got pregnant without an identified husband. But the elders and the rich man decided to summon the girl’s father named Emegwamma, to the meeting; where the elders declared it taboo- pregnancy without a husband (Ime-Okwa).
“They stressed that it was an offence against the earth deity-Ali Mgbidi. As a result of this decision, poor Emegwamma was forced to provide certain items for the appeasement or propitiation of the offended earth deity which included she-goat, a live tortoise, hens, chicken, eggs, one bottle of native gin, one keg of raffia palm wine, one keg of palm wine (Nkwu) some kola nuts and alligator peppers.
“In addition, he was required to provide a shrub called ‘Izize” and a herb called Akoro; and on an actual day, of the propitiation, a broom (aziza). The Day of Propitiation- Ikpu Ali: In a ceremony called Ikpu Ali- appeasing the local deities, elders of the community gathered at the girl’s father’s compound and after receiving the said items performed a rite banning the girl from Mgbidi for the rest of her life.
“This was regarded as her day of death and burial by her age mates who therefore performed her burial (while she was still alive). They danced and asked the parents for some items which were required for her burial.
“In the course of this banishment amidst crying and wailing of relatives were along and mates the Akoro and Izize the path through which she left Mgbidi while the priests of the earth deity whose duty it was to banish her used the broom to sweep away her footprints as she left the town.
“In those days the corpses of married Mgbidi daughters were returned and buried in their fathers’ compound but her corpse was not given this respect because she was regarded as an abomination in Mgbidi.”
History has it that the expenses so incurred by the girl’s father impoverished him, so he thereafter invoked all Mgbidi idols/deities great and small, sacrificing to them asking them to avenge him should any girl in Mgbidi in future become pregnant without a husband like his daughter and Mgbidi elders do not treat her as his daughter was treated.
It is on record according to Diaku that to make his invocation effective, Emegwamma sacrificed to each Mgbidi deity thus, “to Ali Mgbidi he gave a hen and kola nuts to Mgbeba Mgbidi, he gave a chick (sirisiri) and kola nuts. To Obana Mgbidi (river goddess in charge of Obana river) whose shrine is situated at Eke Obana market square, he gave a chick and kola nuts. To Ogwugwu deity, he gave a cock and Kolanuts and to Obana Stream shrine, he gave a small tuber of yam and kola nuts.”
By this invocation and sacrifice to local deities Emegwamma had put a curse on the entire community- to treat the family of any Mgbidi girl in future who gets pregnant like his daughter the way his family had been treated or face the wrath of the gods.
History also has it that some years later, the rich man’s daughter was confirmed to be carrying Ime Okwa. Mgbidi elders gathered to discuss the matter and also summoned the rich man. In the course of the deliberations the father endeavoured to persuade the elders, to waive/circumvent his daughter’s ostracism.
Diaku also corroborated this oral history when she wrote that all elders who were present at the meeting except one were on the rich man’s side, perhaps with the conviction that after all her father was wealthy enough to take care of the daughter and the expected baby.
“But there was a lone voice of dissension, that was the oldest man and the Ofo holder of the community. This elder recalled the case of Emegwamma’s daughter and insisted that the rich man’s daughter must suffer the same fate as Emegwamma’s daughter because, he was convinced that failure to do exactly as in the case of Emegwamma’s daughter would incur the wrath of the local deities whom Emegwamma had detailed, as it were, to watch and punish anybody who circumvents the procedure.
“He reiterated that as the Ofor holder of the community this treatment must be meted out to the rich man’s daughter so that he would not die. So the rich man’s daughter was banished from Mgbidi after the ritual of Ikpu Ali- appeasing local deities. But unlike Emegwamma, the rich man did not invoke local deities which continued to watch the community according to Emegwamma’s entreaty.”
On realising that if nothing is done, the banishment of young girls will become a serious matter, the elders of Mgbidi after the last pregnancy and banishment of the rich man’s daughter met at Eke Obana market square and decided to streamline girls’ behaviour and that became the genesis of the Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival.
At that all-important ancient meeting at Eke-Obana, Mgbidi elders decided that it was necessary to institute what became known as Ikwe Ezi, a ceremony to be performed/celebrated by girls who had seen their menstrual periods before they get married and become pregnant.
According to history, they decided to protect their girl child from Emegwamma’s curse and ensure that their pregnancy with or without an identified husband would not attract public outcry for ostracism. They made it in a way that it was to be a ceremony during which the girl performer would dance and show her husband for the community to see.
How they came about the name is unknown. However, for any girl to qualify for Ikwe Ezi she should inform her mother who in turn informs her husband of her first menstrual period. It was only girls who had started menstruation that were qualified to perform Ikwe Ezi.
Diaku also corroborated some ancient oral history that “it was at that Eke Obana market square where previously grown-up girls went dancing on Izu Ahia Ichi day that girls who performed/Ikwe Ezi went dancing. In other words, Ahia Ezi replaced Ahia Ichi.”
However, it was a rule that no girl should be found to be pregnant before and during the period of Ikwe Ezi. If on the day of Izu Ahia Ezi at Eke Obana market square, where such celebrants congregated to dance, it was discovered that any celebrant was pregnant, she was booed, pelted with sand and chased out of Eke Obana market square instantly. Thereafter she was treated like Emegwamma’s daughter.
Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi Festival currently last for eight days and has seven main stages which include: Igu Afa, Igba Egbe Ezi/Iru Ulo Akirika, Iba na ulo Akirika/Ikpoba Ali Udu ego, Ibu Ibu Oyo (ie second Udu Ego), Igbasa Ulo Akirika/Igba Uhie, Imanya ukwu na mmiri/ihu ji and Izu Ahia Ezi (going on a market outing).
For proper explanation, during Igu-Afa, a traditional diviner/consultant (Dibia Afa) is invited to find out from the ancestors, who incarnated the girl. This is because Mgbidi people believe in reincarnation.
Just a day after Igu Afa, the girl’s father releases two gunshots in the evening to announce that the daughter was about to commence Ikwe Ezi. During that same evening, a shed was made at the corner of
the main building with palm leaves called Ulo Akirika . The same evening, the Umu Mmiri (helpers) arrive.
The celebrator was made to wear the white cotton thread across the shoulders and chest, and to go into the shed and prepare Uhie formally and come out. This activity was known as Iba n’ulo Akirika (the commencement of Ikwe Ezi). She went to do this daily i.e once a day during the eight days.
That same first night was Ikpoba Ali Udu Ego, i.e the first night of Udu Ego. It was a night of dancing by the girl and her suitor and other girl attendants. It was also the first occasion for the celebrant to personally distribute dry fish and a coconut each to all present, after the organizing age-
grade had received four coconuts, some stipulated number of dry fish and four kegs of palm wine. Men of this age-grade saw to orderly peaceful dancing and orderly distribution of dry fish and a coconut each to all present, on those days of Udu Ego.
On Ibu Oyo, it was performed on the eight day-Ogbodo Eke when the husband will provide a large mortarful of pounded yam, a big pot of rich soup and a tyre size dry fish for the wives of the girl’s family who distributed and ate it. However, any woman who happened to be present could also eat Ibu Oyo food.
Like the first Udu Ego day, every body who came to the second Udu ego-Ibu Oyo -received one coconut and one dry fish, whereas the organizing age grade received eight coconuts, four kegs of palm wine, and some stipulated number of dry fish even though each of them received the usual one coconut and one dry fish which everyone present received.
As many times as one visited this celebrant during those eight days such a person received one coconut and one fish.
Igbasa Ulo Akirika simply means the demolishing the house built with palm fronds. Note that this is done after the Ibu Oyo the next day, Orie, two gun shots were released to announce the end of Ikwe ezi. The house or she’d will be physically demolished that Orie day.
Igba Uhie is done on Afor morning day and it entails spraying the entire body of the celebrant including the face (shielding the eyes with thin narrow blind folder) with camwood paste Uhie hence the name Igba Uhie, after which the celebrant proceded to the Nwataoma Obana
Stream with a small tuber of yam which her father had marked with native chalk (Nzu).
Back then, the celebrator was accompanied by a little girl who carried a small clay/water pot Nwaoro and the tuber of yam. On reaching the stream the celebrant was supposed to dip her two big toes in the water. This is called Imanye Ukwu na Mmiri.
She then proceeded to the Obana shrine to deposit the tuber of yam, emerged from the shrine and fetched water from the stream with the small water pot and both returned home. This act of depositing the tuber of yam at the shrine was called Ihu ji.
Before the last step which is Izu Ahia Ezi, the celebrator was beautified with those traditional beautification items. Then she and other celebrators will troop to the Eke Obana market square to dance while well-wishers also trooped there to congratulate.
This last step is meant to show Mgbidi that those celebrators were not pregnant. It was a time of rejoicing for parents and well-wishers. Note, back in those ancient days, the only thing the celebrator wear to cover her nudity was a chain of beads called Akara-a kind of plastic stringed together.
Izu Ahia Ezi moment is the most important back then as it was considered very important; she had come of age; because if the girl was found to be pregnant before this period on that day of Izu Ahia people would pelt her with sand, hoot at her and chase her out of the market square.
There after such a girl was ostracized and after Ikpu Ali ritual banished from Mgbidi for life, just like any girl who got pregnant without performing Ikwe Ezi.
Some items required for Ikwezi-Mgbidi Festival include: Some yards of white cotton thread (Oghu/owu), large quantity of camwood (Uhie), sizeable amount of dry fish with tyre size Dryfish preferably (ihi or Asha fish), large quantity of food items that could last the length of the days of the ceremony and palmwine as required.
Some other items include, traditional beautification materials like Uri pod, two rhizomes (Agaaru/ Nkasi Ali) according to your choice, grinding stones (Mkpume/Okwute) for crushing camwood (uhie), Udu Ego (a special perforated clay pot used as a musical instrument, some palm fronds and bamboo for constructing the Ulo Akirika (bamboo shed) some coral beads for the neck on the day of Izu Ahia Ezi and a large number of coconuts.
According to tradition, two groups of people must attend this celebration although due to modernity, one is now outdated.The first is her male age grade members whose duty, in a particular period of time, it was to organize the two Udu ego days during this ceremony.
The second group was the Umu Mmiri (not literally water children, but helpers of the celebrator). They are the girls relations of the celebrant, so called because they fetched water for the celebration and did the cooking and ran other errands as and and when required throughout the period.