The Ofala Festival
Festivals are annual events that honour significant occasions in a person's or a community's history. Igbo people, especially those from Onitsha, Umueri, Umuoji, and other nearby areas like Aguleri, Nnewi, and Ukpo in Dunukofia Local Government Area, practice the Ofala Festival on an annual basis. The term Ofala, is derived from two Igbo words - ọfọ (English: authority) and ala (English: land). The festival is celebrated within two days mostly in October by the Obi (English: king) and is a customary obligation that must be performed every couple of years without fail.
It serves as a rites of renewal of the king or Obi. It is an occasion for the monarch to fulfil certain obligations. The Ofala is primarily a celebration by the monarch and his subjects of the monarch's annual emergence from seclusion, during which period the monarch has successfully negotiated the fortunes of the kingdom.
The festival marks the end of a period of retreat sometimes called Inye Ukwu na Nlo when the Obi remains incommunicado and undergoes spiritual purification for the good of the community. At the end of the week long retreat, the Igwe emerges during the Ofala to bless his subjects and say prayers for the community. Ofala is celebrated annually in some places beginning from the coronation of the Obi to his death, the latter of which is called "the last Ofala" while other towns may require it to be celebrated every two to three years.
Ofala Onitsha is the indigenous Ofala Festival held by indigenes of Onitsha, Nigeria. It is usually held in October and is the highpoint of the Onitsha ceremonial cycle. Although Ofala Festival is common to many Igbo tribes, Onitsha Ofala is rather unique since it is believed to be the first Ofala in the Igbo tribe.
The festival usually starts with a traditional twenty-one gun salute followed by an all-night Ufie (royal gong) drumming, dancing and other cultural activities. In the afternoon, the Obi's cabinet of chiefs, guests from other communities, age groups, women and youth of the community usually throng the palace grounds or Ime Obi dressed in traditional or ceremonial attires befitting the festival occasion. The royal music or Egwu Ota is played during the entrance of the Ndichie or red cap chiefs who arrive after the gathering of the crowd and bringing along a few of their friends and family members their procession to the palace. The highlight of the festival is the emergence of the Obi in his royal regalia to the cheer of the crowd, a cannon shot announces the entrance of the Obi who is usually dressed in ceremonial robe and carries a bronze sword on his hand, he walks to the sides of the arena or a third of the arena acknowledging the cheers of the gathering. The Obi then retires and subsequently, the red cap chiefs pays homage to him according to seniority, thereafter both the Obi and the chiefs reappear after the firing of another cannon shot. During the second appearance the Obi dances in the arena, something that is rarely seen and his steps cover more distance than the first appearance. Then the visiting chiefs and guests pay homage to the Obi. The festival is also sometimes an occasion for the Obi to honour individuals with chieftaincy titles.
Ofala Festival is one of the most popular festivals in Onitsha. Onitsha indigenes are a people, who cherish their heritage and value their culture very much in spite of their early contact with education. This is why they pay attention to the traditional ceremonies that abound. Some of these ceremonies include, the coronation of a new monarch, chieftaincy installation, initiation into the masquerade cult, Ozo title-taking, initiation into the Otu Odu Cultural group, burial rites, and so on. However, the Ofala festival seems to be the most significant and prestigious of all the ceremonies performed in Onitsha. The festival varies from community to community in Igbo land. In other places, it may be the coronation of a chief, to mark an anniversary, or the coronation of an Igwe or Eze.
The Onitsha Ofala festival dates back to about 700 years ago, at the time of Eze Chima, the first monarch, who migrated to the area, now known as Onitsha (Henderson 42-46). In those early days, the King of Onitsha, referred to as, Igwe-Onitsha, was always confined to the palace. He did not have any business going anywhere because the responsibilities of administering the community was assigned to his lieutenants, who are the elders, known as the Ndi-Ichie, and other rank and file of the community. The Igwe, also known as the Obi-Onitsha, only made public appearances during the Ofala festival. It is pertinent to note here that the Ofala festival is celebrated only once a year, precisely in the month of October, the period that is the climax of the celebration of the new yam.
Four days before the festival, the Igwe goes into seclusion. He retreats to commune with his ancestors, and to thank them for protecting him and his subjects for the past one year as well as pray for peace and prosperity in the year to come.On the day of the festival, the Obi makes three appearances. After the early morning rituals, the trumpeters announce his entry before he shows up, fully dressed in his royal regalia, highlighted with the royal crown (okpu ododo), acknowledging the crowd that would have gathered by waving at all the directions to the people and then returns inside.
During the second outing, the trumpets are blown again and the Obi comes out and seats on his throne. This is followed by the entrance of the red-capped chiefs (ndi-Ichie) also well-dressed in their traditional attires in batches, according to their village music and in order of seniority, proceed to pay homage to the Obi by kneeling down to bow before him and sing his praises, after which he now performs the function of Iwa-ji (celebration of the first yam) to mark the official declaration of harvest season. After this, the Igwe (Obi) returns into the inner chambers before he finally comes out the third time.
At the third entry, the royal music plays and sets, the rhythm for Obi’s dancing (egwu ota) as he makes his appearance, amid cheers and praises from the crowd, he steps into the arena and dances to the tune of the drummers. He dances in turns with his first wife, his first son and first daughter and returns to his throne giving way to a parade of dances by different groups such as titled men, the Otu Odu Association, age-grade groups, friends and well-wishers all dressed in colourful traditional apparels.
It serves as a rites of renewal of the king or Obi. The term Ofala, is derived from two Igbo words - Ofo (authority) and ala (land).The festival is celebrated within two days mostly in October by the king or Obi.