LEBOKU new yam festival is celebrated to honour the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the land in Ugep, one of the five settlements of Yakurr. The three-week festival is usually the culmination of many events: the beginning of the yam harvest, a time to appease the gods and ancestors, a public parade of engaged maidens, a commemoration of events that led to the migration from the Yakurr ancestral home to the present site, and a period of holiday in the Yakurr traditional calendar (mid-August through mid-September).
The Yakurr calendar runs from July to August. During the Leboku, people keep away from intense farming activities and exchange visits with their families. The Leboku is also meant to usher in peace, good health and prosperity
During this period, men, women and children dress gaily, forgetting their economic and poverty status and problems as they share food , drinks and, indeed , everything.
Within this period, yam, the crop that turns into a full-blown tuber a few months after planting, becomes like a deity. It is literally worshipped by both the young and old, urban and rural dwellers. Interestingly, both the local and tourists are now ‘worshipping’ it too.
In traditional communities of the state, the celebration of this tuber is more important than Christmas. This explains why indigenes of such communities both at home and abroad do commune to rejoice over another bountiful harvest. On such occasions, rams, cows, goats, chickens and others animals are slaughtered to prepare soup to swallow fresh lumps of yam fu-fu. All of this is to celebrate the most revered festival, LEBOKU.
This tradition is ancient and has gone on for years than any living indigene of these communities can remember. Leboku festival is a period of love, sharing, exchange of bowls of food, drinks and meat. In fact, it is one occasion that knows no ethnic, racial or national discrimination.
Although, new yam festivals are socio-cultural festivals that are recognised and celebrated across the diverse ethnic populations of the state, the scale and grandeur of LEBOKU distinguishes it and captures the cultural and tourism value of the event. Interestingly, the festival has grown in leaps and bounds as it is now packaged for international patronage. In fact, the festival had since found a place in the tourism bouquet of the Cross River State government.
Since the yam festival landed on the radar of the state tourism drive, at every Leboku ceremony now, natives’ cart away cars, motorcycles, generators, sewing machines, farming equipment, cash to mention but a few gifts in appreciation of their farming prowess.
Among the activities line-up for LEBOKU is the Janenboku, which is literally translated to mean “women’s festival day”. On this day, gifts are given to women by their loved ones and friends. Some traditional dances also take place. Tourists on the night of Janenboku are faced with two options – the traditional carnival-like drumming and dancing to the rhythm of the Ekoi drums to usher in the Ledemboku, held in the playground or the modern-day Miss Leboku Beauty Pageant, held in one of the hotels within the town. Day three is the Ledemboku or “men’s festival day”.
It involves exchange of gifts to males, performance by the male Ekoi dancers, a parade of the Obol Lopon and his Bi-Inah (council of chiefs), a parade and dances by leg-bangle-wearing Leboku maidens to the rhythm of the Ekoi drums, and a display by the Etangala masquerade, whose only outing yearlong is on this day. It should also be noted that the all-embracing Etangala group have as its head, a non-Ugep, Chief Ig Ekpenyong, the Obol Etangala I of Ugep is an Efik man.
After a day of rest, which affords the Leboku maidens opportunities to cultivate new friends, known as Nkokeboi, there is Leteboku. The Leteboku is a performance poetry contest among Leboku maidens from each of the traditional Ugep wards. The songs danced to, and the rhythm produced by the leg-bangles worn by the maidens is a delight to watch. Two days after the Leteboku, which are normally observed as rest days, is the Yekpi.
It is a day when boys and Leboku maidens parade the town in a ceremony believed to usher in peace and prosperity. The Yeponfawa follows the Yekpi. This is a ceremony reserved only for initiates of the Libini group, to declare the first phase of the Leboku over. Although this takes place during the night, it is also a day non-initiates stay awake to listen to the songs. After the Yeponfawa, young boys and girls participate in a one-week music and festival through their dance ensembles known as Egbendum (For boys and girls)
LEBOKU’s significance, lies in the value the Yakuur people attach to Yam as the king of crops. The good news is however that today. LEBOKU has metamorphosed from simply celebrating yam to a season of great merriment, home coming, stock –taking and deep reflections, especially for the ten communities that comprise Yakuur.
The activity during the festival buttress the people’s belief that it is a combination of hard work and divine help that makes them successful as well as providing succor during wars, endowing the people with wealth and making the barren fruitful and to crown it all, providing protection to those who seek help.
Some traditionalists set aside certain days to perform rites, pour libation and make sacrifices to the gods. They visit shrines, invoke the spirits of ancestors and sacrifice to deities. In such communities, it is common to see sacrifices at the fork of roads, corners markets and village squares. Christians, however, abhor such sacrifices so they take their yams to churches to thank God for the miracle of developing a big tuber from little one that was planted.
LEBOKU is a cultural affair. On this occasion, the palace of the Obol Lopol of Ugep and paramount ruler of Yakuur, usually becomes a rallying point. .It is here that honorary chieftaincy titles are conferred on deserving Nigerians and once the palace activities are through, the chiefs file out in a parade to the stadium two kilometers away . each carries a chewing stick in his mouth, raffia bag on the left hand side and long broom which signifies a staff on the right hand .
A group of activities do heralds the celebration and they include age grade competitions, traditional wrestling, traditional beauty pageant , hunting expedition, traditional dances , folklores, award to the best yam farmer of the previous season , debates by students , disco parties , football matches , singing competitions among other events.
Lately, the period also offers ample opportunity for politicians from the state to meet and review their activities , apportion blame where default has been recorded , recognise those who have brought laurels to their areas , share political offices ahead of the general elections, plot strategies to become relevant in the scheme of government at all levels, as well as how to network with others.
Married women are usually not left out . They exhibit the Ekeledi dance steps to the applause of the audience. Clad in colourful (Uniform) wrappers and white lace blouses. The women relieve their youth-age in the dance circle, the men in various groups also show off war dance in its undiluted state, with their trunks awash with white powder , machete in hands and beaded caps on and legs adorned with locally made bangles , they thrill everyone in sight.
High point of the event is usually the serving of roasted yam with palm oil , spilled with pepper and fresh salad. Of course, fresh palm wine is usually handy to wash it down.
Meanwhile,,in preparation for this year’s LEBOKU festival, Governor Ben Ayade, has charged youths in Cross River State not to dissipate their energies in wasteful ventures, but channel it to commercial if they must turn around their fortunes
Ayade gave the charge while speaking at a pre-leboku yam festival press briefing with Journalists in Ugep village in Yakurr LGA to herald the forthcoming festival yam festival scheduled from August 17,2022..
The paramount ruler of Yakurr and Obol Opon of Ugep, HRM Ofem Eteng, described the now international yam festival as a unifying event further said, ‘Each year, we invite God and the gods to partner with us so that we have a peaceful and successful harvest. We are proud to say that Leboku which showcases our cultural heritage would be hosted properly to host the visitors who will be very secured as they come to relax.”
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