Iwa akwa is a traditional manhood initiation ceremony practiced by the Igbo people of Nigeria. The Igbo people of Nigeria, especially the people of Imo state in south-eastern Nigeria have held on to this cultural practice amidst the progressive loss of many original cultural practices and values. Across the world, there are numerous manhood initiation practices. Iwa akwa is practiced by people of Obowo, Mbano, Ihitte uboma, Ahiazu mbaise, and some parts of Abia state like Bende, Ohafia and Ngwa. Although Iwa akwa seems to be the most prominent of all Manhood initiation ceremonies in the south east, there are others under different other names, which includes the Aju festival practiced by the Ugbo people of Awgu LGA in Enugu state and the masquerade ceremony practiced by some of the Orlu people of Imo state.
Iwa akwa signifies the crossing over of a male person from boyhood to manhood. The name Iwa akwa is wrongly translated to English as Wearing cloth ceremony. The name Iwa akwa suggests that a boy who once played around naked is now a man and hence is being clothed.
The practice is observed every 2 – 3years by the communities involved. Boys born within a particular space of time come together to be known as Umu ebiri, an age-grade. Each inductee age grade is made of persons within the ages of 28 – 30. This age bracket varies from community to community, some inductee age bracket fall below 28 but not above 30.
Long before the D-day, the ceremony begins with the gathering and identification of the inductees. First sons are to go to their maternal homes with food and drinks to invite the people to his iwa akwa, this practice is perculiar to first sons, others may not do it. Besides the age grade being inducted, there are two other very important sets of persons, the age immediately before them and the age grade that will be inducted after them. The inducting age grade pays a lot of homage to the preceding group while the succeeding group pays reverence to them (the inducting group). The day before D-day, the succeeding group referred to as Ndi na-achi ogbo, goes about keeping the village roads clean, cutting grasses and overgrown hedges. People who live outside the village return en masse for this celebration because this is the biggest ceremony for the people even before Mbomuzo, another popular ceremony. A lot of cooking is done by the families of the inductees starting from the eve of the celebration.
The ceremony Typically lasts for two days. On the morning of the first day, members of the preceding Age-grade go to the houses of the initiates to mount their wrappers at the frontyard. Typically the very long wrapper is tied to two bamboo sticks at the two ends, the bamboo sticks are stuck into the ground in the frontyard of the house forming a banner of some sorts. The obvious significance of this is that passersby will know which houses have inductees. Typically also there is a very active sense of celebration among the people. Almost every inductee (and there are a whole lot of them) hires a band, so you can imagine the pomp and gyration.
Inductees after dressing up, attach a wrapper to their waist and allow it flow on the ground behind them. They could also have someone lift or hold the wrapper behind them, but there is no fear of soiling the wrapper, no matter how precious.
Midmorning, the inductees amidst lots and lots of pomp and local music converge at a point from where they proceed to the market square. At the market square, a bridge typically constructed with bamboo, ropes and wedges (and sometimes palmfrond) awaits them. The crossing of this bridge is the peak of the ceremony, it is called ‘Iho ahia’.
‘Cross the bridge, become a man’.
In most cases, a younger brother or friend or any member of ndi na-achi ogbo, lifts the inductee high on the shoulder and carries him across the bridge.
The events of the next day are not as significant and not all inductees participate. Finally, the new inducted men are now recognized by their community, they can now appear in the gathering of the Umunna – the kinsmen meeting, they can now contribute fully and participate in activities that bring about development in the community.
Do women do the Iwa akwa? One notable practice is that if an inductee is unavoidably absent at his own Iwa akwa, a sibling or a female family member carries a wrapper in his name as well as a picture of him and does the whole activity in his name, including crossing the bridge. So, yes, a woman can do the Iwa akwa in the name of a man.
The events illustrated here is peculiar to the Ehime Mbano people of Imo state, there may be slight difference for other communities.
Phew! Longest blogpost yet! I hope you got an exposition. Do you have questions or contributions? leave me a comment in the comment box! I would love to hear from you!