Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

New Yam Festival, Ebola, An Essay and a Book

Celebrating New Yam

New Yam Festival

New Yam Festival in Igbo Ukwu from ThisDay

Igbo Ukwu is the Nigerian town where bronzes dating from the 9th century A.D. were discovered during excavations in the 20th century. It’s a few miles from my husband’s town. Igbo Ukwu’s celebration of the New Yam Festival is chronicled in this story from the Nigerian press.

The author says, “Amongst the Igbos, the ‘Iri ji Ndi Igbo’ (New Yam Festival) depicts a cultural heritage which conveys the prominence of Yam in the socio-cultural life of the people.” Important elements of the festival include breaking kola, giving thanks to the gods and ancestors, dancing, and observing masquerades.

Larger yams, not the ones in a new yam festival..

Larger yams, not the ones in a new yam festival..

I remember that the new yams were harvested in August 1968 in my husband’s village of Enugu Nanka. But there was no festival, a year and a half into the Biafran War. People were focused on not eating all of the harvest but keeping enough new yams to have seedlings for the next planting.

It was not a time to share yam or spend time in celebrating.

The Igbo Ukwu celebration was a complete contrast to that time of privation. The biggest concern expressed by the speakers was the possible disappearance of the Igbo language. They encouraged all present to teach their children to speak Igbo.


Professor Ferraro writes about the Ebola virus in the middle paragraph of his Sept. 13 blog. I also read an excellent and frightening NYTimes op-ed, also referenced by Professor Ferraro, about Ebola by Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He describes the steps that should be taken now and concludes by saying if we don’t contain it now, it could spread as far as our shores.

So far Nigeria has the fewest cases in West Africa, but I think it holds the greatest risk. Many Nigerians travel extensively so could easily carry the virus when they are unaware they have been infected. The public health sector in Nigeria is not strong or well-regarded.

Hospitals were closed earlier this year when health care workers went on strike. There are excellent private doctors and hospitals, but they are expensive. Health insurance is not common. Nigerians who require surgery today often travel to India which provides excellent services more cheaply.

Brain, Child Magazine

Brain, Child Magazine

Brain, Child Essay

As I near publication of my memoir I enjoy more than ever seeing recognition of work by my friends. I first heard Daisy Florin’s delightful essay, Last Call, during my memoir and essay writing class at Westport Writers Workshop. Now her essay has been polished and published in the latest Brain, Child magazine.

She touches themes that many women can identify with – the joy of young children and the regret mingled with happiness as they start school and begin to separate. I believe these feelings may have influenced my daughter’s decision to have her third child at age 46 though she says she had always wanted three children to replicate our family – she succeeded with a daughter between two sons!

We Need New Names

I loved reading this interview with the author NoViolet Bulawayo from Brittle Paper.

NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo, photo from The Telegraph

Her debut novel, short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker prize, is a fascinating story.

In my Goodreads review, I said, “Bulawayo tells the story through the voice of a young girl, first in Zimbabwe and then in the U.S. We see her change as she becomes accustomed to America and we see American customs through her eyes.”

Did you read We Need New Names?

What other books with an African connection have you read recently?

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Pingback: Girls Win; Ifemelu Blogs; Fear Helps | Catherine Onyemelukwe

  2. Catherine — So grateful for your updates re Ebola — & I read your piece re the Yam Festival with great interest! Your comment re reading group/book club reminds me that you mentioned sharing comments on 12 YEARS A SLAVE — or has that changed?

    • Thanks, Luvon. Hmm, we did have the discussion about the book, and it was lively, but I don’t think we kept notes. Did I say we would? My apologies if I did. I’ll look – maybe I did write down notes.

  3. I was quite exited to see “We need new names” on the shortlist of the Booker Price last year and it being considered as one of the favourites. But reading the book was a disappointment to me and I was rather glad it did not win. I thought the characters rather lifeless and contrieved and I could not even finish the book. The interview with the writer with the wonderful name “No-violet” was interesting though and I will have another try
    with her next book.

    • Thank you, Brigitte, for your comment. You said you were excited to see the book on the shortlist. Did you already know the author? I wish you and I were in a reading group together. I’d love to discuss that and other books with you.