Before Europeans made contact with Africans on the continent, there were coming of age or puberty rites boys and maidens had to undergo to become adults. Such rites performed by elderly men and women of an ethnic group centered on men becoming warriors to help defend the state in times of war and, for the women, to master domestic responsibilities spanning cooking, shedding sexual naivety and birthing children.
For Okrika, a town in Rivers State, Nigeria, the Iria Festival is one such avenue preparing youngsters to become knowledgeable adults. It is staged in December and January by the various communities in Okrika but in the last decade, of the 10 Okrika communities which participated, only two communities including Ogu, take the festival seriously thanks in part to the invasion of the Christian religion.
Parents counsel their 16 and 17-year-old virgins and enter them into the Iria ceremony. Older women called ‘Gbenerime’ expel pregnant girls allowing yet-to-be sexually active girls to proceed to be camped for 30 days in a fattening room. As part of the grooming process, the maidens go to the waterside to bathe, at dawn.
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They are also fed with the typical Okrika food of pounded yam and plantain with fresh fish. The meal is to help them become endowed, agile and delightful. After the 30 days camping, they troop to the village square bare-chested with their bodies painted in different dyes and patterns.
Given that family members, friends, associates as well as spectators are in attendance at the grand parade, some of the girls get suitors at the festival. Also in session are chiefs and heads of families.
For the parents, it’s a delight to have a daughter who has kept her virginity as well as the family’s honor. In times past, if a girl failed to undergo the puberty rite, it was believed she would find it difficult to have a child. For those who were disqualified, it became a source of embarrassment to the girl and her family who became an object of mockery.
The qualified ladies are, however, given certificates showing they are now adult ladies ready to marry. The day after appearing at the market square, the girls dance around the community wearing ‘Mkpala’ on their legs as a special marker of their status so desirous men can make a move.
Said to have begun in the 16th century through Seminaro, the first lady of ancient Okrika nation, Iria Festival has lost its vibrancy over the years because of Western education and the Christian faith which have conspired to make parents not enter their maidens into the festival. They describe the Iria practice as fetish and the act of dancing half-naked as against their religion.