Before you read this, I recommend you click to read this register of Igbo vocabulary in the blacksmith vocation
People of other cultures often ask why Igbos do the seemingly mandatory yearly return to their homeland. It is something that even younger Igbo generations may ask. Some may assume that it is a more recent tradition. The history of Igbo and this tradition might be older than we assume. I have been told this history but recently came upon study that echoes this stand point and so I decided to share.
Before the era of itinerant blacksmiths in the Igbo society, there were dibias and peddlers of assorted wares who travel far from home in practice of their trade, these individuals would, in addition, take along items like ivory or any such tradable ware. Also there were blacksmiths who did not venture so far from their communities.
In Awka community, every second month (corresponding to May/June of the Gregorian calendar) was the month of Ukwu feast- Ukwu was the deity of good fortune and patron of travellers- and every member of the community must return; When the Agulu (smith) section became established in Awka (around the 1st half of the 17th century) they made the seventh month (October/November) their own time of return.
But the foregoing was perhaps necessary to explain how traditional Awka society undertake two waves of yearly returns but also stress that it is not only blacksmiths who made these travels. However, Awka was not the only blacksmith community in the Igbo society. There were other communities which developed their blacksmith trade just at the same time and below is what happens:
Most smithing communities celebrated their profession once a year- a few such as Umugwu Ekwom and Awka held it twice. The Abiriba called it "Emume Anya uzu"; Awka, Akputakpu; Nkwere, Oriri Ogadazu; and Udi, Eke Otutu or Akputakpu. The timing of the celebration varied, but generally this is between either December and March or August and October. It was mandatory for smiths on travel to return home for the celebration. The itinerant smiths bore this in mind and structured their work calendar to take account of it. Failure to return attracted severe penalty, except for excusable reasons. In such a case, the smith sent his own contribution for the purpose of making a sacrifice to the smithing deity. Failure to return on three consecutive seasons without any acceptable reasons led to the defaulter being banished from his town.
The Awka and Nkwere celebrations were typical examples. In both places, the smiths celebrations were fitted into the wider framework of other communal festivals.
In Nkwere, Oriri Ogadazu was preceded by Oriri Ajimiri; oriri meaning a [feast]. Oriri Ajimiri was celebrated in honour of the ancestral deity of the Nkwere people, Ajimiri- it was an affair of all Nkwere people. Thankful sacrifices were made to the deity during the celebration for his protection of all Nkwere citizens at home and abroad during the last season. The celebration was characterised by social revelry and display of affluence
It is in Awka preceded by the Otite feast
[...] It was a festival of reunion of returning, travellers and the home-keeping ones. [The Akputakpu feast] was partly designed to ensure that occupational travels did not degenerate into mere wanderlust and that itinerant craftsmen,did not lose their home roots. Awka elders must have been outraged by the foreign tatoos worn by the children of smiths returning with their parents from Igala.
In Awka, The families of the smiths looked forward to the occasion with high hopes as they were certain to be showered with new and exotic dresses and ornaments. During the celebration, the wives of the smiths chanted and danced to the/rather provocative song whose message was "di agulu ka mma", meaning "a smith husband is the best".
Imagine the faces of mothers and little children in a simple 17th century Igbo community glad to see their kin again. Our ancestors have made the yearly mass return for centuries. The goals haven't changed. As you travel this Christmas do not forget it is a gift!
Ozo Amanke Okafor (1992) 'Awka People'
Onwuka Ndukwe Njoku (1986) A History of Iron Technology in Igboland c. 1542 to 1900.