Long before the advent of colonialism, Nigerian tribes have their unique ways of performing traditional rites, some of which have gone into extinction while some are still practised till date.
These rites are performed on occasions such as childbirth, death, coronation and many more. One of these occasions that call for a traditional rite is the transition into adulthood.
The transition to adulthood is a very essential stage in Nigerian traditions. It is believed that this is the stage when young boys and girls decide how their future will turn out.
As aforementioned, each tribe has its own way of performing rites, for example, in Northern Nigeria, Sharo festival is the traditional rite of transitioning into adulthood while Iria festival is that of Okrika, a town in Rivers State, Southern Nigeria. You can read more about the sharo festival here.
The Iria Festival
The Iria Festival is an annual ceremony of transition into womanhood which is held at a market square in Okrika, an ancient town in Rivers State, Nigeria. It is dated back to the 16th century.
Maidens with bare breasts are initiated by the people into womanhood. Virgins are presented and kept in the fattening room, where they are taken care of for the festival.
The process in the fattening room includes feeding the young women, pampering and getting them ready for the real task ahead which is dancing half-naked at the market square. This will ultimately transform them into the maturity stage.
At the market square, chiefs and heads of families are gathered with the people to watch the dancing young virgins, who only cover their lower body and leave their breasts bare for everyone to see.
The natives of Okrika do not allow pregnant maidens to participate in the festival. The old women, called ‘Gbenerime’, easily spot out those who are pregnant among the maidens and get them disqualified.
We gathered that when time is due, the girls come out of the fattening room looking pretty like angels with bodies painted in black patterns and their hair tinted yellow.
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. The breasts is one of the criteria for the judging of this event.
For the parents, it is always a delight to have a daughter who has kept her virginity as well as the family’s honour. 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.
Elucidating the age-long practice, an indigene of Okrika said, “the Iria is a very ancient festival of the Okrika nation organised by various towns, particularly in December and January period. All the 10 communities of Okrika used to practice it. But for the past 10 years, only two communities, including Ogu, have been practising it. Young girls between 16 and 17 years are advised by their parents to participate in the Iria ceremony. Those who, at that age range, had yet to be deflowered in those days celebrated the Iria ceremony.”
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.