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Iria Festival in Rivers community creates excitement as Virgins are set to dance half-naked
As a man, if you cannot stand the sight of half-naked young maidens, you are advised to stay away from the Iria ceremony of womanhood; an annual practice at the market square of Okrika, an ancient town in Rivers State.
The event dates back to the 16th century and has continued to trigger excitement from both locals and outsiders as people look forward to the last three to four months of every year to have not only a glimpse, but a full view of breasts–baring maidens being initiated into womanhood.
This year’s Iria ceremony, it was gathered, started late October and the maidens had already gone into the fattening room, feeding and waiting for the D-Day when they would dance in a special way at Okrika town market square, in November or December.
Apart from being a natural source of entertainment, the Iria Festival is seen as a yearly competition, which families in Okrika take advantage of to showcase chastity as parents present their virgin daughters and get them ready for the fattening room, where they are fed with body-nourishing meals, especially pounded yam mixed with pounded plantain.
The process in the fattening room include pampering the young women and getting them ready for the real task ahead (dancing half-naked at the market square), which will ultimately transform or move them into the maturity stage. At the market square, chiefs and heads of families are gathered with the people to watch the young virgins, who only cover their lower body, leaving the breasts bare for all to see.
While some believe the culture should have been done away with, especially after Christianity and education made an inroad to Africa, others, particularly the indigenes of Okrika, strongly believe that since the Iria is the only means of what looks like a triumphant entry into womanhood and the showcasing of virginity, the people and the culture should not be in a hurry to part ways; at least, not before the end of the current century.
Ibrahim Fubara, an elder from Abam in Okrika Local Government Area told newsmen that it was an abomination for any of the participants of Iria to be pregnant, saying the person would be immediately disqualified.
Fubara explained that inspectors, who are old women, known as ‘Gbenerime’, were always on the ground to spot any pregnant maiden for an outright ban from the competition.
“Iria ceremony takes a process and the maidens have to be kept in a fattening room, where they are specially fed with the typical Okrika food; pounded yam and plantain with fresh fish. By the time they stay in the fattening room for some time, they come out and at the village square, you will see that their bodies have changed and become more succulent. When you see them, they look so pretty and some people will actually think they are mermaids.
“Before they come out to the village square, their bodies are painted in different colours and their skin is taken care of. Most of them get suitors before the festival. Some of the young women, who have fiancés, get sponsored by such friends.
“The parents are very happy that their children are passing through the Iria ceremony because they have kept their virginity and that they are passing through the Iria process before marriage. In the past, it was believed that if you didn’t pass through that process, it would be very difficult for the woman to have a child.
“Before the ceremony, if a would-be participant gets pregnant, there is a ‘Gbenerime’ (old woman whose duty is to investigate the condition of maidens), who inspects the young ladies to see if they are pregnant or not. If any young lady is pregnant, nobody needs a soothsayer to reveal it.
“These women are vast and versatile. If any of the young women is found to be pregnant, she will be disqualified, which means that she is not fit to be part of the Iria festival.
“Such disqualification becomes a very big shame to the family of the affected young woman; it is like a taboo and her family will become an object of mockery. During the ceremony, the young woman is half-naked in the sense that only the private part is covered while other areas are exposed, including her breasts.
“So, you can use the right hand to check if the breasts are at the right angles. What I am trying to say is that they will be more attractive. When you talk about testing to see if they are still virgins, the ‘Gbenerime’ are of age. But during the ceremony, they are more agile than even the police; this is still a mystery because they become so strong and it will appear that there is something put in them that energises them.
“Every tribe has its own culture. Mark my word, I have not said that those who have met with men are not qualified; it is young women that are pregnant that are disqualified,” Fubara stated that he married her wife after she had undergone the Iria ceremony.
Similarly, one of the community leaders in the area, Chief Jonathan Gun, described Iria as a rich and exciting culture, but lamented that some families were no longer participating in the ceremony due to Christianity and education. He was also of the view that some of those who withdrew their participation either as actors or spectators felt that the practice was fetish and the act of dancing half-naked was against their religion.
Gun recalled that spectators, who streamed into the market square in Okrika to behold the maidens as they come out from their fattening room usually clapped for those with beautiful breasts, while those with big and fallen breasts would never get any form of accolade.
Describing the age-long practice, Gun 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 practise 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.
“It starts with the selection process and after that, the maidens will be kept in the fattening room. They later gather at the Okrika market square, where they will take tickets to indicate that they have been formally accepted as mature ladies to be married.
“They will expose their breasts at the market square. For those with big breasts, the boys will only look at them and for those with small breasts; they (spectators) will clap for them. In the fattening room, they are painted in beautiful colours.
“Then their parents will buy yams and fish and feed them for three weeks. When they are well fed, they embark on an outing ceremony. During that festive period, families of the girls take photographs of them. Young men would see the pictures and look for them to marry. The girls will dance around the community and the next day, they will wear what is called ‘Mkpala’ on their legs.
“Then every morning, they will go to the waterside to bathe; that is around 5am or 6am. Within that time, if anyone of them is seen to be pregnant, she will not be part of the Iria ceremony again. After 30 days of going through the process, they will come out and go to church, where they formally graduate to womanhood.
“At this point, they can marry. Now, the celebration of Iria Festival has reduced because of education as many families have stopped participating in it.”
Gun pointed out that the Iria Festival started in the 16th century through Seminaro, the first lady of ancient Okrika nation.
A woman, who identified herself as Faith, told newsmen that though she was from Okrika, she did not take part in Iria based on her Christian background and had since been married to a man outside the town. Faith’s position is different from that of Mrs. Christian George, who disclosed that she went through Iria process for three months before her husband came for her hand in marriage.
According to George, the significance of the ceremony is the respect it gives to the family of the maiden.
“During that time, they gave us food. We were pampered for one month and three weeks while undergoing the Iria ceremony. It was a pleasant and unforgettable experience,” she recalled with nostalgia.