August 22, 2009, would remain memorable in the annals of the people of Yakurr Local Government Area and indeed the entire Cross River State. That day, drums were rolled out to celebrate the Leboku, New Yam Festival in the council.
Before now, Leboku, which means, a period for celebration in Ugep language had been an exclusive affair of Yakurr communities for celebration and thanksgiving to God and the ancestral spirits of the land for granting them a successful half year harvest of yams from the farms.
August every year is chosen for the celebration, a period that coincides with the harvest of the new yam.
For this year's celebration, tourists and lovers of culture converged at the acclaimed most culturally densely populated village in Africa to witness the annual festival. The celebration took place at the Peace Stadium, Ugep, the headquarters of the local government area.
It commenced with Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State and wife, Obioma, decked in traditional Monikim attire, paying the traditional homage to the Obol-Lopon of Yakurr and the Paramount Ruler of Yakurr Local Government Area, Obol Ubi Ujong Inah at his palace to seek free entry as well as partake in the event.
At the palace, while paying homage to the paramount ruler of Yakurr, Imoke said Leboku is the celebration of the harvest of yams, the celebration of handwork, and celebration of womanhood.
He added that though the new yam festival is celebrated in most parts of the state, that of Yakurr has gained prominence and recognition from the state government as one of the programmes in its yearly tourism Calendar. The recognition, he observed, is due to the nature of its celebration by the Yakurr people.
Imoke noted that Leboku is fast gathering attraction as a tourism package, more so as the organisation of the event on annual basis keeps improving.
He pledged that the state government would continue to work with the people of Yakurr to make it an international cultural festival, stressing that every thing about Leboku would be taken beyond the shores of the state.
The governor commended the visitors for celebrating with the people, especially the Rivers State governor, Rotimi Amaechi for gracing the occasion.
In his remarks, the paramount ruler described Leboku as an annual celebration that can be likened to the annual St Valentine Celebration, and commended those involved in ensuring the success of the new yam festival.
He explained that the festival has been celebrated by the Yakurr communities since the 16th century when the people migrated from Umohen to their present localities.
The monarch applauded Imoke for improving the star prizes for Miss. Leboku, Mr. Leboku and the Best Yam Harvester. He used the visit to appeal to the state government to inherit the various tourist sites abound the area; site an institution of higher learning there to boost economy of scale as well as create an Ugep Urban Area as it has met the requirements.
To make the Ugep more suitable for the celebration of Leboku, Inah told the governor that the place and the entire areas that make up Yakurr are confronted with problems that require urgent solution from government. He listed the problems of the area to include, increase in cult activities, increase in armed robbery, youth restiveness, perennial inter communal wars, rumour mongering, chieftaincy disputes and petition writing.
He also raised issues bothering on security and called on the three arms of government in the state to join forces with the relevant agencies to wipe out the vices in the area. The monarch also enjoined the police to increase its patrol of the area.
This year's celebration was significant in many ways. It, for instance, witnessed an admixture of the traditional and the secular outing as the people gathered in Ugep, considered the largest single community in West Africa.
Certain observations come along with the celebration. Over a period of 25 days for instance, the people are expected to stay away from tedious farming activities and dedicate the period to visit their kith and kin in the area where they exchange pleasantries and gifts.
Leboku usually starts officially with the harvest of new yams after an official announcement from the palace of the Obol Lopon, through the traditional Prime Minister or Obebi of Ugep, a position that is presently held by Obol Cornelius Edet.
After the harvest, known as Mblemi, young and old women in beautiful attire emerge from different farms and in groups and parade the town with their yield. The next event in the line up is usually the Janenboku Women Festival Day. This features the presentation of gifts to women by their friends and lovers. The Jenenboku is also an occasion laced with stupendous display of traditional dances by the women, which culminates in a night carnival amidst dancing and drumming of the Ekoi drums, an equivalent of the modern day Miss Leboku, christened Ledemboku. The ushering in of the Ledemboku takes place either in an open field or a chosen spot within the town.
Following closely on the heels of Ledemboku is the men's festival day. On this day, the third in the line of the Leboku festival, the Etangala masquerade emerges on this day to add vigour to the event.
The masquerade has a way of lightening up the atmosphere. The moment the masquerade emerges, it is followed all over the town by youths who hit two sticks against each other and produce a distinct sound as they tease the masquerade around.
With the completion of Yeponfawa and the exit of Egbendum, and the Oka session, the Leboku usually comes to an end with a feast where yams and palm wine are served to the children in all the wards and neighbourhood of the community.
Perhaps, the most attractive aspects of the entire Leboku Festival are the Leboku maidens, who dress half nude to expose parts of their succulent, but delicate bodies to prospective suitors. These maidens appear in their most attractive form by covering just their breast and their mid section to a point above the laps. Apart from the other ceremonies and rituals performed to commence the eating of the new yam, the Leboku maidens are, to a great extent, the real issue.
The maidens sing, dance and produce rhythms with their leg bangles, throughout the festival in a manner that would make a tourist transfixed while watching the show. On the Yekpi day, for instance, the maidens and boys parade the town as an expression of the belief that peace and prosperity has been ushered to the Yakurr people. The maidens also participate in one-week of music and dance festival, alongside the boys, while they are taught new songs by an adult. This event known as Yaponfawa takes place a day after the Yekpi, an event designed only for the initiates.
Aside the celebration, there were other side attractions that made this year's new yam festival worthy. For instance, the Miss Leboku competition produced Kedei Okoi as winner. Okoi, who was crowned Miss Leboku by Mrs. Obioma Imoke went home with a Hyundai Accent Car as her prize. Other winners included Miss. Miriam Ewa, who emerged first runners-up for Miss Leboku competition. Ewa was presented with a Hair Dressing Kit, while the second runners-up for the beauty competition, Miss Koton Ekapang, got a Sewing Machine.
Mr. Leboku competition was won by Usani Nicholas; the key of a Hyundai Accent car was presented to Nicholas, by Governor Amaechi.
First runners-up for the Mr. Leboku competition, Olu Arikpo was presented with a motorcycle while second runners-up for Mr. Leboku, Sampson David, got a Generating set for his effort.
Mrs. Felicia Oboma, who emerged as the Best Yam Harvester won a Hyundai Truck, presented to her by Imoke.
The first runners-up position for the best harvesters went to Mrs. Clara Ikpi James, who was presented with a Cassava grinding machine while the second runners-up Mrs. Agnes Ubi Lekam, won a motorcycle.
Kanu Onen Eyong, who emerged as the best wrestler in this year's Leboku celebration got a motorcycle as his prize while the runners-up for this competition, Usani Ibiang Okoi, got barber's kit.
Just as the case in the past, some personalities were awarded traditional titles as part of the activities of the Leboku. Those awarded chieftaincy titles included, Chairman Yakurr Local Government Council, Ubi Itam Ettah; Assistant Controller of Customs, Eno Ndidi Offem; member of the House of Representatives Hon. Paul Adah, and Chief Ikpi Akusen Akpama.
Mrs. Liyel -Imoke used the event to present items to Amaechi; Deputy Leader of the Senate, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN); Chief Whip House of Representatives, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha -Hon. George Denwa - House of Representatives, Dr. Emeka Onwuka, Hon. John Owen Eno - House of Representatives, Hon. Bassey Ewa - House of Representatives, Hon. Gab Edi - House of Representatives, Mr. Tom Lopez - Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Band Association, Mike Williams - Board Member Nothinghill Carnival Commission and an American couple.
In an address, Chairman Yakurr Local Government Council, Ubi Itam Ettah, said the attendance of this year's Leboku reflected good performance at all levels of government in the state. The Chairman said the Council has adopted the Seven-point Agenda of the State Government, with Ugep being developed to become a tourist destination and attain world-class standard.
Ettah gave kudos to the State Government for improving and enlarging the star prizes, which he said have boosted healthy competition among the people of the area to perfect and improve the value of the festival.
He expressed gratitude to MTN, a leading communication company, sponsors of the Leboku, for the commanding attention the celebration has achieved.
The council chairman also paid tribute to the Obol Lopon of Ugep and the Paramount Ruler of Yakurr for being a good custodian of Yakurr culture.
In her welcome address, Acting Managing Director, Cross River State Tourism Bureau, Mrs. Elenda Osima-Dokudo, said the State Government had adopted the Leboku as one of its annual events in the State Tourism Calendar, and that through its various tourism agencies has been working with the Yakurr Traditional Rulers Council, the Obol Lopon Advisory Council and the Yakurr Local Government Council, in an effort to drive its tourism policy and promote the culture of the people, especially the cultural message of harvest, love and fertility of the land.
Osima-Dokubo said Imoke has expressed a strong desire to elevate the Leboku Festival to an international event that will promote Agro-tourism, in addition to showcasing the rich culture of the Yakurr people.
Osima-Dokubo said the festival celebrates the virtues of womanhood and the strength of the male youth, which is the outcome of the Mr. Leboku and Miss. Leboku pageants.
She added that Miss Leboku pageant had also received a boost from the office of the wife of the governor, as her reign would promote the ideals of a cultural ambassador of the state, and the face of agriculture in the state's new determination to reawaken once its famed agricultural productivity.