by Florence Kekong:

Three communities of Esom Achue Irruan in Boki, Cross River State, have sent out 13 women from their respective communities for refusing to participate in the Cocoyam Festival, celebrated annually in the area.
The women, some of them widows, are of the view that the festival, known as, “Alebeh”, literally translated as, “Did we sleep well?” is diabolical and against their Christian belief.
They have been out of the communities for three months going and are not likely to be accepted back as the community people have put forth stringent conditions that they must meet, before they would be considered for pardon.
Sanctions have been placed against them to the extent that any member o the communities seen interacting with them, would also be pushed out to join them. They are not allowed access to any source of water, market and even their farms and the Church premises, as  the claim is that the community owns the land where the Church is built.
Speaking on behalf of the women, Mrs Mary George Edor, a widow, herself said that initially, they were fined to pay the sum of N50.000.00 each but now the Leaders have increased the mount to the sum of N100.000.00 for each of them to pay before they are accepted back.
She narrated further that things became worst when they ran to their Pastor at the Bekpor nearby village, where they were advised to contact a Lawyer who later charged the case to court and the court ordered that they be allowed access into the communities.
“When we returned to our various communities as the Court ordered, it became worst. The communities got angry that we made them spend so much money and time going to court and as such, we would pay for all expenses and time wasted”, she lamented.
It has been impossible for the women pay the money and also, meet the tough conditions put before them and as such, they have all gone their separate ways, seeking shelter  whereever they can find. ” The Pastor and our Church members have been very supportive but we cannot be comfortable there as our farms, houses are deserted, with our children shared to stay with family members, where we are not allowed to see them.
The Pastor could not be contacted as he was said to have traveled out of the village.
But the Clan Head of the community where they sought refuge, His Highness, Otu Donatus Edor said that the “Alebeh” festival is not diabolical but a welcome tradition that promotes unity, love and peace among the people.
He confirmed that he is aware of the women’s presence but he had not seen any of them, since they are staying in the Church with their Pastor.
Otu Offre noted that he is a Christian but does not see anything wrong with celebrating the festival since he has grown to see it as a time to build love and peace in the communities, as well as, happiness.
Clan Head of Esom Achue communities, His Highness, Otu Julius Mpi Osang said that the women were wasting their time doing the wrong things and going  to Court, as the Court cannot force them to change their tradition, or decide the traditional ways they ought to follow.
“Our people have been celebrating Alebeh before I was born and I don’t think that it can be stopped during my reign”, he said.
Speaking to his wife, Mrs. Veronica Osang, on what she thinks about this ugly situation, given that she is a woman, herself, she blamed the women for the steps the took, quoting the Bible as saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God, what belongs to God”.
She recalled that eye-brows were raised when everybody  in the three communities rushed out to chant songs of joy, unity and love, in the early hours of the morning, as it is the tradition, when the oldest man in the community announces the sighting of the fullness of time for the festival which everyone anxiously waits for.
“They refused to turn up at the village  square and even when the celebration kicked off during the day, they exempted themselves, defying traditional orders for all and sundry to participate in the celebration,” she explained further.
The Alebeh festival is celebrated annually by the Irruan people of Boki, who believe that a Fairly (Beautiful Woman) showed them the Cocoyam to eat when there was severe famine in the land. Having no choice, the people ate the strange food then, even as they feared they could die from eating it.
The worried  King who did not sleep the first night the people ate the Cocoyams, was said to have gone round the village, knocking on the doors of each household, enquiring to know from them if there were casualties anywhere. Thus, the memorable question, “Did we sleep well” as asked in the Irruan dialect, “Alebeh dey?”, holds sway today.
The festival is usually celebrated between the months of May and June,  the period when there is lack, when farmers would have planted all their yams and little is left to eat as they wait to harvest the new yams.
The Irruan people use this celebration to exchange gifts with loved ones, promote peace, unity,  friendship an love.
The festival stands today as an indication of how things have changed for good for the people, who had not discovered any other food apart from the yam. The Fairy left them with the the knowledge of the existence of of kinds of food, apart from the yams and so when the Cassava an other food types like rice and beans were introduced to them in later times, they ate without fear.
The Coco yams made them live, opening their understanding on this existence of other food crops that abound around them, available as food.

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