In my rebel years, I was greatly perturbed by the Osu- caste system which was prevalent within Eastern Nigeria. I was more offended by the Christian disposition toward Osu intermarriage or relationship.
Eventually, I brought my concerns to my father and we had a deep conversation, concerning Osu. He said at some point the subject of abolishing was given high concern but it was thwarted when the King’s cabinet asked him, to first tell one of his sons to marry an Osu then they might consider letting an intermarriage in their various families. The disposition of the cabinet halted any progress towards the abolishment of Osu.
I now asked my father, would you allow me to marry an Osu?
What is Osu Caste System?
The Osu caste system is an aspect of Igbo culture which discriminates against the social interaction of Nwadiala and Osu. It prevents any form of intermarriage between a Nwadiala and an Osu, it prevents social interaction in the market, rivers, events, or social gatherings such as; village meetings, age grade, etc.
Individuals regarded as Osu are segregated or avoided by the Nwadiala, because of the stigma attached to them. They perceive Osu as properties belonging to a deity and do not wish to incur the wrath of the said deity, hence they purposely avoid them and everything that has to do with them, which also includes their generations. Due to discrimination and segregation, they chose to live separately close to the community shrines, deserted forests, and intermarry among themselves.
How does one become an Osu?
To understand this we need to know who an Osu is. Osu is an individual who through direct or indirect means purposely dedicated himself and his entire lineage under the protection and provision of a deity.
In Igbo land, murder is the highest crime a person would commit, even our believe system frowns as capital punishment’s, hence an Osu is also a person who committed an nso-ala ( murder) and was ostracized from social interaction until such a time his/her sin has been atoned for.
Osu is also a person who was dedicated to the service of a deity, like an Ohu who was either bought or gotten as spoils of war. This service lasts only for a period of 7 years and the presiding chief priest is expected to set him free with a parcel of land to live, marry and cultivate.
Another method of becoming an Osu is through “Restitution”(Practiced in Nnewi). A similar culture exists in Ghana, here family members offer up their female children to atone for sins committed by their parents. In our situation, someone who commits nso-ala, especially murder is expected to replace the deceased with any member of his family. Such a person would be dedicated to the deity and a tiny piece of the person’s ear would be cut off and the blood dropped on the deity’s ofo (Isi Edo Nnewi).
Ancestral Perception vs Modern Perception.
An Osu in the ancestral perception isn’t regarded as inferior or a slave ( The Igbo word for a slave is Ohu), rather they are feared as properties or children of a deity. This becomes the major reason why they are isolated to avoid being punished for offending them knowingly or unknowingly. An Osu did not need to work or farm, everything they need as sustenance is provided by the villages as tributes to the deity/ alusi. It’s also believed that the reason why people chose to run to deities for protection in Igbo land, is owed to one form of injustice or another.
According to tales shared by the elderly, it’s assumed that these poor families were easy targets for dangerous men, who see them as sacrificial items, so the Osu ancestors made the only sensible decision to fall under the protection of a supernatural being, and this created fear. Others who became Osu as a result of their own doing, are not feared but seen as justice being served, the discrimination in cases such as this, is something I refer to as ” Ofu aka ruta mmanu, ozoo ora onu”.
The modern perception of this concept is somewhat ridiculous, with one theory asserting that people who were regarded as Osu were Idol worshippers. Some other theories suggested that they were slaves and this goes on and on. Ndi-Igbo believes in the concept of a generational curse, in this case, that fear makes them discriminate and regard one group as Nwadiala and the other Osu.
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As written by Emeh Joy- Legal laws have been put in place to abolish the Osu caste system in the eastern part of Nigeria. Before Nigeria gained its independence, people had lodged different complaints about the stigmatization they have suffered because they are tagged Osu. This made the old Eastern Parliament make a move toward addressing the issue.
The late Premier of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe vehemently kicked against the Osu caste system. Speaking to members of the defunct Eastern House Assembly on 20th March 1956, Dr. Azikiwe said, “It is devilish and most uncharitable to brand any human being with a label of inferiority, due to the accidents of history.”
The government of Eastern Nigeria in the same year (1956) passed a law abolishing the Osu caste system. The enacted law declared free everybody called an Osu, including the children born to the person. It declared the practice a crime punishable by law.
One would think that with the enactment of the law, the Osu caste system will be fully abolished.
Futhermore, investigations revealed that the different events that led to Nigeria’s independence plus the Biafran war weakened the act reducing its power. There was little or no willpower to implement the law.
Different traditional rulers have also frowned at the ancient Osu caste system and have spoken out against it. Eze Enyeribe Onuoha of Umuchieze in Imo State urged the community not to indulge in the act anymore. “Discrimination against Osu’s is irrational, illegal, unjust, and opposed to human rights”, he said.
Therefore traditional rulers like Igwe Kenneth Orizu, the Obi Otolo, and Igwe of Nnewi in Anambra state and Eze Nri Enweleana II, Obidiegwu Onyesoh were among the prominent monarchs that openly spoke against the practice.
Some meetings have also been held in line with abolishing the Osu caste system. 28 December 2018 saw many traditional rulers gather at Nri in Anambra state to discuss the Osu caste system and how to eradicate the act. This is one of the most effective meetings that phased out the caste system in Igbo land.
In my opinion, the abolishment of the Osu caste system is a thing of the mind, the steps to expunge this discriminatory act should begin at home in our minds. Many may think that Christianity may have contributed to its eradication, but it only created a cloak of hypocrisy.
The culture of Iju-Ese, which is primarily done before any marriage ceremony is to confirm if any party is an Osu or a Nwadiala. In any case, if any party is an Osu that’s the end of the subject matter.
Posterity would always remember the brave, it’s good to note that a good number of those regarded as Osu are some of the most prominent, well-educated members of the society.
Would you let me marry an Osu, I asked my father? HE HASN’T GIVEN ME AN ANSWER TO DATE.
Say no to discrimination.
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