The Osu Caste System In Igboland: A Challenge To The Igbo Christian Intellectual

Posted by on Apr 23rd, 2014 and filed under Trumpetapodium. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


Nobody living today in Igboland of Eastern Nigeria can claim to be a living witness to the origin of the Osu Caste System in Igboland, an ugly dichotomy that tends to make some people inferior before their ilk, although in some Igbo communities like Ngwa, Osu does not exist as everybody is nwa afo, son of the soil.
Osu, by traditional definition, is somebody offered as sacrifice to or dedicated to a god or an idol. (Ozo Evuruaja, 1975). Another variety of the caste is Ume which means predicament or bad destiny. Ohu is a man owned by his fellow man. From what we have heard and read in the books, osu, a creation of man, was not there in the beginning of the Igbo nation known by many as an offshoot of Gad, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who himself was neither an osu nor a diala the funny appendage the so-called free-borns attach to themselves.
Osu may mean different things to different people. Osu literally means prodigy, expertise, hence, a consummate farmer is named Osuji, a perfect diviner is called Osuagwu. In Ngor-Okpala where I come from, people answer Nwosu, like Henry Nwosu of the Green Eagles’ fame, an innocuous name that even confers dignity on the bearer.
But if you call somebody nwa osu, you have courted trouble for yourself because you are giving him a derogatory appellation capable of reducing his self esteem. Osu, in this sense, is the universally accepted Igbo term for a caste of its people, dedicated from time immemorial to everlasting ownership of a specific deity whose properties they equally inherit and pass unto their own offspring. Even though by this esoteric relationship, they are richly left like Basanio’s Portia, their children of today are in revolt against the tag, though not against the inheritance.
Equally in modern times, my little research into the Osu-Diala quagmire, reveals that osus and their creators, the dialas interact in everything except in marriage. Socially, osus are denied the Ozo, the Nze and Eze titles, being regarded as an inferior stock, foreigners in their own lands, and this is a human rights issue.
People were made osu by various ways. A majority was offered to deities as human sacrifices and in their service, they propagated and raised a family of osus. Others were people on the run either from danger or from their crimes who were conscripted into the osu caste. Some were courageous young fellows who opposed the evil machinations of the elders of the land who either conspired to sell them into slavery or offer them to the deities and they became osu. Perhaps some of us critics of today would have been made chief osus or sold out as slaves to the Caribbean Islands to gnaw our teeth at plantain and sugar cane stems had we existed then.
There are also people whose children become osu because the deity whose priests they are ask them to take osu wives, yet there are others who out of gluttony for the property of the deity and perhaps the incessant cock and goat delicacies around its shrine, choose to become osu.
In days past, osus were subjected to various forms of dehumanizing treatments including discrimination in the buying of their goods in the market, forcing them to grow very long and dirty hairs, and as Chinua Achebe reported in Things Fall Apart, giving them separate seats in the church.
When one looks at the making of an osu, one can easily identify the deceit and fallacy in it. Osu is man’s inhumanity to man created by a cult of wicked elders in order to intimidate the less privileged. Since it is linked to gods which most of us have today rejected, at least, in public, the osu cult ought not to be sustained by a supposedly learned and a civilized Christian society like our Igboland.
Belief in other gods is idolatory. These gods, Ekwensu Umukaje, Amadioha Ozuzu, Obila Umuchem, Ala Umudim, Ekwelaru Nworie, Okija Deity, etc, to which the osus are dedicated are the same gods which Prophet Isaiah told us were dead as they had dysfunctional sense organs. If these gods are lifeless, they cannot own properties, let alone human beings created in the image of God. So, this makes the Osu Caste System a charade, and to believe that anybody is osu is to propagate the dignity of the deity to which the osu is dedicated, hence a sin against the First Commandment of God.
Many Igbo Christians say that the Osu Caste System is a cultural matter into which the Church should not dabble. Some say that with time, everybody will forget it. The truth is that there is a loud Osu-Diala dichotomy in Igboland today. The truth is that osu is not a cultural matter. It is rather, a despicable and an atrocious feudal heritage which we ought to have done away with when we stopped killing twins and children who cut the upper teeth first. It is perhaps, our people’s penchant to subjugate others that has sustained this monster.
By virtues of the traditional laws, we all are now osu having eaten together and perhaps had sexual unions with osus, apart from even taking osu blood in the process of medical blood transfusion. So, what are we talking about? Why should you deny a man saved by an osu blood an osu wife when he is ready to marry?
The most problematic issue about the Osu Caste System is that it is a one-way traffic, an osu will contaminate a diala and both he and their offspring become osu, but no diala can liberate an osu, no matter how highly placed. What this means is that in the next hundred years or so, every Igboman will become an osu, what with the compulsive co-habitation of our sons and daughters in the higher institution since our governments cannot build separate hostels for our male and female children in school.
In 1956, Igbo legislators in the Eastern House of Assembly, Enugu abrogated the then common practice of referring people to as osus. The fine imposed made people have some restraints in the public expression of the word, osu. But it is mere fantasy as even today, 58 years after the law, people of substance in Igboland are denied titles and positions they deserve just because of the lame osu tag while riff-raffs, school dropouts and criminals cart these away. I believe that with our knowledge of the fallacy in the Osu caste creation by our ignorant ancestors, we can do something to stem the tidal but latent wave of mistrust, suspicion and antagonism raging on in Igboland between the osus and the dialas before an open caste war erupts in our already civil war ravaged and politically divided Igboland.
I believe we can end the Osu-Diala dichotomy by educating our children on its frivolity and its tendency to destroy rather than build Igboland. A negative tradition created osu. A positive one alone can abrogate it. The Osu Caste System has become a challenge to the Igbo intellectual. No progressive people can allow a matter as frivolous as the Osu Caste System distract them from confronting the challenges from outside. We repeatedly claim that Igbos are hated by their neighbours and like the Israelis, ought to be bonded together in a fraternal union, but their selfishness, avarice and of course, the Osu-Diala divide cause frictions in all their endeavours, hence their inability to make any collective progress. We are at the national conference fighting marginalization by other Nigerian tribes yet we perpetuate the worst type of marginalization against ourselves.
The Igbo intellectual must take up the crusade of liberating Igboland from the slavery of the Osu Caste System which has humiliated our people. I know one brilliant professor when we were in the university who had vowed to die a bachelor in order not to beget children who would face the same humiliation he faced as osu, and so did he die. There is no Igbo family today which has not suffered one Osu-related embarrassment or another, and in fact there is hardly one Igbo family today that has no grand-son or grand-daughter today growing in their homes illegitimately because they were repatriated from their homes together with their mothers on discovery that they had an osu lineage, no matter how faint. What of broken marriages, broken promises, broken ambitions, broken homes, all because of Osu? We owe it to posterity to end this humiliating Osu Caste System in Igboland now or we shall pay for it in the near future!
I challenge the Igbo intellectual to educate our traditional rulers and elders on the need to stop the Osu-Diala divide and cleanse Igboland from this self-inflicted virus. Our governors themselves must show concern in correcting this degrading abnormality which some selfish ancestors imposed on our land. Our governors are now the custodians of our administration and culture. They now hold and control our moneys, from the state, local government to autonomous communities. They now appoint traditional rulers over our people and only those they like have civil and political influence in our land today. And of course, Section 42, Subsection 2 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, by which they were sworn in says that no citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of circumstances of his birth. I therefore see no reason why our governors should not be at the forefront of the battle against the Osu Caste System in Igboland since they are the defenders of our constitution!
They Igbo intellectual should hold periodic discussions and seminars on the Osu Caste System. They can ask our traditional rulers in totality, to set out a Day of Freedom for all osus and umes in Igboland, a day when like the dedication of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by all Catholic Bishops of the world in the early eighties which preceded the ignominious capitulation of Communism all osus and umes inIgboland would be set free!
Our traditional rulers would then, in their respective communities, at an agreed period of time, hold a plebiscite on what cleansing rituals to perform for whatever sin committed by or curse imposed on the fore-bearers of the osu caste which is now about to contaminate the entire Igbo stock. This is very simple to do. We have 15 Senatorial Zones in the entire South East and each has a chairman of traditional rulers. By the time these 15 Ezes and perhaps, their secretaries ( i e, 30 Igbo ezes) meet for six months, they will have struck at a solution to free our people of this social captivity. The Church can always be party to this ab initio, so that pagan rituals do not find their ways into the cleansing process.
As a follow up, on the agreed liberation day, Igbowide, each traditional ruler who still has eligible bachelor or spinster children would give one out symbolically to an opposite caste in marriage as a demonstration of his faith in the cleansing ritual. Then the bishops of Igboland who are the custodians of the new faith which the Igboman now claims to have embraced can be asked to impose ecclesiastical sanctions like denial of the sacraments and even excommunication on whosever that clings to the old social order declared dead by the owners of the land. With the so-called osus Igbo in the South East, freed, all other Igbo osus in diaspora, whether in Delta, Rivers or Akwa Ibom States, etc, or even overseas, will suffer liberation from the Osu Caste System by telepathy.
Unless this cleansing ritual is done now to end this Igbo plague, I am afraid no institution, human of divine, can expect or force anybody into allowing his children consciously enter the intricate Osu-Diala web in the name of Christian marriage as our private experiences already are not glorious.
His Grace, Dr Anthony Obinna, Catholic Archbishop of Owerri has in recent times, devoted much energy to the invigoration of the Osu-Diala debate in order to arouse the sensibilities of the Igbo Christian intellectual to the enormity of evil embedded in the Osu Caste System so as to make them join him to destroy it. I have always identified with the oppressed all my life since I have serially suffered oppression all my life. I therefore use this write-up as another volley of bullets on the chest of the despicable Osu Caste System which is bringing the Igboman to ridicule.
Of course, these were the views I canvassed in a 2006 seminar at the Whelan Research Academy for Culture, WRACC, on the Osu-Diala Divide in Igboland and I still canvass them today as one way to end this social aberration, although at that same seminar, Eze Emmanuel Njemanze of Owerri advocated silence on the matter for it to die a natural death. I did not believe him that day. I still do not believe him today.
(Dr Madugba, a Public Health physician, poet and human rights activist lives in Owerri).

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