“Osu Caste In Igboland”–Reports
New York [RR] AWKA–vote against discriminatory practices in the name of Osu caste in south east Nigeria. Osu caste system is an obnoxious practice among the Igbo in south east Nigeria which has refused to go away despite the impact of Christianity, education and civilization, and the human rights culture. Many people have condemned the system which has traumatized many innocent people but the problem persists. But one fact is that the Osu system of discrimination is an outdated tradition with no basis for its continued practice and observance in the contemporary Igbo society.
Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igboland – the Nwadiala and the Osu.
[PHOTO Eze Igbo I, Abuja,Celebrating Igbo-Day, in Abuja, Eze Igbo 1 of Abuja, Eze Nwosu Ibe (middle), arriving for the 2011 Igbo Day celebration in Abuja yesterday]]]
The Nwadiala literally meaning ‘sons of the soil’. They are the masters while the Osu are the people dedicated to the gods; so they are regarded as slaves, strangers, outcasts and untouchables. Chinua Achebe in his book, No longer At Ease, aptly describes Osu thus: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an . outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever”.
The Osus are treated as inferior human beings and kept in a state of permanent and irreversible disability; they are subjected to various forms of abuse and discrimination. The Osu are made to live separately from the freeborn; they reside very close to shrines and market places.
The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations hip with the Nwadiala. They are not even allowed to break kola nut at meetings or pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering.
It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune.
According to human rights groups, some of the atrocities meted out against the Osu in Igboland
include: parents administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, organized attacks, heaping harvest offering separately in churches, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property and expulsion of wives.
The Osu caste discrimination is very pronounced in the area of marriage. An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. So freeborn families are always up in arms against any of their members who wants to . marry an Osu.
They go to any length to scuttle the plan. Because of the Osu factor, marriages in Igboland are preceded by investigations– elders on both side travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party. And if it is found that one of them is an Osun, the plan would be automatically abandoned. Many marriage plans have been aborted, while married couples have been forced to divorce because of the Osu factor. Chinua Achebe also notes this in his book. When Okonkwo learns that his son wants to marry Clara, an Osu, Okonkwo says: “Osu is like a leprosy in the minds of my people. I beg of you my son not to bring the mark of shame and leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children will curse you and your memory – you will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children.”
Sometime last year, a young educated Igbo man, a successful business entrepreneur based in Atlanta (USA) had been engaged to be married to an Igbo lady, who was a medical doctor. The Igbo lady was already pregnant for the man. During the customary family introduction, it was discovered that the lady was an “Osu” and immediately the wedding arrangements were terminated. The lady gave birth to a baby boy and now lives in Houston (USA) as a single parent. The Igbo man has refused any form of contact with the lady and his child with all the education, western culture, civilization and exposure to Christian teachings.
And not too long ago, I met a lady in a friend’s house in Lagos. I was told that she was engaged to a young man from Imo State. Months later, I learnt that the marriage plan had been cancelled because the lady was said to be an Osu.
There have been several instances like that where young men and women of Igbo extraction have suffered emotional trauma as a result of this cultural malaise. And now the question is, why is it that this cultural practice has refused to go away even among educated Igbos? The reason is not far fetched. The practice of Osu caste system is hinged on religion, supernaturalism and theism. And Igbos are deeply religious and theistic people. Osu are regarded as unclean or untouchable because they are (alleged to be) dedicated to the gods. So it is the dedication to the gods that makes the Osu status a condition of permanent and irreversible disability and stigma.
The discriminatory Osu practice involves inequality in freedom of movement and choice of residence, inequality in the right of peaceful association, inequality of residence, inquality in the right of peaceful association, inequality in the enjoyment of the right to marry and establish a family, (and) inequality in access to public office. That is the crux of the matter with Osu caste in Igboland. If one may ask, could a right exist if it is not enforced? To put it differently, can a right exist without a specific legislation that provides for its protection and remedies when violated? Oddly enough, the victims of the Osu system do not have any legal remedy in Igboland. And strangely, some people believe that the humiliating Osu caste system is a part of the Igbo culture nobody should tamper with.
The Osu case system in Igboland seems to have changed the meaning of life for the group of people branded Osu.
The maltreatment meted out to the Osu has forced many of them to migrate to other countries, many development projects abandoned, marriages dissolved and pregnancies terminated. In fact, so many crimes against humanity have been committed against individuals and groups in Igboland in the name of Osu.
The Osu caste system has caused communal strifes and wars between the Osu and the Nwadiala in Igboland. According to the United Nations definition, discrimination includes any conduct based on a distinction made on grounds of natural or social categories, which have no relation either to individual capacities or merits or to the concrete behavior of the individual person.
Based on the above, I suggest that something drastic has to be done to eradicate this obnoxious system. There is the urgent need for all Igbo leaders of thought, the traditional rulers, the governors, the clergymen and all the people that matter to come together and enact a law outrightly banning the system generally in Igboland as there is no basis for its continued existence.
By Tony Uchenna, A Uchenna is resident in Enugu.
The Osu Caste System
Leo Igwe The Osu caste system is an obnoxious practice among the Igbos -in Nigeria-which has refused to go away despite the impact of Christianity, modern education and civilization, and the human rights culture. In this piece, I will argue that the Osu discrimination is an outdated tradition with no basis for its continued practice and observance in the contemporary Igbo society.
Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igboland – the Nwadiala and the Osu. The Nwadiala literally meaning ‘sons of the soil’ are the freeborn. They are the masters. While the Osu are the slaves, the strangers, the outcasts and the untouchables. Chinua Achebe in his well-known book, No Longer At Ease asks: What is this thing called Osu? He answers: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever” The Osu are treated as inferior human beings in a state of permanent and irreversible disability. They are subjected to various forms of abuse and discrimination. The Osu are made to live separately from the freeborn. In most cases they reside very close to shrines and marketplaces. The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations with Nwadiala. They are not allowed to break kola nuts at meetings. No Osu can pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering. It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune.
A human rights group outlined the atrocities meted out against the Osu in Igboland. They include: ‘parents administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, organized attack, heaping harvest offering separately in churches, denial membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property and expulsion of wives etc.”
The Osu caste discrimination is very pronounced in the area of marriage. An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. So freeborn families are always up in arms against any of their members who wants to marry an Osu. They go to any length to scuttle the plan. Because of the Osu factor, marriages in Igboland are preceded by investigations-elders on both sides travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party. And if it is found that one of them is an Osu, the plan would be automatically abandoned. Many marriage plans have been aborted, and in fact some married couples have been forced to divorce because of the Osu factor. Chinua Achebe also noted this in his book. When Okonkwo learns that his son wants to marry Clara, an Osu. Okonkwo says: “ Osu is like a leprosy in the minds of my people. I beg of you my son not to bring the mark of shame and leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children will curse you and your memory… You will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children.”
But there have been several efforts and initiatives to eradicate this harmful tradition. In 1956, the government of the then Eastern Nigeria passed a law abolishing the Osu caste system. The law freed and discharged anybody called Osu including the children born to such a person. It declared the practice unlawful – and a crime punishable by law. But unfortunately, 50 years after the enactment of this legislation, nobody has been prosecuted or convicted for breaking the law. At best what the legislation has achieved is to drive the practice underground. Also many religious leaders and traditional rulers have spoken out against the practice. Recently Eze Enyeribe Onuoha, the traditional ruler of Umuchieze autonomous community in Imo State urged his community members to abandon the practice. He said: “discrimination against Osus is irrational, illegal, unjust and archaic and opposed to human rights. It is one Umuchieze(Igbo) tradition that should immediately be abolished.”
But statements and declarations like this are not uncommon. But they have always fallen on deaf ears among the Igbo people most of whom think that cultural norms are sacrosanct and should not be tampered with. So the belief in and practice of Osu caste system continue to wax strong in Igboland. In 1997, a person alleged to be an Osu was made a chief in a community in Imo State. But six months later, the community was engulfed in a crisis. And when the case was brought to the court, the presiding judge noted that though the abolition of Osu caste system was in the statute, it was an unenforceable law. The chief was dethroned so that peace would reign in the community.
And not too long ago I met a lady in a friend’s house in Lagos. I was told that she was engaged to a young man from Imo State. And months later I learnt that the marriage plan had been abandoned because the lady was said to be an Osu. There have been several instances like that where young men and women of Igbo extraction have suffered heartbreaks and emotional traumas as a result of this cultural disease. And now the question is, why is it that this cultural practice has refused to go away even among educated Igbos. The reason is not far fetched. The practice of Osu caste system is hinged on religion, supernaturalism and theism. And Igbos are deeply religious and theistic people. Osu are regarded as unclean or untouchable because they are (alleged to be) dedicated to the gods. So it is the dedication to the gods that makes the Osu status a condition of permanent and irreversible disability and stigma.
So this cruel custom will not be eradicated until Igbos begin to realize that gods are imaginary beings, not objective entities. Igbos need to understand that deities and spirits are mental constructs used to control and organize the society at the infancy of the human race. And today that humanity has come of age. Because if one does not believe that the gods and spirits are real, then the idea of treating someone as unclean or untouchable because the person is dedicated to any deity does not make sense at all. Even for the god-believing Igbos, the practice is out rightly baseless. Because most Igbos are Christians and do not profess any belief in the traditional gods to which the Osu were (alleged to be) dedicated. So, it is both sensible and appropriate that all Igbos – believers and non-believers alike renounce and abandon this abhorrent, inhuman and despicable practice. Politically, state authorities must get Igbo communities and associations to remove provisions in their constitution that bar Osu from contesting elections or receiving traditional titles. Legally, the courts must begin to enforce the law abolishing the Osu caste system. And the Nigerian state must rise up to its duty of protecting and defending the humanity, dignity and equal rights of all citizens irrespective of their sex, ethnic origin, religion, belief or birth status.
Most importantly Igbos must begin to envision a new society where people can live and interact, marry and be married, elect and be elected, without division, distinction, discrimination on the basis of Osu or Nwadiala. Hence I want to use this opportunity to appeal to my people-ndi Igbo: Please let’s strive to remove this mark of leprosy and shame from the face of our culture and society.
About the author: Leo Igwe is director of the Centre for Inquiry in Nigeria. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Osu caste System in Igboland
discrimination Based on descent.
Victor E. Dike
The Igbos are found mostly in the Southeastern and South-central Nigeria called Igboland or Igbo society (Alaigbo or Anaigbo). By the late 20th century the population of the Igbos are about 27 million.1 The majority of the Igbos are Christians, but some of them practice the indigenous traditional religion, whose major tenets are shared by all Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria (Uchendu 1965). The traditional religion is passed on to succeeding generations, but the advent of Christianity in Igboland around “1885″ had some influence on the traditional beliefs (Talbot 1969). The indigenous traditionalists believe in the earth goddess, deities and ancestral spirits and in a Creator-God, Chukwu, Obasi, Chi, or Chineke, the “Supreme God” (Achebe 1959). The Igbo traditional beliefs have some positive influence on the culture and social lives of the people. For instance, the forefathers of the Igbos were known for their righteousness, honesty and hard work. And they were opinion leaders, impartial judges and people of impeccable character.
However, a relic of the indigenous religious practice of the Igbos is the dehumanizing Osu caste system, which has divided and alienated the Igbos.
Therefore, this paper discusses the Osu caste system, an indigenous religious belief system, practiced within the Igbo nation, with the purpose of bringing the discriminatory, dehumanizing and obnoxious Osu caste system to the attention of the international community. This is because whenever issues of discriminatory practices around the world are tabled for discussion in the international community the repugnant and discriminatory Osu caste system is never mentioned.
Definitions of Terms
It is essential to provide some definitions and clarifications of terms associated with the Osu caste system. It would be very difficult, if not impossible to explain and analyze the terms related to the issue to individuals who are not familiar with the system without an explanation of the many labels describing the Osu. Each ethnic nationality in Nigeria has its own reasons for discriminating against their own people; and some of the reasons are apparently religious.
The Igbos, which are the center of this discourse, discriminate against each other by reason of the Osu caste status. The Igbo people refer to the Osu in varied names; it is referred to as Adu-Ebo in Nzam in Onitsha. In the Nsukka area it is referred to as Oruma; it is called Nwani or Ohualusi at Augwu area.2 These names, Osu, Ume, Ohu, Oru, Ohu Ume, Omoni (Okpu-Aja), have the same connotation in Igboland. The people referred to by the names are regarded as sub-human being, the unclean class, or slaves.
In this paper the author shall use the term, Osu, to describe all the lower caste groups in Igboland. It should noted that in their hierarchy of social status, the Ume (especially, in this author’s community) is the Osu class the Diala abhors to interact or socialize with the most.
The Osu, by definition, is a people sacrificed to the gods in Igbo community. And they assist the high priest of the traditional religion to serve the deities or the gods in their shrine. It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalists that the deities, which were (and are still) perceived in some quarters as being very powerful, would wreck havoc in the society, if they are not appeased. In some special circumstances, those who hold the traditional beliefs of the Igbos could transform a Diala who committed certain atrocities against the land, into an Osu. This process involved intricate rituals (offering of libations and sacrificing animals to the earth goddess). Some of the ancestors of the present-day Osu people inherited their dehumanizing social status this way. That method is now a thing of the old; Western influence has affected this practice. Presently, one could acquire the Osu status through inheritance and marriage.
Because of many oral interpretations of the construct, the Osu has various definitions. It has been defined as a ‘cult slave,’ a living sacrifice,’ an ‘untouchable,’ ‘outcast,’ ‘owner’s cult,’ ‘a slave of the deity,’ and a ‘sacred and holy being.’ 3 These names mean the same: it is an abomination in the Igbo society for the Diala to marry Osu.
For this author, the Osu caste system is a societal institution borne out of a primitive traditional belief system colored by superstition, and propagated by ignorance. It is absurd to categorize a human as a sub-human being. Although this author is not a member of the group, he condemns the practice of the Osu caste system, because it is a human rights aberration.
The Osu caste system, which is a form of discrimination, has caused inter-communal discords and wars between the Osu and the Diala in Igboland. And many lives and properties have been destroyed as a result.
According to the United Nations definition, ‘discrimination includes any conduct based on a distinction made on grounds of natural or social categories, which have no relation either to individual capacities or merits, or to the concrete behavior of the individual person.’ The discrimi-natory Osu practices involves inequality in freedom of movement and choice of residence, inequality in the right of peaceful association, inequality in the enjoyment of the right to marry and establish a family, (and) inequality in access to public office… slavery’ (Allport 1979, p. 52). That is the crux of the matter with the Osu caste system in Igboland. If one may ask, could a right exist if it is not regularly enforced? To put it differently, can a right exist without specific legislation that provides for its protection and remedies if violated? Oddly enough, the victims of the Osu system have not any legal recourse in Igboland. And strangely, some people believe that the humiliating Osu caste system is a part of the Igbo culture nobody should temper with. Fortunately, many Igbos have a contrary opinion.
The Osu Caste System and the Indigenous Religious Practices of the Igbo nation
All human beings are created equal, but human experiences are heterogeneous. Some people have had it rough all their life on earth, while others do not have a lot to complain about. Naturally, life has the same meaning for everyone, but the Osu caste system in Igboland seems to have changed the meaning of life for a group of people branded Osu. No historical question gives the Igbos more concern than that of, “How did the Osu caste system come to be in Igboland?” This section of the paper attempts to deal with the question.
There are many versions of oral information on the origins of the Osu caste system. In the absence of documented information, oral sources are central to the study of history in Igboland, and other parts of Nigeria. There is a paucity of written information on the issue of the Osu caste system. This is apparently because many people shy away from discussing the issue for fear of being branded Osu lovers. However, available little documented information show that the Osu caste system started out of the indigenous religious practices of the Igbos.
The indigenous religion is interwoven with Igbo cultural practices, and it is difficult for foreigners to fully understand and appreciate the good part of the Igbo culture. The indigenous Igbo regards himself as a meeting point of Mother Earth or “Ala”, which contains all physical creation and the ancestral spirit that is functionally linked to his ancestors. The Supreme Spirit “Chi-Ukwu” or “Chukwu” is the force of creation and the custodian of infinite power over everything. The Igbo man relates to this infinitely powerful God image through the deities that are ultimately linked to one’s “chi” or spiritual force. Deities are derived out of objects of creation such as ‘geophysical landmarks’ like seas, lakes, rivers, streams, caves, hills and mountains, spirits such as warrior-kings and legendary spiritual leaders. Those geophysical landmarks are regarded as the homes of the gods and the ancestral spirits (Isiechi 1976). And the gods are perceived as the bridges between the people and their life. And the belief was that these gods could be manipulated in order to protect them and serve their interest.4
An individual’s fortunes are determined by the byproduct of interactions that exist between one’s “chi”, the deities and the Creator or “Chineke”. Humans interact directly with deities, which function as intermediaries to the Supreme Spirit or Creator. Being in good terms with powerful deities in one’s domain is an assurance that one is likely to obtain the largesse of creation while, at same time, minimize the wrath of the forces of nature. It is an individual’s obligation to observe the customs of the land since their violation could offend the deities; and goodwill and protection from the deities depends on one’s cordial relationship with them.
Every indigenous Igbo community maintained a shrine where the family’s ancestral spirits resided and communed with the living. There were (are still) village and town deities, which became more powerful because of their reputation or notoriety. This category of deities is almost like institutions unto themselves. The deities were (and some are still) attended to by highly respected priests and assistants, who were (are) engaged in serving the spiritual needs of visitors who could come from far away places to commune at the famous shrines.
Historical accounts have it that, about 6 centuries ago, the growth in number of powerful deities created the need for many assistants for the high priests of major shrines. Miniature ‘monasteries’ were established in the vicinity of major shrines to train and maintain a constant supply of high-priest assistants. And because some of these deities are believed to be very powerful, they should be attended to on continuous basis, with intricate religious rituals in their shrines. However, the “indigenous monks,” upon mastering their spiritual functions (of learning to serve the gods) were unjustly and erroneously assigned the Igbo pejorative name of Osu, Ume or Ohu arusi (the slave of the deities/gods or shrines). And so was the story of how the institution of the Osu cult (ritual slavery) originated. The Osus and their descendants belonged to the gods; and they become the properties of the shrines. And they resided in the vicinity of the shrines of major deities and for all practical purposes excluded themselves from routine engagements with the rest of the community. In other words, being the agents of the deities the Osus maintained an aloof relationship with the rest of the civil society.
The early Osu ranks were “non-celibate” and thus had families; and the offspring inherited their status. The community maintained a set of rules that regulated their interactions with the Osus, mostly out of fear (and or respect) for the powerful deities under which they thrived and performed their religious functions. For instance, intimate social interaction, including marriage, was forbidden between Osus and the Diala. In some communities, it is forbidden for the Diala to spill the blood of Osus (even in non-hostile situations). Some communities go as far as forbidding the Diala from eating meat that was butchered or prepared by an Osu. The list of items that maintain a social divide between the Osus and the Diala grew and till today, but they vary from place to place. Any person who breaches the rules regulating their interaction with the Osu automatically becomes an Osu. Even though the offenders may not physically relocate to cohabit with the Osus, they were (are) regarded and treated like an Osu by the rest of the community. Like the racism, Osuism 5 have distorts and impedes normal interpersonal relationship between the Diala and Osu in Igboland.
Before the arrival of the ‘white man’ and Christianity, the discriminatory relationship that existed between Osus and Diala was perceived as normal. Things are gradually changing; the world is beginning to perceive the Osu caste system as a form of discrimination. However, the Osus fulfilled their lives in the communities by serving the deities. In return, they obtained a reasonable livelihood from proceeds of offerings that pour steadily into the premises of the deities that they served. The coming of the Europeans led to a process of social change and some of the customs of the indigenous Igbo society were beginning to be seen as going contrary to the beliefs of the Europeans. In the past, the tradition of some of the Igbo states, such as Ossomari and Arondizuogu, engaged in communal wars with the intention of procuring captives and slaves. Communities tended to punish their criminals by selling them into slavery. In some cases, parents were forced by “poverty and hunger” to sell their never-do-well children. During this stone-aged era human sacrifice was common, and slaves were often used for this purpose. According to Isiechi (1976), the dead rulers of Igbo Ukwu were buried together with several slaves as sacrifices.
However, the trans-Atlantic slave trade contributed to the frequency of inter-clan wars, which often resulted in neighboring communities raiding each other for slaves and other booties. The Osus were forbidden to be combatants in warfare for fear of spilling their blood, which could unleash the wrath of the deities. Some defenseless small communities were often compelled to seek refuge in the premises of nearby shrines in order to avert impending doom when under sudden attack from superior invading forces. Once the deity’s high priest acknowledged and granted them protection from attack and harm to the refugees, they were automatically converted to the Osu status.
In some circumstances, prisoners captured during inter-communal wars were sold off, and their new owners could elect to enlist some of them to Osu status by giving them away as gestures of and placation to a local deity. Other captives could be sold as slaves or become objects of ritual murder, which occurred mostly upon the death of powerful chieftains. However, some war captives preferred the Osu status rather than being sold far away to distant lands as slaves. Thus, the population of the Osu increased. Evidence suggests that the Osu were originally regarded with “respect and honour” apparently because they belonged to the gods. This show of respect for those who attended to the shrines, unfortunately, transformed into social ostracism. 6 And the Osus were not many in number. But in the nineteenth century, “their numbers expanded and their status deteriorated dramatically, so that they became outcasts, feared and despised” or even abhorred (Basden 1966).
With the abolition of slave trade in the nineteenth century (1807) the loss of external outlets for the sale of slaves led to an unprecedented escalation of the practice of using human beings for sacrifice. It was reported that forty slaves were killed and used for sacrifice at the death of Obi Ossai of Aboh, in 1845 (Isiechi 1976). As mentioned earlier, there is a strong Igbo belief that the spirits of one’s ancestors keep a constant vigil over him/her. And traditional religion was highly practiced by the traditionalists; thus, the spirits of the all-important ancestors were worshipped through the gods or deities.
In addition, the cessation of trans-Atlantic slave trade (and the inculcation of new values from the Europeans), the respect accorded to the Osu (because of their role as servants of powerful deities) began to wane. As noted earlier, the European missionaries began to perceive the ways of the indigenous religious practices as impediments to their mission of spreading the Christian faith. Thus, assault on the Igbo indigenous religious practices was fierce and multi-faceted. Children were effectively indoctrinated in the emerging school system to reject their parents’ traditional way of life, which was characterized as both primitive and barbaric. The children in schools were used effectively as conduits for transforming the rest of the family.
In most cases, parents opted to join their children by converting to Christianity in order to avert major internal family crises. Where such was not the case, the aging parents were simply allowed to die away with their indigenous religious and cultural belief system. The converts to the new faith were used by early missionaries as effective tools for the destruction of cultural artifacts and religious objects like shrines, traditional sculptures and a host of other valuable indigenous artwork. Test of the new converts’ faith in Christianity was usually their ability to destroy any relics of the past within their reach. But the whole of Igbo culture did not lie only in its artistic, cultural and religious artifacts. In spite of all the destruction, the average Igbo person retained the core values of his cultural heritage. Many people became churchgoers on Sundays, but remained loyal to the indigenous culture.
The interest of the British in Nigeria was purely economic; and this took precedence over everything else. The Osu caste system, a dynamic offshoot of Igbo indigenous religious practice, remains alive today as the British and their converts could not obliterate the belief system. And as those entrapped in the caste system could not be helped by system of their new Christian faith, they became disillusioned.
One of the factors that enabled early Christian missionaries to establish a foothold quickly in the Igbo heartland was their promise to new converts (mostly the Osus) that the new order would guarantee equality of rights and opportunities to everyone. But disillusionment (as earlier noted), soon dampened their enthusiasm when it gradually became clear that even the “whiteman’s church” was not powerful enough to stop the discriminatory treatment meted out to them. The Osus, at the time in review, were known to have pursued Western education in large numbers. In addition, many joined the new Christian mission as priests and teachers. In spite of these accomplishments, the Osus’ right to equal treatment remained unfulfilled, because neither the Christian missionaries nor the sketchy colonial administration in place had what it took to change the attitude of the people at the grassroots level where the Osu practice predominates. Presently, the Osus are like refugees who have been abandoned to wonder in the wilderness after being dislodged from their comfortable places as the servers of the deities. The respect and dignity that the Osus experienced because of their role within the indigenous religion has now been replaced with a de facto social ostracism from which escape is extremely difficult.
Another story has a different version of how the Osu system came to be in Igboland community. The story had it that an old man told some children who were gathered with him around a camp fire during a cold harmattan morning how a group of traditional elders ganged up to give up one of their own to the gods of the land. (The harmattan is a cold and dry wind blowing down from the north). The storyteller reported that his father told him that there was an agreement among the persons that were gathered for a ritual that one person from the village would be sacrificed to the gods, which would be made to appease the gods of the land that were terrorizing the community. Everyone at the meeting swore in the name of the gods and on the ofor (the ofor is the bible for those who hold traditional Igbo beliefs) that nobody would disagree with their decisions. The powerful gods would be made happy so that they would desist from wrecking havoc on the community. The man who was later chosen to attend to the shrines did not know that he was the person that would be selected to perform the task of serving the gods.
When the man who was a party to the decision was unanimously selected (to be offered in sacrifice to the deities), he jumped up from his chair and cried, as he knew what his social status would be in the community. After a series of intense rituals were undertaken, the man was transformed and labeled an Osu of the land. And his descendants have since inherited his status. The community had to build a hut for him at a market square of the town, as the gods are usually located near a market place in many communities in Igboland.7 Thus, the Osu system finds rationalization in Igbo religious beliefs and dogma.
Each time these stories are recounted, it would be easy for any rational person to figure out that they are colored by misconception. It is the opinion of this author that the Osu caste system, which has caused a lot misery to many people in Igboland, originated out of ancient beliefs. All these stories about the Osu caste system precede the Chinua Achebe’s popular Things Fall Apart, in which the plights of the Osu or outcast in Igboland were vividly, described (1959, pp.154-156).
No matter how the Osu caste system originated in Igboland, and no matter its apparent past benefits, it is now the feeling of many peace-loving individuals that the ancient institution, which is an internal apartheid in Igboland, has outlived its usefulness. To redeem the Osus and Igbo society (which practice the obnoxious Osu caste system) one should revisit the past so as to explain the rationale behind the once vibrant Osu caste culture. The Osu caste system remains a sad reminder of the historical past of the Igbo nation. The only way to put those sad memories to rest is to find the ways and means to terminate the discriminatory practices of the Osu caste system as it exists today. And with the co-operation of everyone in the Igbo nation, this task can be accomplished.
Many other forms of discriminatory practices abound in Nigeria, but the Osu caste system is the main focus here. In the Southeast of Nigeria, the people of Umuode in Nkanu East local government area of Enugu State, who are said to be the descendants of the Osu, are being treated as second class citizens. In their Oruku community made up of Umuode, Umuchiani and Onuogowu, the people of Umuode have limited social interaction with the rest of the community because of their ascribed Osu status. And strangely, the other two villages cannot intermarry with the people of Umuode. No matter their social status in the community the local churches could hardly appoint the people of Umuode to positions of responsibility. Thus, the people are made outcasts. This class ostracism is operated in such a manner that any person from the other side of the community who talks to, or greets any person from Umuode, pays a fine sometimes as high as one Thousand Naira (N1,000). Because of this situation the people of Umuode operate their own local market different from the Eke-oruku market, which is owned exclusively by Umuchiani and Onuogowo. The people of Umuode have waged wars against this social stigma; about five major conflicts have been recorded in this area since 1995, and many lives have been lost (Agbaegbu, 12 Jan. 2000).
The people of Umuaka community in Imo State, Nigeria, categorize one of their ten villages Osu. Other minor lower caste groups found in many kindred are given the pejorative Igbo expression of ‘ndi ejiri goro ihe,’ meaning those who are sacrificial lamb to the gods. They are slaves to the gods of the community and kindred. As is the case in Umuode in Oruku community, the discrimination of the Diala against the Osu in Umuaka affects marriage and relationships of love with the Osu and the rest of the community. The Diala is traditionally and socially abhorred and forbidden to marry an Osu; intermarriage with Osu is an abomination.
However, some communities, for example, Nnobi in Idemili local government area of Anambra State, have been able to fully integrate their Osu population into the mainstream of the community. 8 All other Igbo communities should emulate the good work of the Nnobi community and work harder to bridge the Osu divide in their areas.
In Umuaka the Osus who are interested in politics in the community are not getting the necessary support from the rest of the community. This has greatly hindered their social upward mobility in the community. In the past the avid supporters of the Osu caste system would even refrain from eating (dinning) with them or drink from the same water-well (pond) with the Osu.
As noted earlier, this type of behavior could be likened to the issues during the civil right struggles in the United States when the ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ were prevented from drinking from the same public fountain (Smelser 1981). In the past when the Osu discriminatory behavior was taken to the extreme, those who believed in the system would even refrain from touching the Osu for fear of being transformed into an Osu. In addition, in the past the ardent supporters of the Osu caste system would not buy whatever the Osu merchants had for sell in the local market. During that period in review, there was an apparent superstition that the ghost of the ancestors would haunt any person who was friendly with the Osu. There has been some slight improvement in social interaction between the Diala and the Osu, although inter-marriage between the two is still seen as a social taboo by the Diala.
In the late 1980s, the Osu people in Umuaka revolted, as they could not take the humiliation from the Diala any more. They physically assaulted a couple of women from the Diala section of the community, with the intention of transforming the women to Osu so that the Diala would reject them. The action would also give them the taste of the pains and humiliation of the Osu status. The brouhaha that followed this action was short-lived, as the Diala in the community responded with counter forces. In Imo State alone over 60 of such incidents have been reported since 1979 (see Ezeala & the Association for Social Justice (not dated); and Agbaegbu, 12 January 2000).
The Osu social problem cannot be solved by temporarily subduing those groups that are suffering from injustices with force. This author is not advocating violence, but the riots, which occurred in Umuaka in the late 1980s, and those of Umuode in the 1990s, are cautionary tales of what might happen to some of the Igbo communities if the plights of the Osu are not resolved. The insensitivity of the generality of the Igbos to the plights of the Osu has the potential to cause social violence in Igboland. And according to psychology, frustration can breed aggression. This author would like to add that hatred and discrimination breed frustration, which in turn breeds hatred and aggression. As Philosopher Spinoza rightly and nicely noted, “He who conceives himself hated by another, and believes that he had given him no cause for hatred, will hate that other in return” (Allport 1979, p.155).
The Igbos should begin to treat the “Osus” as the human beings that they really are. Any person who thinks they deserve the ugly social conditions they found themselves in should walk in their shoes (or switch lives with them) to feel their pains. While the world may not know everything about why and how conflicts occur in societies, several studies show that inequality, abuse of human and civil rights, absence of the rule of law, discrimination and absence of freedom are among the major causes of conflicts (and even civil wars). The United Nations’ documents on social unrest in African societies point to these factors.9
Although some of the behaviors against the Osu are caused by the traditional belief system of the Igbos, this author would say that many of the supporters of the Osu caste practice are deficient in the skills needed to analyze the socio-economic and political development of the Igbo nations. If not, they should have known that such behaviors toward the so-called Osu affects the image of, and are detrimental to their welfare and the progress of the hardworking and peace loving Igbo society at large. It is criminal to violate people’s civil and human rights under the excuse of preserving an ancient culture. As it were, “An injustice unresolved…burns a hole in the heart” (Cose, April 21, 1997, p.45).
The Osu caste system and stereotype
It has been noted in the preceding sections that the Diala interact less with or avoids the Osu completely. In some communities in Igboland an Osu is regarded as a worthless human being. As Things Fall Apart notes in a conversation, which ensued over the question of admitting outcasts to a local little church in the village of Mbanta, between Mr. Kiaga, a missionary teacher, and one of the converts, the Osu is:
a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the freeborn. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled dirty hair. A razor was a taboo to him. An Osu could not attend an assembly of the freeborn, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ? (Achebe 1959, p.156)
The issue of stereotyping is not new. With almost a uniform agreement among white Americans, African-Americans are labeled (in error), as lower class in mentality and manners. In a study conducted in the 1930s, Kimball Young listed many stereotypes for the “Negroes” in the United States. The study noted that African-Americans have “emotional instability, [are] lazy and boisterous” (Young, 1934, pp.158-163).
Why does the Diala avoid (or interacts less) with the Osu groups? When this author was younger, he was told many ‘funny and strange’ stories about the Osu group in his community similar to those documented in Things Fall Apart. There is a belief that people interact less or avoid the Osu because they feared that the spirit of the deities (which the Osu people serve), would haunt those who socialize with the Osu. The people in the villages believe that the deities that the Osu attends to are powerful and dangerous.
Others would say that socializing with the Osu would contaminate, pollute and transform the Diala into an Osu. There is also the belief that since the Osu has been dedicated to the gods it was a taboo to socialize with the group. In addition, oral history would say that the Osu is isolated because they “steal” and are “dishonest.” Yet, other stories would say that the Diala abhor those branded Osu because they are “dirty” or that they have “repulsive body odor” and are “lazy.” However, there is no empirical evidence to support these inhumane assertions (Dike 2002).
While some of the leaders of thoughts, the elite and politicians in Igboland pretend not to know about this social injustice, many reasonable and enlightened individuals in Igboland believe that the Osu caste system is a pure “politics of unreason” at its highest level (Lipset & Raab 1970). This discriminatory behavior is an added burden on the Osu who are already burdened with unemployment, poverty, crime and other injustices prevalent in Nigeria. And through socialization (and bias inherited from their parents) some of the Igbo youth have internalized the discriminatory behavior toward the Osu.
Culture and Social Progress
The Osu system is “a cultural albatross for the Igbo society,” as it is an impediment to human relationships and social progress (Nwosu, June 19, 1999). The Osu caste system, which the forefathers of the Igbos invented, has become the culture in parts of Igboland. Sociologists have noted that the culture of a people influences their lives. And Igbo culture (as one can see), has influenced the practice and propagation of the Osu caste system.
Without a doubt, “Culture Matters” (Harrison and Huntington (eds.) 2000). The culture of a people, therefore, is an important variable in their social progress. Thus, a society’s heritage, values, and customs, in large part, determine its social progress. If discrimination and segregation are inimical to social progress, then no society should preserve that aspect of its culture, which hinders its progress.
If one may ask, are the shrines that were inherited from the ancestors to blame for the continued practice of the Osu caste system in Igboland? Is the caste system compatible with the principles of democracy? Are the civil and human rights of the Osu groups not being violated? Is the Osu caste system in agreement with the Igbos’ belief that one is his or her brother’s keeper? One cannot ask enough questions here!
Obviously the Osu culture violates the civil and human rights of the people subjected to it. It is also against the principles of democracy, as it encourages segregation and inhibits the free association of the Osu with the Diala in Igbo society. At a period when the world is evolving into a global community, there is no room for this type of hate and bigotry. Preaching democracy by word of mouth is not enough. It has to be followed with actions. The discriminatory treatment of this group by the Diala runs contrary to how Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart portrays the Igbo culture. Okonkwu visited Nwakibie “to pay his respects and also to ask for a favor” with two pots of palm wine. During the presentation of colanut and offering of libation Nwakibie intoned:
We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break. (Achebe, 1959, p.19)
Thus, any person (or group) who discriminates against any human being (or group), does not wish that person (or group) well. In fact, if it were within the power of the ardent believers of the Osu system to decide who would go to heaven. The untouchables (as the Osu is often referred to), because of their social status, would not be allowed any place in heaven. Fortunately, these heartless and overly mean-spirited individuals do not have the power to play God. The Osu system and other forms of discrimination should not occur in any modern society. Nigeria should begin to educate her population on the importance of respecting the human and civil rights of their fellow human beings. Although the Osu caste system is not a Pan-Igbo issue, the effects on the people subjected to it is as discouraging and humiliating as the effects of the racial discrimination in the United States, or apartheid policy in South Africa before 1994.
Global Perspective on Discrimination
Hatred and distrust between and among groups is not new. The Blacks in the United States suffer terrible discrimination in the hands of whites. As an example, the banks in the United States are much more reluctant to give loans/grants to blacks than to whites (The Economist, July 10th 1993). In Apartheid South Africa, blacks (before the system was dismantled in 1994), suffered similar discrimination in the hands of the whites.
Like the racial discrimination in the United States, the Osu caste system promotes an ideology of the supremacy of the Diala over the Osu. Because racial discrimination occurs mostly between people of different skin colors (e.g. black and white) or between people from different nationalities, it is very difficult to understand the Osu phenomenon in the social history of the Igbos (a people of the same ethnicity).
The modern world views the ownership of human beings by other human beings, and the use of human beings for sacrifice as evil. Sadly, this was one of the characteristics of the Osu caste system in Igboland. As mentioned earlier, several Osu slaves were buried as a ritual to bury and mourn for deceased rulers, including the ruler of Igbo Ukwu. And this practice expanded during the years of slave trade (Isichei 1976). Although the Osu people are not physically being slaughtered presently for rituals, but the Osu social stigma is a tremendous barrier to human relations and their upward mobility in some Igbo communities (see Chapter 2).
The sad fact remains that the domination and control of human beings by others has been a common practice in societies around the world; and this has been powered by prejudice and discrimination. For instance, slavery was an integral part of the ancient Greek society, and Plato was known to have opposed the enslavement of Greeks. Slaves were used for many tedious domestic chores in ancient Rome before the 2nd Century BC. But most of the slaves were foreigners and prisoners-of-war (Adkins and Adkins, 1994).
Unlike the Osu caste system in Igboland the slaves did not remain slaves from cradle to grave. And this practice of human enslavement did not go unchallenged. Three great slave revolts took place during this period. Two revolts occurred in Sicily in 135-132 BC and104-101 BC; and the other took place in Italy around 73-71 BC (Adkins & Adkins, 1994; Madden, 1996). However, those slaves became free by being given manumission (freedom) by their owner, or by buying their own freedom. And any children subsequently born to them became free citizens (Adkins & Adkins 1994; Madden, 1996).
As noted earlier, in the Apartheid South Africa racial segregation was the law of the land before 1994. In South Africa, the English are against the Afrikaner. Both are against the Jews; and all the three are opposed to the Indians. But all the four conspire against the native black South Africans (Allport 1979). But the apartheid system was destroyed with the combination of internal forces and pressure from multinational corporations and foreign countries. Some of the readers may recall that the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the country apparently brought a closure to the inhuman system.
The Igbos of Nigeria were among the many nations that opposed the repressive system of Apartheid in South Africa. Although the Osu caste system in Igboland may not be perceived as a national issue, Nigeria and in fact, the Igbos who were against Apartheid in South Africa should have destroyed its own internal apartheid before asking South Africa to do the same. Unfortunately, at the turn of the 21st Century, the Osu caste system is still in existence in many Igbo communities. This system is as repressive, if not more repressive, than the apartheid system in South Africa. As it was in the apartheid system an Osu, in most part, is segregated from the rest of the community; they are more or less like a socially imprisoned people in the Igbo community.
Racial discrimination was prominent in the Southern part of the United States before the American Civil War (1860-1865). The so-called Jim Crow laws enforced segregation with separate public drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Other minorities, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Native Americans were (and are still) being treated with disregard in the United States (Smelser 1981). Federal and State laws by the end of the sixties prohibit discrimination in all places. And the laws weigh heavily on any person or organization found guilty of this offense. Despite all the laws against discrimination in the society, covert racial discrimination is still alive and well in the United States. There remain discriminations in employment, housing, and in marriage.
This author has been subjected to discrimination in many instances in the United States. In one painful and frustrating instance, he was intentionally negatively appraised, and disparately treated on the job. Why? This is simply because he is a black person. Having experienced discrimination in the United States, this author could not avoid speaking against discrimination in Igboland. The ability of a black person in the United States to perform a simple task is always in question by the racist white man, even after he or she has proved himself capable of performing the task beyond all reasonable doubt. As one writer rightly noted, in the year 2000, race in America still has a powerful impact on life experiences. Race affects mortality rates of black babies, the quality of education of black children where blacks live, how they interact with the police, the kind of employment opportunities or health care available to them – in short, life experiences from cradle to grave (Shaw, Feb. 25, 2000, p. A72).
Unlike the Osu caste practice in Igboland, racial discrimination in the United States is now chiefly practiced in covert and indirect ways. Because of all the laws in the society discrimination is no longer primarily a face-to-face encounter where embarrassment would result. And with the laws the victims of racial discrimination have some legal recourse. This is not to idealize the United States on race matters. White Americans are still very much better off; and they dominate political power. In other words, race still affects all facets of a black person’s life in the United States.
The common ill treatment of blacks, both the poor as well as the affluent could be seen in attitudes. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Skin Heads and White Supremacy, are among the reminders of the hostility against minorities, and the dangers of discrimination and prejudice in the United States (Smelser 1981; Bettelheim & Janowitz, 1964).
Adolf Hitler’s hatred for the Jews and the atrocities his followers committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp, are still fresh in memory. The heinous act is very difficult to understand. In this camp millions of men, women, and children, mostly of Jewish descent, were murdered. Between the summer of 1941 and the end of World War II in 1945, about two and a half million people perished at Auschwitz in gas chambers and ovens. This was a deliberate genocide, which represented what Adolf Hitler had called the final solution of the Jewish problem. Nothing other than prejudice and discrimination against the Jews led to the horrible and unpardonable homicide (Allport 1979; Smelser, 1981; Shirer 1960).
The ending of the East-West Cold War and the peace treaty signed between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan has not helped the matter in the Middle East. And despite the on-going peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the Arab/ Muslim, and Israeli conflict continues to simmer in the Middle East. In other words, violence between Muslims and Christians is still on the rise.
The caste discrimination in India is another global problem. The original caste system in India, Varna, came about when the Aryan-speaking nomadic groups migrated from the north to India in about 1500 BC. In other words, the caste system, which has been part of the Hindu religion, is believed to be nearly 3000 years old. The caste is an indicator of social and economic disparity in India.10 The Harijans (the unclean, the lowest of the low caste, outcast, or untouchables) were known to have performed the menial jobs in the society (Sarchet-Waller, 1996; Murthy, 1999). The Harijans and Chamars were formerly denied access to skilled jobs and landed property by virtue of their caste. In India religious sanctions are used to impose an assignment of social hierarchy, which is impossible to escape, except of course, by changing one’s religion.
However, Mahatma Gandhi fought against the evils of the caste system until he was assassinated in 1948. In September 1932, he began the struggle to “bring about a silent revolution in the structure” of the Indian society. Gandhi lamented that untouchability was “crushing the very soul of Indian religion and society.” He promised the poorest and most downtrodden of the India’s poor- the untouchables- that democracy would free them from their misery. Gandhi continued to fight to “eradicate the [caste] practice he found so abhorrent” until his death in 1948 (Jesudasam 1984).
The strongest and most frontal attack on the caste system in India was the Constitution of India adopted on Nov. 26, 1949. It is perhaps appropriate to mention that India became an independent nation in 1947. The 1949 “constitution guarantees the right of all its citizens to justice, liberty, equality, and dignity” (Murthy 1999). India has since been working assiduously to bridge the country’s bitter political divides. Although prejudice still exists in the villages, currently, India’s outcast hold high paying jobs, and in the cities they can marry from other groups. The question is, can Nigeria’s democracy free the Osu in Igboland as democracy has improved the life of the lower caste in India? This is an ultimate challenge for the Nigerian democracy.
In Guyana, a color-caste system has produced a racially divided labor market. The Africans (blacks) are said to dominate the civil service, the professional positions, and industry; and Indians are known to control agriculture and small businesses (Premdas, Autumn/Winter 1995). In the Indian Andes in South America, linguistic and cultural characteristics provide the basis for discrimination; the Indio, like virtually everyone else in the region, is of mixed ancestry. But the Indio is distinguished from others and ‘kept in his place’ by his mode of dressing, his habits, etc.
In Yugoslavia, the 1999 conflict between the Kosovars (the Moslem ethnic Albanians) and the Serbian military and para-military forces had ethnic and religious coloration. The Kosovars demanded political autonomy from Yugoslavia, but President Slobodan Molisevic (with his military might) was determined to crush the people and their demand. However, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did not allow the ethnic cleansing to go unpunished. The Serbs were bombed to submission. But Slobodan Molisevic did not go down, until the people’s October 2000 revolution forced him out of office. Mr. Slobadan Milosevic who has since been arrested and indicted on war crimes charges, will be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague (CNN: World, June 29, 2001).
The massacre of the Chechens by Russia is another reminder of the prevalence of prejudice and discrimination all over the globe. It is beyond human comprehension why the world has turned a deaf ear to this unjust extermination of a group by Russia. This is not an exhaustive list of nations in the world where discrimination and prejudice has caused untold misery. The list of injustice around the globe can go on forever.
The Social Implications of the Osu caste system
The Osu caste system has many social implications. For the purpose of this work, we have classified them as human, civil and political implications. Beginning with human implications, the discussion follows below:
1). Human Rights Implications
One of the essential premises of this paper is campaign for justice and freedom for every human being. In addition, the aim of this paper is to change the mentality of those who support the Osu caste system in Igboland. Many of the Osu groups in Igboland have not seen true justice because of their social status. A priori, this has created debilitating psychic pain in the group. Due to paucity of statistics in Nigeria there is no data to ascertain the level of damage this system has caused on the population. It would be appropriate for some research to be carried out in this area.
The story of the human race, from age to age, is full of the struggle to enjoy certain fundamental rights. These rights include freedom from inhuman treatment; freedom from slavery; freedom from discrimination, freedom of thought, assembly and association and other rights that are “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” (Azikiwe 1965, p.455). Thus, any culture or tradition that abridges people’s freedom of association violates their human and civil rights. The discriminatory Osu caste system in Igboland is an example of such tradition and culture that bridges the people’s rights to free association. This is an insult to the human race. And it is disheartening, to say the least.
Since human rights constitute the very foundations of democracy, how can democracy thrive in Igboland (and in Nigeria in general) with the discriminatory Osu caste system in the society? Everyone should have the freedom to pursue happiness, as liberty is a basic human right. Obviously, nobody can pursue happiness without being free. Those people branded Osu should have as much equal rights to liberty, life, and freedom as the Diala. These rights are what drive social struggles throughout the history of mankind.
When a group is enslaved, there is no freedom for them. And where there is no freedom, there is obviously no democracy for the Osu group. Sadly, in Nigeria the concept of democracy the public knows is political – sharing of resources among individual states, looting of the treasury by the….
REPUBLICREPORT….standing between civilization and anarchy…..