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Culture and tradition: History of the Osu caste system in Igboland

Emeh Joy
By Emeh Joy

Basic Medical Scientist, Freelance Health Writer, Lifestyle Blogger and Business Enthusiast

The Osu caste system is an ancient practice among the Igbo tribe in eastern Nigeria, an outdated tradition that discriminates the Osu (deity slaves) from the Nwadiala (free-borns). This article explores the untold story and history of the Osu caste system.

Image showing three black people depicting outcasts as practised in the Osu Caste Sytem, an ancient tradition in Igboland

This article uses a story to give a clearer picture of the Osu caste system in Igbo land and further highlights other downsides of the practice and why the ancient tradition should be abolished.

The untold story of the Osu caste system

Caleb and Judith both live in Westminster, the Western part of London. Most of Caleb's life had been in London; his parents had migrated from Nigeria, a country located in West Africa, when he was eight years old. The remaining 21 years of his life had been in the White man's land.

Judith, on the other hand, had only spent two years of her life in London. She came to run a part-time Master's programme in Biomedical Sciences (Cancer Biology) at the famous University of Westminster.

Judith's family couldn't have afforded to send her outside the country to study. However, after graduating at the top of her class during her B.Sc programme, her school gave her a scholarship to further her studies abroad.

As love or fate would have it, she met and fell in love with Caleb after her first year in London. Judith and Caleb were both from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, a tribe known for their resilience, wisdom and business acumen.

Caleb had dated two girls before her. He had always wanted to marry at 28 and thought he would end up with Diane, the South African girl he was dating before Judith, only for him to realise one day that he couldn't cohabit with Diane. Their lifestyle didn't match; they were just not compatible.

Some months after he broke up with Diane, he met Judith. Diane had already moved on with her life at that point; she had started dating a Norwegian.

Caleb's story with Judith was that of love at first sight. However, he didn't want to rush things to avoid making a similar mistake he made with his ex.

He needed to be sure Judith would fit into the picture. He started with keeping things at a friendship level. He saw everything he wanted in a spouse and more.

Nothing was hidden between the two lovebirds. He even invited Judith home to meet his parents, and she was welcomed and loved by all. A year later, Caleb decided to take it some steps higher.

He proposed marriage to Judith. At 29, he had a thriving career as a lawyer and was living fine. He saw nothing else stopping him from tying the knot with the woman he loved.

Despite having lived outside the country for a long time, his family was not about to throw away their peoples' culture and tradition.

How it works amongst the Igbo people is that when a man wants to marry their daughter, he has to come and see her people, pay homage to them, and pay her dowry (also called bride price).

Typically, before the traditional marriage (payment of bride price), both families involved in the union make enquiries about each other (called iju ese).

The aim of making the enquiry is to find out things like the religion of the family; if the family are known for a good character; if there is a medical condition that runs in the family etc.

It was at this stage that the problem started. While making inquiries about Judith's family, Caleb's parents found out that Judith is an "Osu". Therefore, they told Caleb that he can not marry her.

Caleb was confused; he never imagined that what he thought was a trivial matter like traditional issues would ever stop him from marrying the woman of his dream. At first, Caleb thought with time his family would come around and let him have his way.

However, he realised how serious the matter was when his two parents vehemently refused to have Judith as their daughter-in-law. He had to put a hold on his marriage plans.

Of course, Judith was heartbroken. Her ex also left her because she is an Osu. Her history seemed to haunt her as almost everybody wanted nothing to do with her or her people.

She knew many people outside the Igbo tribe knew little or nothing about the Osu caste system, which ate deep into the Igbo tradition.

It is an untold story that has harmed many, ripping them off their fundamental human rights. She swore to lead movements aimed at liberating people tagged "Osu" outcasts by Igbo communities.

Caleb and Judith's story is similar to Obi Okonkwo and Clara's in Chinua Achebe's "No Longer At Ease". Despite acquiring western education, Okonkwo could not marry Clara, the girl he loves simply because she was an Osu.

This shows that the practice has caused much pain and division among the Igbo people. It has also caused hostilities among communities.

Origin of the Osu caste system in Igboland

You might ask, "What is the Osu Caste system?"

The Osu caste system in Igboland is an ancient practice that is firmly against any social interaction and marriage between the "Nwadiala" (free-born) and Osu (outcast).

The Osu Caste system is a tradition prevalent in Imo state, Anambra state and some parts of Enugu, Abia and Ebonyi state. The history of the Osu caste system can be traced back to the days when traditional religion was more prevalent among the Igbos before Christianity took over.

Back then, there were two classes of people in Igboland- the Nwadiala and the Osu. Nwadiala means son of the son of the soil, while Osu was used to refer to the slaves, outcasts or strangers. The Nwadiala were the masters, while the Osu were the slaves and were treated as inferior humans.

In the olden days, Osu were people enslaved or dedicated to the deities of a community. Igbo people back then worshipped a deity called "Ala", which gives the people's rules.

People who offend the gods of the land or deity were usually cast away to avoid incurring the deity's wrath and avoid spreading the 'abomination' among other people of the land. Those outcasts were then identified as Osu.

The outcasts were either sold to slavery or delivered to the gods, and they became slaves to the gods. They live separately from the free-borns, usually close to the shrines or market places.

Surprisingly, this obnoxious practice has refused to go away over the years despite the impact of Christianity, civilisation, and modern education.

The Osu caste system practice is so strong that even after the death of the people dedicated to the deities, their descendants still live with the stigma; they are still tainted with the 'Osu tag' and are ostracised from the rest of the community.

How the Igbo people viewed Osu descendants

The freeborns see the Osus as inferior and treat them as such

It is said that the Osus are extraordinarily beautiful, yet the 'freeborn' Igbos, particularly the traditionists, viewed them as unclean. Tracing the history of the Osu caste system shows that they have always been treated as inferior to the 'diala' people. They were seen as people without class.

Even till recently, some of the Christians among the Igbos also dissociate from the Osus, especially as regards marriage. Many arguments have been raised even among the Christian Igbos whether it is okay to marry an Osu or not.

Some of the Igbo Christians oppose the idea of marrying an Osu because their ancestors were dedicated to the gods. Apparently, they nurse the fear of marrying someone tagged a property of the gods.

With Christianity taking over things, not many will welcome the idea of having anything to do with deities. Even if the Osu descendant has verbally denounced the god their ancestors were dedicated to, there is the common belief that the deity will continue manifesting in one way or the other among the descendants.

The stigma that comes with being an Osu

People known as Osu suffer huge stigma in the Igbo community. Chinua Achebe, a renowned author, in a bid to explain what an Osu means said,

"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 system is the worst form of slavery because, unlike slaves who can regain their freedom, the Osus are bound to this social status throughout their lifetime. They are subjected to various forms of discrimination and abuse by fellow men.

An Osu is made to live separately from the freeborn. The Osu are not allowed to drink, dance, associate, hold hands or even have sex with Nwadiala.

The Osu are denied access to social clubs, they are not allowed to hold chieftaincy titles or political positions. They are also denied assets like land.

The Osu are not allowed to break kola nuts in gatherings or meetings. They cannot pray to gods or pour libation during gatherings with freeborn. It is believed that such prayers made by an Osu on behalf of the Nwadiala will bring misfortune and calamity.

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The social effects of the Osu caste system

The Osu caste system is a practice that encourages social discrimination of all sorts. Imagine not being able to associate freely with other people because of something your ancestors did, which you know nothing about.

The Osu system has made it extremely difficult for the Osus to get married to who they love except fellow Osus or people from other tribes who know little or nothing about the ancient practice.

This system of ostracising certain groups of people has a high tendency to cause them mental and emotional trauma. There have been instances of young men and women suffering heartbreaks because of this discriminatory cultural act.

The discrimination can make this group of people shy away from social gatherings and ruin interpersonal relationships. The Osu caste system creates a flawed society in which some people are not allowed to participate in communal activities.

However, the fact that their community pushed them away made them find solace in other things and other places that are okay with having them around. For instance, Osus embraced formal education and Christianity faster than the locals, who were still suspicious of the white missionaries.

The consequences of marrying an Osu

Could there be consequences for marrying an Osu?

The Osu caste system is hinged on supernaturalism, religion and theism. The Igbos are very religious and theistic; thus, they still believe that there will be serious consequences for associating with people who are allegedly unclean, untouchable and dedicated to the gods.

Different parts of the Igboland hold different beliefs regarding a Nwadiala marrying an Osu. One generally belief is that if a Nwadiala marries an Osu, the Osu will taint the Nwadiala's lineage, and the lineage will also inherit the status of Osu.

There is a custom that says if an Osu cuts your hair, you and every member of your family becomes an Osu. If you marry an Osu, you and every member of your family automatically become an Osu.

Another popular belief is that if a free-born marries an Osu, the union will bring calamity upon him and his household. These are reasons why families fight hard so that their sons or daughters do not marry an Osu because it is perceived that that one act will affect every family member.

Different stories have been told amongst the Igbos about people and their families dying because they threw caution to the wind and went ahead to marry an Osu. We can not tell for sure whether those stories were true or false.

How the Osu caste system was abolished

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 towards 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. However, it is unfortunate that more than 5 decades after this law was passed, nobody has been convicted for breaking it, yet there have been defaulters.

Also, 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.

At best, the legislation has been able to drive the dehumanizing practice underground. Some places still practise the act, but it is more on a low level and more pronounced in marriages.

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 Osus is irrational, illegal, unjust and opposed to human rights", he said.

Other 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.

The role of Christianity in abolishing the Osu caste system

Christianity and western education played some roles in stopping the Osu practice

The Osu caste system is not a practice that can just be "wished away". However, different movements have been set up to stop this depressing practice. So far, it makes sense to say that the Osu practice is gradually dwindling among the Igbos.

Christianity and western education played important roles in its abolishment. The Bible, which the church of Christ is built on, stands that everybody is a new creature in Christ and that there is no discrimination between the jews and the gentiles.

Seeing that everybody is one in Christ, the church has been fighting to see that nobody is seen as inferior to the other.

Also, western education, which came with the church, backed it up that everybody has a fundamental human right, including the right to liberty and expression and freedom from slavery and torture.

Church leaders have worked hand-in-hand with community leaders such as the Igwe or Eze to see that the Osu caste system is abolished.

Churches also preach using Acts Chapter 10 verse 15, where Jesus said, "What I have made clean, nobody should call unclean." as one of the reference points.

There are cases where the church carries out deliverance prayers for an Osu. The prayers are to deliver the people whose ancestors were said to have been offered to the gods.

The idea is that if a descendant denounces the forces that controlled their forefathers, the forces will no longer manifest or have control over their (the Osus) lives.

What to do to totally abolish the Osu caste system among Igbos

The Osu system seems to be a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the Igbo society. Many Igbos avoid this topic like the plague, but until they are ready to face it, discuss it, and fight it tooth and nail, it will not be fully eradicated.

Igbos need to realise that it is wrong to treat another person as unclean because of some things done by their ancestors. The Osu caste system is as bad as slavery. Most Igbos already profess Christianity and should be ready to renounce and abandon the old practices that are inhuman.

Political authorities in the southeast states should work hand in hand with the communities to amend any constitution that bars Osu from contesting for elections or getting traditional titles.

The church, religious leaders, academic institutions in their various jurisdictions should also see that human rights are defended and protected.

Igbos should envision a new society where everybody can live together, interact, marry whoever they want to marry, elect and be elected without discrimination of any sort.

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