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The Osu caste system: The shame of a Nation

By Ugoji Egbujo
Live and let live. Let the kite perch and let the Eagle perch. Blood is thick. Be your brother’s keeper. Never abandon a brother. Igbo maxims. So why does the Osu caste system still exist in many Igbo communities?

Discrimination hurts , bruises, crushes. And it must hurt even more deeply when it is inflicted by kith and kin . Fate can be arbitrary and capricious, but we can always bear with fate. Some are black and some are born white and many whites think there is something else to blackness. Nature leaves some poor and lets some have abundant wealth. Many will live their lives in painstaking service of the whims of others to whom fortune came accidentally.

Amongst kings are many idiots . It is however one thing to be disadvantaged by fate , it’s another to be consigned to sub-humanity by human prejudice. Conceit and bigotry and hate sometimes coalesce to produce minds who arrogate to themselves superiority and allocate to others not just inferiority but sub-humanity. And contrary to reason and evidence , the racist just like the bigoted Diala finds pleasure in insisting that Jews or blacks or the ‘Osu’ are corrupted beings.

On any moral scale neither Botha , nor Hitler nor Klu Klux Klan conjured the hatred and discrimination being meted to the Osu. This discrimination happens within and amongst people of same ancestry, color, language and culture. The conceited Diala habours more contempt for the Osu than the usurping white Australian has for the Aborigenes.

Its inconceivable that within the very midst of a seemingly tightly knit group of people , who endured a genocidal massacre in defence of their freedom, who claim good absorption of civilization and Christianity, is an inhuman caste system . A system that has shackled and dehumanized its victims for many ages. The Osu fought alongside the Diala in the Biafran army. Unfree people fighting for the freedom of their oppressors.

So despite all the pretensions of being one, there are Igbos who arrogate to themselves superiority and freedom and who refer to themselves as freeborn or Diala. And there are fellow Igbos whom they refer to as living sacrifices or slaves of the gods or Ume or Ohu Arusi or Osu. And even though the nomenclature ‘Diala’ has so much to do with African traditional religion and is in a sense ‘heathenish‘, many practicing Christians would happily accept ‘Diala’ to distance themselves from the Osu category . Christianity and democracy, properly practiced, cannot accommodate the existence of an Osu.

Historically , the Osu was a monk devoted to the service and worship of the local deity. And before the coming of the colonialists and the now prevalent Christianity, an Osu was respected, was perhaps considered holy. Then the Osu lived around the shrine and voluntarily consecrated himself to the gods . Communities appreciated the deities and their exploits in battles by donating some conquered slaves to the service of the gods.

Though most slaves then were for transatlantic trade . The Osu, traditionally , didn’t mingle much with others in the society because of their aura of consecration, the Diala didn’t want to risk offending the gods by unrestrained interaction with gods’ devotees. The Osu therefore married from amongst themselves. With the abolition of slavery and the exit of the European slave trader, the Osu population swelled further and they lost their prestige and became an ostracized rather than a consecrated group . Anyone who married an Osu became an Osu as did his offsprings.

Before long the ostracized became ‘inferior beings’ and were demonised. An uncle once told me that Osu embodied evil and that they were vectors of misfortune . Whites said so many things about being black including that blacks were noisy , criminally minded , unintelligent brutes structured for manual labour. And because these stereotypes are borne out of superstitions and bigotry and hatred, they persist amongst the ignorant even against clear contradicting evidence.

Christianity came with promises for the Osu. The Osu saw Christianity and western education set twins free and hoped. However, structured social disadvantages and impaired social acceptance have continued to hinder the social advancement of the Osu communities and inevitably weaken the cohesion amongst Igbos. Neither wealth nor education nor power saves the Osu from outrageous contempt . Despite the fact that the life of the Igbo man is now woven around the Roman Catholic and Anglican and Pentecostal doctrines, the Osu continues to suffer intolerable inhumanity.

And you can attend church every day of the year in an affected Igbo village and hear sermons against all known human evils including racism but non against the Osu caste system. The Osu is in the church but the church pays lip service to his plight. And while privately no one can articulate reasons for retention of the caste system, no one is courageous enough to speak openly against it and take actions to end the sufferings of their brothers. Those who find the courage to condemn it privately lack the guts to permit their children to marry the Osu.

But what beliefs and myths have managed to sustain such a tragedy in the modern day Igbo existence? And why have they remained impenetrable to the light of reason? Many Igbos go to church , claim Christianity but observe African traditional religion rituals. Many are avowed Christians but when the push becomes a shove , they approach the shrines for answers. For these , the gods , just like Ceaser, must get their due and so the Osu is ‘untouchable’.

“Its not about Christianity” they always say. Some Igbos who aren’t even religious support the retention of the caste system on the ostensible premise that it was ordained by their ancestors. Their ancestors, they presume, were wise, infallible and beyond reproach. The same ancestors didn’t understand albinism and labeled albinos demons.

The foundations and origins of the obnoxious system can be understood but the superstitions and myths that support its continued existence are flimsy. If the Osu was offered to the gods as sacrifice wouldn’t it take a leap of stupidity to insist that their offsprings who weren’t party to the exchange and who in any case are not priests of some of the now extinct deities are also living sacrifices who must remain ostracized in an age when no one can be a slave either to man or to any god? Hasn’t slavery been abolished? And when Christian parents deny discrimination against the Osu but send search parties to seek out the ancestry of their children’s brides or suitors before they give their approval, you wonder how worse hypocrisy can get . And many times you will hear, “she is very beautiful and well mannered. But she is corrupted”. That’s the euphemism

A Christian who discriminates against the Osu, besides being a criminal , is guilty of idolatry. For that inhuman categorization is premised on the existence and placation of a god which Christianity views as man made ineffectual idol. I am not disrespectful of African traditional religion . The Christian picture of the atrocity must be painted for the Christian. And it helps that majority of Igbos claim Christianity . And I am not disrespectful of our culture , our culture and our morality have long shifted.

Morality can be relative and the morality of a cultural practice is relative to time and place. The Osu caste system may not have been barbaric a century ago but is manifestly and despicably so now.

The deities in my village once considered the existence of twins a taboo and the people believed. And thousands of twins were slaughtered at birth in the service of the wishes of the gods. And mothers who clung to their twins were banished to the evil forest so that the land was spared the wrath of the gods. And my people were by no means barbaric, they were cultured people.

The English were cultured when they hung scientists and burnt them. And it was the same gods that barred the existence of twins in Igbo land that perhaps instituted and allowed the discriminatory practice against the Osu. If these Christians and other ardent followers of African traditional religion are afraid of defying the gods let them remember how even the gods saw reason with the colonialists and allowed the celebration of twins.

There is some wisdom in the saying that what one cannot learn by formal education he learns by travelling, exposure. The Igbo is the most dispersed group in Africa and is therefore a group particularly well acquainted with the horrors of racism. The Igbo man suffers unbearable discrimination for being Igbo and for being black. You would think anyone so badly and chronically victimized would champion equality. Ironically many Igbos who reject marriage with the Osu are the well travelled, well educated, roundly humiliated victims of virulent racism.

But the Osu caste system is worse than racism . Racism prepares you, gives you advance warning . So the black girl is socialized to understand her racial handicaps, the hatred of blacks by some whites . Many Osu are only aware of that identity only after a brutal dehumanizing rejection. How many more youthful hearts will be shredded by bigotry?

Humiliation and discrimination breed frustration and ultimately violence. Mere mention of the word Osu has precipitated communal feuds with whole communities wiped out .

Some communities have abolished that caste system but a pan Igbo abolition will be the only real solution. Let all the governors and political office holders and all traditional rulers in Igbo land meet and abolish the Osu caste system. And let the osu be appointed to traditional stools and cabinets. And let them take part in all rites. Let a cultural compliance committee see to the permeation and enforcement of the policy. Let the church rise to the occasion. Let offenders be named and shamed. Let the laws that already exist against discrimination be robustly enforced


I am not an Osu but no one is an Osu.


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