I had just left my village in Ohaji after primary education to begin secondary education at a college in a town near Owerri, the Imo State capital, when I first came in contact with the Osu caste system in Igboland. The practice was unknown in my village, and perhaps other Igbo communities too. And because I was in my early teenage years, my parents saw to it I stayed with a very compassionate family that took me as their child, and nurtured me.
As a new kid in the town and the school, it was inevitable I felt cosy with the people I saw regularly around me. It happened that two of such, a lady and her brother, were members of the same church we also attended those days. And they were a class or two ahead of me in the same school. In those days when being a junior student in a college was like an eternal condemnation, it mattered, and helped hugely, having someone you knew as a senior. The boy, though my senior, became my friend, protecting me from punishment from much older and senior students in the school.
But I was quick to discover that fellow students who hailed from the town, and so knew the “background” of my friend’s family well usually looked at me in a way that left me uncomfortable. Sadly, none dared tell me the reason behind their coldness each time they saw us together, usually during the break period. It was only the family I lived with, apparently because they were of the same church, that was warm to them. It was much later I knew the boy’s family was said to be of the Osu caste system, an obnoxious centuries-old practice in Igboland, akin to the India system, that stratifies people on the basis of their circumstances of birth. It is an ancient practice that discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of persons called Osu, believed to be dedicated to deities, called Arusi. And traditional Igbo society had a surfeit of deities and those who worshipped them, called Eze Muo, were highly revered. Research shows that the Osu caste is traceable to the traditional gods where one was forced or dedicated to deities to become the sole property of that deity. Incidentally, it happened that it was prisoners of war, slaves, kidnapped people or dogs and goats that were dedicated to the gods to appease them or seek their favour for the community. And the victims were mainly from the less privileged lot or the poor in the society as no child or relative of the wealthy was sold into slavery or offered to appease the gods, whom, it seemed, dared not touch the influential and affluent.
It turned out too that my friend was brilliant and smart while his two sisters were dashing beauties to behold. But all these never mattered, and still don’t. Because their forebears were “Osu”, they inherited the status willy-nily. It never mattered too that my friend’s family members had long surrendered to Christ and embraced Christianity, a faith that berthed in Igboland some 160 years ago, and whose adherents piously mouth the scriptural injunction in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things are passed away, …all things now become new.” The town nay the people avoided them. They were and are still derided. Thankfully, the derision of fellow students never affected our friendship until I moved out of the town and school some years later.
The discrimination embedded in the stigmatising Osu caste system is mostly pervasive and extends, unfortunately, to wherever the Igbo travel to and settle for their enterprises. Early this year, in Lagos, a lovely young man close to me bemoaned his rejection by the family of a lady he planned to marry because he confided in the lady he was an “Osu.” Both come from the same state. To the lady’s credit, however, that reality was nothing to fret about, but deep inside her, it appeared she was unsure how her family would respond and did not want to go against their wish. Eventually, her mother vehemently opposed the relationship. Ironically, the woman belongs to one of the popular Pentecostal churches in Nigeria. Thankfully, the young man later married from another state, to a lady who accepted him for who the ancient Igbo society classified him, unjustly: An “Osu”!
However, if the report in The PUNCH on Wednesday, November 7, 2018, is anything to go by, this inhuman, discriminatory, repulsive and obnoxious practice will be a thing of the past, pretty soon. It belongs to the gory past of humanity. And happily so too. Strikingly, and significantly too, the long-awaited curtain is being drawn on the practice not by the government or the Church, but by major traditional rulers in Igboland who have set a December 28, 2018 “deadline” for the abolition and discontinuance of the system. According to the report, the Regent of the Ancient Nri Kingdom, a medieval polity believed to be the cradle of Igbo civilisation, Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, was quoted as saying it would be “spiritually suicidal” for anyone to continue with the obnoxious Osu practice after it had been abolished.
As the Regent decreed, “Come December 28, 2018, more stringent spiritual implications will be pronounced from Ikpo Eze-Nri against such devaluation of mankind, after an extensive spiritual abrogation. The last time in history anything close to this happened was 200 years ago. And mark my words, after these abolition and atonement, anybody who continues to uphold these practices will have themselves to blame.”
Interestingly, and disturbingly too, should things pan out as envisaged, it is, as noted earlier, the traditional institution, and not the government or the church in Igboland, that is in the forefront of justifiably eradicating the unjust lingering practice. And this speaks volumes. In 1956, a law was passed by the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly banning such an obnoxious and discriminatory system. Sixty two years after, the political elite in Igboland have been too weak and unwilling to enforce and implement the law. At best, they have been too indifferent to end the discriminatory practice, ostensibly because it helps confer political privileges to certain people while obstructing and limiting the political aspirations of others.
Besides, it is instructive that the politico-legal instruments of the state in the entire South-East, an area famed for being arguably the most enlightened, educated and widely travelled in Nigeria, have been, over the years, deployed to entrench and sustain needless discrimination against some people. How no state House of Assembly or governor in the region deemed it fit and proper to reactivate the 1956 law abolishing the system in the area to end the practice beggars belief. To them, perhaps, democracy does not extend to ending every form of discrimination. Yet, there is no discrimination in approaching them for votes during elections. Notably, what the law or the state could not achieve, the threat of a crushing curse by the Eze Nri is about to do!
That aside, the culpability of the Church in Igboland in the sustenance of the Osu caste deserves some sad mention. With the exception of some individual efforts by activist-clerics like some retired Anglican bishops under the aegis of Total Liberation Crusaders, the Church has been mainly silent and passive while a chunk of its adherents are helplessly discriminated against. Yet, Igboland, since the advent of Christianity over 160 years ago, is home to all manner of Christian denominations, church leaders, bishops and pastors whose posturing gives the impression they are God’s neighbours. Adherents who are said to be Osu can contribute money to build worship centres and execute noble activities of the church, but they are stigmatised and discriminated against by fellow believers. Hypocrisy has no better meaning.
It is on this note I commend the traditional rulers on this ennobling crusade to end social segregation in Igboland. There is no denying that the caste system has wreaked unquantifiable havoc on the socio-cultural, economic and political lives of the region and has no place in the 21st Century. The Church should bring its full ecclesiastical weight to bear on the matter too to make it a reality. You can’t preach salvation while condoning discrimination. It is also appropriate that rights groups and faith-based organisations in the region join the vanguard to bring to an end this inglorious perfidious practice. How can one be made to suffer for what one doesn’t know anything about, century upon century?
Methinks one sure way to get going should be for the traditional rulers in the forefront of this effort to marry from the so-called Osu families or encourage their children to do so. Let them walk the talk and see others join. Besides, the five state Houses of Assembly in Igboland should, without further delay, reactivate the 1956 law banning the Osu caste system.