Osu Caste discrimination in Igboland
By Leo Igwe
THE Osu Caste System is a harmful cultural practice that prevails in Igboland. No one knows exactly when and where in Igboland the Osu custom started. But it is well known that the practice has been going on for centuries. The Osu custom is rooted in ancient social division and stratification of the Igbo Society into two distinct classes - the Diala and the Osu. The Diala are described as the freeborn. They are also called the "sons of the soil" while the Osu are described as strangers and slaves.
The Osu are called by several names - ume, omoni, ohu, okpu aja, ndi ak'akpa and other derogatory names that have defined their sub-human status over the years. The Osu are perceived and treated as inferior and second-class human beings. The Osu tradition is sustained by various legends, myths and misconceptions about society and social organization. One of them is that the Osu are dedicated to the gods and spirits.
The act of dedicating the Osu people to the local gods sets them apart from other members of the community. In his book Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe describes the Osu as 'a person dedicated to a god - a taboo forever, and his children after him'. According to Achebe, the Osu is '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 and dirty hair, A razor was a taboo to him'.
Again the Osu are said to be slaves captured or acquired during inter tribal wars and slave raids in the olden days. So the Osu designation was used to distinguish slave families from the noble, freeborn members of the society.
Generally, the Osu are believed to be socially unclean and capable of defiling the 'socially clean', freeborn and noble members of the society. The Osu are regarded as untouchables and as outcasts. And it is a taboo for an Osu to interact or marry a freeborn. And any freeborn that marries an Osu is believed to have defiled the family blood. The belief is that a freeborn that marries an Osu would suffer bad luck, misfortune, premature death, etc. Achebe puts it more graphically this way, "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".
Over the centuries, Osu people have been subjected and made to suffer various forms of discrimination, social injustice, inequity, degrading treatment, oppression and human rights abuses. Osu people are forced to live in situations of segregation, isolation, alienation, exclusion and servitude.
An Osu is not allowed to lead in a community where there are freeborns. He cannot hold the title of Nze or Ozo or any traditional leadership position. Other forms of maltreatment and injustice meted out against the Osu people abound in communities across Igboland.
The Osu tradition is evil, shameful, immoral and inhuman. The Osu custom is an indictment on the claim by every Igbo person to common humanity, good conscience, equity, justice and universal brotherhood. The taboos, myths and misconceptions underlying the Osu tradition have no basis in reason, science, common sense, and human rights.
All the harmful consequences associated with the idea of a freeborn marrying an Osu or an Osu being crowned a king or given a traditional title are false, fictitious and superstitious nonsense. All human beings are equal in dignity and value. Article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are equal in dignity and right and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood.
It is sad and unfortunate that such a dehumanizing tradition is still in force in Igboland in this 21st Century. So the time has come for all Igbos to renounce and abandon this vicious and primitive custom. The time has come for Ndi Igbo to end all forms of discrimination on the basis of caste, descent, social or birth status so the Igbo society could grow, develop and progress. And I am using this opportunity to appeal to the government of the Federation and of the states in South East Nigeria to join hands in the eradication of Osu discrimination in Igboland. Let us all work together to make Osu tradition history. Osu Caste System must stop.