The Church and the fight against Osu Caste System in Eastern Nigeria

It is true that values have changed with the advent of the Age of Technology, and that today, there are different value systems from what they used to be some years back. For instance, the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria now have four classes of people in their society. These are 'the upper class”, comprising of those who are super-rich, who have several houses across the globe and have private jets etc. Then there is the “upper middle class”, comprising of those who have one or two houses in the city, a few cars, who can afford to travel overseas at least once or twice a year, who can afford to train their children in foreign universities etc. There is the “lower middle class” comprising of those who rent their houses in the city, who can afford to send their children to local universities and own at least a car in the family etc. Then, there is “the lower class”, comprising of those who find it difficult to pay their rents, who cannot afford to live in the cities because of what the perceive as high cost, who cannot afford to send their children to university, who cannot afford three square meals a day.

But it wasn't always like that.

Centuries ago, the Igbo traditionally had only two classes of people in their social setting: the Diala who were the freeborn and the Osu who were the slaves. The Diala were the sons of the soil. They were masters in the land. The Osu were those who were dedicated to the gods of the land. They were regarded as slaves, strangers, outcasts and untouchables.

The caste system resulted from the indigenous religion's discriminatory belief-system which was, and in many cases is still, practised in parts of Africa. The system is still prevalent in countries like Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia and The Gambia, and still adheres to the principles of segregation and oppression. According to Professor Dike, the system is a societal institution borne out of primitive traditional belief- system, coloured by superstition and propagated by ignorance. And about its practice, Achebe says: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, he and his children and children's children forever.”

Among the Igbo, the Osu caste system can be traced to a predominantly local religious belief-system which was practised by the people in ancient times. The Osu were generally known as people who had been sacrificed to the gods of Igboland, descendants of people who were sacrificed to the gods hundreds of years ago. Such people and their families were shunned in the society, banished from communal land, banned from active participation in village life and refused the right to marry anyone who was from the family of a freeborn. They were banned from participating in any form of social activity. They had no land of their own. They lived in the shrine of the gods, or within market squares, and were forced to farm the land close to the road. The general belief was that they had been dedicated to the gods and that they belonged to the gods and not to the world of human beings. They were defined as a cult slave of the deities. They assisted the high priest of the traditional religion to serve the deities or the gods in their shrines.

It was generally believed among the Igbo that a Diala who socialized with an Osu would become contaminated or polluted. The Osu were therefore left on their own, to socialize only among themselves.

To appreciate how deeply this system was embedded into their social norms, and how much influence it had on the Igbo, it is only fair to articulate some of the discriminatory practices that attended the lot of those who were unfortunate to find themselves in this odious class.

Even as we speak, many Igbo villages today still have separate areas carved out in their communities where only the Osu live, interact and procreate among themselves. They are made to live separately from the free-born. They reside very close to the shrine and market square. An Osu is forbidden from dancing, associating openly or having sexual relationship with the son or daughter of a Diala. The Osu are not allowed to break cola nut at gatherings. They are not allowed to pour libation. They are forbidden from saying prayers on behalf of the freeborn at community meetings. It was believed that if they did, such prayers would only bring misfortune to the village or town.

The level of discrimination meted out against the Osu can indeed be better appreciated if only one understands what kola nut means to the Igbo. As kola nut is often at the centre of Igbo culture and theology, the Osu were never allowed to present or be presented with kola nut. To deny a man of the right to break kola nut was tantamount to denying him the rights that made him a man. So, it was an anomaly for a person to give kola nut to an Osu either privately or in the presence of a visitor or even to show the kola nut to an Osu. An Osu was forbidden from giving kola nut to a Diala who visits him. By the same token, a Diala was forbidden to present kola nut to an Osu who visits him. An Osu was, in fact, never welcome in the house of the Diala. In many social gatherings, by the time kolanuts were broken and eaten, an Osu was left in no doubt that he was a stranger in the gathering, only being tolerated.

An Osu never had a right to belong to the same age group or cultural dancing group with the Freeborn. In some villages where its practice was severe, they were forbidden from attending the same market with the Diala. And, no matter the circumstances, a Diala was never expected to run for safety into the compound of an Osu, even if he he was being threatened with death. The Diala would prefer to die “honourably” on the road than run into the compound of an Osu for shelter, and thereby get himself "contaminated" and consequently contaminate his generations yet unborn with their stigma.

The level of discrimination was as serious as that.

However, in recent times among the Igbo, there has been a great movement to reclaim some of these citizens who had for so long been regarded as outcasts and untouchables. In the forefront of the war against social discrimination among the Igbo are the churches. For a while now, churches in Igboland have become very vocal and much opposed to the continued practice of the Osu caste system. Most times they take their reference from how Jesus described Christians as “neither Jews nor Gentiles.”

Actually, the seriousness of the Osu tradition began to give way some 30 years ago when Nigerian cities began to attract more people from the villages. The growth of cities obviously contributed to a reasonable extent in breaking down such traditions. In big cities like Lagos and Abuja residents did not care so much about asking such traditional questions as whether one was an Osu or a Diala before they related to each other. The only time they were confronted with such traditions was if they wanted to get married. Then they would go to each other's village to find out if the proposed spouse was an Osu or an Freeborn. If any one of them is, their relations would vehemently object to such a union, telling their own: “you can't marry an Osu. It is forbidden for you to marry an Osu.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the stigma attached to the Osu caste system, however, some Igbo have taken advantage of the situation to improve on their personal profiles. Unable to make headway in their villages, some of the Osu people had to embrace Western education. They became the first doctors and lawyers in their villages. As a result, some of the well established and prominent families among the Igbo are Osu. But even though they too are traditionally treated as being “apart,” the Osu have never been victims of violence in most Igbo communities.

The Church continues to fight for their liberation. The tradition continues to linger.

Igbo people are not sure how devastatingly the "old power" can still grip them if they violated the tradition of their ancestors. They are not sure what can happen if the ancient tradition of their forefathers were suddenly swept under the carpet in consonance with emerging values of the 21st century. In fact, stories have been told about those who tried to violate the tradition and how life became a horror for them afterwards. Whether these stories are true, or whether they are meant to scare people from getting married to the Osu is yet to be proved. But there are a few people I know who have defied some of these traditions and married across border, yet they have not experienced any unusual problems except some of those peculiar marital problems that are usual between husbands and wives or within families.

The movement to liberate the Osu is heating up within churches in Igboland! But can the Church win this battle?

Only time will tell.
Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and columnist

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Articles by Emeka Asinugo