True Life Stories: The Osu Caste System in Igboland

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True Life Stories: The Osu Caste System in Igboland

The Out caste system (Osu), is an obnoxious practice among the Igbo’s in Nigeria which has refused to go away despite the impact of Christianity, modern education and civilization, and human right culture.
Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igboland; the Nwadiala (Nwaafor) and the Osu.
The Nwadiala literally meaning ‘sons of the soil’ are freeborn. They are masters while the Osu are the people are the people dedicated to the gods; so they are regarded a slaves, the strangers, the outcasts and the untouchables.
The Osu are treated as inferior human beings in a state of permanent and irreversible disability. They are subjected to various forms of discrimination. The Osu are made to live separately from the freeborn. In most cases, they reside very close to shrines and marketplaces. The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations with the Nwadiala’s. They are not allowed to break kolanuts at meetings. No Osu can pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering. It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune.
A human rights group outlined the atrocities meted out against the Osu in Igboland. They include: “Parent administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, organized attacks, heaping harvest offerings separately in churches, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property and expulsion of wives, etc.” The Osu caste discrimination is very pronounced in marriage.
An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. So, freeborn families are always up in arms against any of their members who wants to marry an Osu. They go to any length to scuttle the plan. Because of the Osu factor, marriages in Igboland are preceded by investigations. (Elders on both sides travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party). If it is found out that one of them is an Osu, the plan would be automatically abandoned. Many marriage plans have been aborted, and in fact, some married couples have been forced to divorce because of the Osu factor.
There have been several efforts and initiatives to eradicate this harmful tradition. In 1956, the government of the then Eastern Nigeria passed a law abolishing the Osu caste system. The law freed and discharged anybody called Osu including the children born to such a person. It declared the practice unlawful and a crime punishable law but unfortunately, 50 years after the enactment of this legislation, nobody has been prosecuted or convinced for breaking the law. At best, what the legislation has achieved is to drive the practice underground.
Many religious and traditional leaders have spoken out against the practice. Recently, Eze Enyeribe Onuoha, the traditional ruler of Umuchieze autonomous community in Imo State urged his community members to abandon the practice. Statements like this often fall on deaf ears among the Igbo people as most of them think that cultural norms are sacrosanct and should not be tampered with. So, the belief in and practice of Osu caste system continue to wax strong in Igboland. In 1997, a person alleged to be an Osu was made a Chief in a community in Imo State, but six months later, the community was engulfed in a crisis. When the case was brought to Court, the presiding judge noted that though the abolition of the Osu caste system was in statue, it was an unenforceable law. The Chief was dethroned for peace to reign in the community.
The Osu caste system in Igboland has changed the meaning of life for the group of people branded Osu.
The maltreatment meted out to the Osu has forced many of them to migrate to other countries, many projects and marriages abandoned and pregnancies terminated. So many crimes and against humanity have been committed against individuals and groups in Igboland in the name of ‘Osu’.
The practice of Osu caste system is hinged on religion, supernaturalism and theism. Since the Osu are regarded as unclean or untouchable because they are (alleged to be) dedicated to the gods, it is the dedication to the gods that makes the Osu status a condition of permanent and irreversible disability and stigma.
Though many have condemned the system which has traumatized many innocent people, the problem still persists. However, one fact is that the Osu system of discrimination is an outdated tradition with no basis for its continued practice and observance in the Igbo society.

Source:  Leo Igwe. ( Vanguard), Ourpage9ja

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