The Osu-caste System: The unfortunate apartheid in Igboland
Among the obnoxious, outrageous and devastating traditions and beliefs in lgboland is the ‘Osu-casste system’ which has in different places both in the past and present becomes a key of disunity, humiliation, infringements and isolation in the places where they are practiced. Osu-caste system according to Okafor J.N, is an ideology of class domination that incorporates the beliefs that a particular class of people is to be disinherited and excluded from association, with others, either because they are themselves victims of ritual offering or they are descended from those who were victims. (Okafor, J.N., The Challenge of Osu Caste System to the Christians, Onitsha: VERITAS Painting & Publication Co.Ltd,1993,p.16). It can equally be viewed as people sacrificed to the gods in lgbo community. As such, different historical data underpin the origin of this obnoxious practice which is preponderant in the Eastern part of Nigeria; and we recall with nostalgia that in the past; the ardent supporters of the Osu Caste system would not buy whatever the osu merchants had for sale in the local markets and other similar discriminatory attitudes meted the so-called Osu. Moreover, during that period in review, some of them who were interested in politics were often denied the necessary support from the rest of the community of their residence. This is not only in relation politics but in almost all the strata of human development
Hence, this has greatly hindered the social development of such communities. Sadly, these characteristics of the Osu caste system are contrary to the modern world views.
Notably, there are misconceptions against the Osu; ranging from the fact that socializing with them would contaminate, pollute, and transform the ‘Diala’ into an ‘Osu’, that since the Osu has been dedicated to gods, it is a taboo to socialize with them. Yet, other stories have it that it is because they are ‘dirty’ or have ‘repulsive body odour’ and are ‘lazy’. These are all fallacious and inhuman presumptions calculated to poison the minds of people against others who are created in the image and likeness of God just like themselves. Laying credence on the above assertion and considering the circumstances and exigencies of our present time and society, one would conclude that it is baseless and unjustified; bearing in mind the industrious nature of ‘Osu’. Statistically, they are the most prosperous, be it in the economic, academic or industrial spheres and even in the known religious sectors of human endeavour. Axiomatically, it is a known fact that inequality, abuse of human and civil rights, absence of natural law, discrimination and absence of freedom are among the causes of conflicts in our society today.
Consequently, life in its natural state has the same meaning for everyone, but the Osu caste system seems to have changed the meaning of life for the group of people who are branded Osu. Presently, one could acquire the Osu caste status through inheritance and marriage. However, ostracism outside contagious diseases is very painful and this is what our brothers and sisters, men and women of prominence and high proficiency in their areas of enterprise suffer on the bases of an illogical principle. Thus, detrimentally affecting their communities of habitation, for their good endowments would no longer be a superlative benefit to the communities in question. Obviously, the Osu culture violates the civil and human rights of the people subjected to it Like the racial discrimination in the United States, the Osu caste system promotes an ideology of the supremacy of the ‘Diala’ over the ‘Osu’. On the other hand, racial discrimination occurs mostly between people of different skin colours or between people of different nationalities. It is unfathomable from the angle of ethnicity that such ideology still exists in the social history of our people. It is even outrageous how Christians react to this issue. A typical case was the response of Obi’s father when Obi wanted to marry Clara an Osu, in Chinua Achebe’s ‘No Longer at Ease’, “we are Christians, but it is no reason to marry an Osu”. (Achebe, C., No Longer at ease, London: Heinemann Education Books, 1974, p. 120).
Despite the efforts of our Leaders, both spiritual and temporal, particularly Archbishop Anthony J.V Obinna of the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri, who has been a tireless advocate of social reform vis-a-vis this abysmal tradition, many of our people are still adamant to the wind of change aimed at disentangling them from this baseless notion. In as much as it is not as severe as it were in the past, there are still behaviours that tend towards stigmatization and antagonism on those tagged Osu. At this juncture, it is laudable to pinpoint that this ugly belief is deeply embedded m the fabrics of the core Igbo man, Christian or no Christian; that is the reason why people still respond like Obi’s father., even after the liberation brought by the gospel of Christ. What a show of shame! Furthermore, it is highly incomprehensible why some people would not be allowed to marry on the basis of Osu, whereas, no strong objection would be raised when they are courting. It is only when it comes to marriage issues, election to the Ezeship stool, building projects, and in many other traditional matters that this Osu phenomenon would come to the fore, thus putting enmity between brothers, friends, close associates, and even in families. Oh, what an unfortunate apartheid!
Actually, the heartache, pains, discomfort, agony and psychological trauma caused by this hydra-headed phenomenon cannot be over accentuated in a society such as Nigeria where there are no enforceable law to protect the human rights of citizens, an Osu person is often exposed to public ridicule, discrimination, dehumanization, etc. it is a truism that hatred and distrust between and among groups or nations are not recent concepts; they are realities that have been there right from the cradle of human existence. All over the globe, we see glimmers of hatred and segregation despite international laws that promote inter-personal and intercultural relations at all levels. In line with this, the Black in the United States suffered terrible discrimination in the hands of the whites which led to the ‘Rosa Parks incident’ that culminated in the ‘Black Demonstration’ and the famous Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream”. As we evoke with dismay, the terrible discrimination suffered by the blacks in the United States, we equally recall a similar case, the famous Apartheid in South Africa, where blacks suffered similar discrimination in the hands of the whites. Candidly, the social development of a nation must include, among other things, justice, fairness and equal treatment for its citizens. Accordingly, Lord Gordon Hewart in “Jackson’s The Chief’ asserts: “it is not merely in some importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. (Dictionary of Quotations, Scotland, David Dale House Publishers, 2001, p.2O6). Hence, it behoves on every nation to provide and protect the civil and human rights of its citizen irrespective of birth, race, colour, sex, language, religion, political affiliation, property, and national or social region.
On another note, Osu-caste system is equivalent to the Western racism which the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blaire on his glowing tribute at the funeral of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela opined as immoral and stupid. Accordingly, he derided racism and equally drew the attention of his fellow whites to learn and renounce such immoral act.
Sequel to this, we need to eschew this Osu-Diala divide amongst us which was passed on over centuries by ancient and unreasonable traditions. It violates the fundamental human right of an individual or group of people.
IZUAZU EUGENE C
Writes from Owerri