Ever since I was born as well as many people of Igbo extraction were born, the issue in respect of the Osu has systematically been discussed but to me as an elderly statesman who has been around for so long, I have read and heard a lot about the issue of Osu caste system.
I remember very vividly when I was growing up, my father used to make caricature of those who came around him said to be Osu. There was one particular person, his name is withheld. At every point he had a discussion, minor quarrel or minor misunderstanding with my father he will be the first to say, “Osuji, if you call me Osu, is there any other thing you will call me again?” To that man, calling him Osu meant nothing to him.
The controversy surrounding the Osu caste system has been ranging on from time immemorial. In today’s analysis, as an Igbo scholar and one who has written so many books on Igbo tradition and culture, I make bold to discuss the issue analytically. Recently, Imo House of Assembly was reported to be planning to abolish the system officially in Imo State.
First, let me give an explanation/definition of Osu. Historically, with cultural implication, in earlier times, some powerful lords, traditional overlords, men of wealth and means who had some problems with their gods were often confronted with the worry of solving their problems in accordance with their tradition and beliefs.
What they usually did was to take a trip to diviners (Soothsayers) who in all probability after divining would narrate to them certain sacrifices to be performed either for the purposes of driving away the evil spirits that were hunting them or to cure menacing sicknesses bothering them.
Sacrifices would include cleansing the person with the blood of a white cock, ram or with combination of a chick, fresh egg, lizard or tortoise. These and many other things were items for sacrifice. But if the diviner has recommended a strong and costly sacrifice depending on the person involved or the level of his wealth, the diviner would recommend a human sacrifice to the god(s) that were menacing him.
Sometimes, the diviner may recommend a sacrifice of a grown up male or a beautiful damsel. In such circumstance, the man may go and buy a human being from a distance to offer for the sacrifice.
On getting to the recommended shrine, it could be Amadioha or Igwekala of Umunoha, Chukwu of Arochukwu, Ojukwu of Ikwere land or any of the most powerful shrines in Igbo land.
Stories had it that on reaching the shrine, the person would not be killed for the sacrifice but the priest of the shrine may make a mark on the person’s ear or on his left hand to spill out a little blood which he could sprinkle on the shrine with several incantations. Once this is done according to traditional belief, the person has become an Osu.
Then and only then, the beneficiary would provide the victim with accommodation in the outskirt of his family house but will take full responsibility of the victim. Then and only then, such a person would be subjected to all manner of errands and services.
Since this was common in the ancient Igbo traditions, such victims were numerous. From then on, the man or woman and his children yet unborn and when born will be known as children of an Osu. This was how people became Osu in the old Igbo tradition and this is what civilization has been fighting against.
It was on record that those who were declared as Osu in the past were giving dehumanizing jobs to do; they were restricted from buying and selling in the market but were allowed to only buy from the outskirt of the market; they were restricted from barbing or shaving their hair and in worse cases, they were allowed to bath once in seven days.
Hence, then and only then, one could easily identify an Osu on the road or the streets. They were forbidden to bath in streams and rivers. They were dehumanized. However, civilization particularly the church and men of honor have been fighting these inhumane practices.
Even when they are ready to marry, it is usually difficult to find an Osu to marry. This was the beginning of the practice of making inquiries of suitor’s for their sons to ensure the lady they were about to marry had no connection with the Osu lineage.
Then and only then, they were not permitted to build houses among the freeborn but were allowed to build their houses in the outskirts of the towns or villages. More often than not, they were allowed to build their houses at the end of the market square or the beginning of the market square. The Osu is an intricate network of different practices among different Igbo cultures.
In all honesty, churches and Christians including men of good conscience have been fighting this practice relentlessly and vigorously but it has continued to thrive. I recall that one of my relations wanted to get married to a lady of his choice then his father went and told the head of their church of what was to happen.
After listening to the member, the head of the church merely asked the father of the young man, “Have you people asked questions?” and he replied in the affirmative. This war against Osu has been the fight against psychology, ignorance and polutivity or do I say monumental stupidity?
There were cases where boys and girls of the Osu lineage have told lies of their true identity but when the truth comes out all along the line, problems may set in. There are many cases of broken marriages due to concealment of true identity of a particular man or woman.
But in towns and communities outside people’s hometowns particularly in the cities, men and women mingle in relationships freely. I have not learnt or heard of any man who wants to befriend a lady that asks the lady, “Are you an Osu?” In each case, one may be infuriated and call the proposal a quit.
But if the relationship develops and gets to marriage stage, then the question become inevitable. Only brave boys and girls could ask this question which is often left for the parents to ask in the case of marriage.
Finally, I as a scholar, an educated one at that strongly posit that Osu caste is devilish and people should stop talking about it because it is indeed a dying culture and we should allow it to die a natural death because today, many Osu have married many non- Osu with or without knowing.
After all, several cultures have several cultural practices which they observe which may be offensive to other cultures. For example, during one of my researches for my master’s degree, I ran into information that some people of Papua New- guinea would separate female domestic animals from the male domestic animals from Friday evening until Sunday night.
And that some cultures have different prescriptions for and against sex separation on certain festivities. Even among the Ewe of Ghana, there are some cultures that prohibit a lot of things.
According to one Igbo proverb, “It is the type of firewood available in a community that is used by women for cooking.” It is a well known fact that some countries in South- East Asia eat toad, earthworm and cockroaches which no Igbo culture will tolerate. Such is life.