Friday, October 24, 2008

On the Osu

At last an article on the Osu - the outcasts or untouchables of Igboland. It is odd that this enduring caste system does not seem to have been challenged. You hardly ever read about it in the local papers. Perhaps there are human rights groups in eastern Nigeria who are tackling it, but who never get any airplay. Or perhaps life just carries on, while a whole section of society gets treated like shit. The linked article does not shed any light beyond make condemnatory noises. What's required first of all is serious sociological research. Where are there Osu communities? How long have they been there? What dynamics are in play which support/reinforce the stereotyping? There's a PhD thesis waiting to be written, as well as what probably would still be years of struggle ahead to abolish this indefensible division between communities.


Lost at The End 12:17 am  

"It is sad and unfortunate that such a dehumanising tradition is still in force in Igboland in this 21st Century."

How is it in force today? Just curious.

Kpakpando 7:33 am  

Igwe's article (albeit rant) leaves plenty to be desired, I didn't even get his interpretation of what the osu "system" is.
From what I've been taught, they're dedicated to the gods and serve at the shrines, they carry out the rites of the gods and do the work of the shrine from sweeping the compound to carrying out human sacrifice. They're "untouchable" (protected; free from persecution/prosecution) because their lives have been dedicated to the gods/goddesses therefore no harm was/is to come to them; similar to the vestal virgins who served in Greek temples. Osu are not criminals, outcasts or slaves, they're not supposed to be mistreated or disrespected, not second class citizens. Their function in Igbo society was/is to do the work of Amadioha, Idemmili and the rest of the gods.
There was a time when people chose to become osu to prevent being captured/sold off into slavery, or to prevent being persecuted for some alu they (or their family members) committed. Others chose to become osu to escape their poverty and gain wealth. Some of the wealthiest and prominent Igbo families are osu, after all it was them who partook of all the sacrifices offered to the gods, from bolts of george, to all the livestock and all the cash that came to the shrine.
The Osu system apparently has been existent since all the gods had shrines, as the shrines needed more than the dibia to function, and as long as people continue to worship Igbo gods & goddesses, they will remain. One thing many people don't know is that osu is not a permanent condition in life either, at any time a person can go to Nri and do some rites to be dissociated with the god that they were serving. Additionally, people can also choose to become Osu at anytime.
I find it mildly amusing that as much as Christianity is spread throughout Ala Igbo, that the osu thing is even an issue... but I really won't get into that in this forum.

I think people often confuse Osu with Oru who often were criminals, outcasts, sold away by their families, prisoners of war and ultimately slaves. Anyways enough of my epistle.

naijalines 1:09 pm  

I'm quite surprised myself that it's not been dealt with yet. First awareness of it was in Secondary School reading Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

Definitely a PHD thesis waiting to be written. More awareness yet to be raised...Perhaps more pressure from outside the Igbo community as well as inside it might help? But are the Igbo themselves with the ultimate power to change the status quo willing to do something about this sad example of inhumanity?

R.E.II 3:47 pm need to be in a hurry

Anonymous,  9:12 pm  

Kpakpa, I couldn't have put it better myself. Me too I for write epistle. Nwa afo igbo, dee me!


Loomnie 12:30 pm  

People often seem to forget that there are different cultural templates in Igboland. I therefore resist getting into discussions that generalise from just one of those templates.

Having said that, I think Osu, like many African indigenous institutions (we can debate how indigenous these institutions are but that is a debate for another day/forum)need to be studied. An anthropological study - I am an anthropologist, what else would I say? - preferably a PhD, is waiting to be done. But I can understand the sensitivity of this topic. Maybe, like many issues that are sensitive to us, we have not yet found a white male anthropologist who is interested in this?

Jeremy 12:43 pm  

@loomnie - ouch. Is it really true that it is too sensitive an issue for a Nigerian ethnographer to pursue?

Loomnie 2:32 pm  


No, that came with some sarcasm.

wansie,  11:28 am  

What particularly amuses me about this Osu issue is how even the most educated and elitist of igbo familes still subscribe to the Osu philosophy

Mike,  5:00 pm  

Maybe a strong letter to The Times...

Anonymous,  4:23 am  

@ jeremy, may I point out that Phd theses on this topic plenty (yanfu-yanfu) at Kenneth Dike library in UI? I believe the library is open to the public these days (with a small fee). When I visited UI in 1997, there were many theses on this crap, written by some folks I know (personally).

Nonesuch 11:02 am  

Quite interesting conversation I had with a colleague last week on the Osu Caste system in Ibo Land. She educated me and explained that the Osus were people dedciated to the service of the gods and had names like Nwagbara( meaning Owned by agbara which is a god/deity) The contrast however is that with the advent of christainity they became outcast and their relatives no longer wanted to sit or even eat with them. They were not believers, they worshiped idols and so became unclean. Note also the predominace of Christainity in the East especially Roman Catholics.

This sharply contrast the Yoruba culture were people dedicated to the gods are treated as special people. The Arugba in Osun Osogbo festival immedaitely come to mind.

Loads of papers yet unwritten.

In my head and around me 8:29 pm  

I think that last sentence should read '...indefensible division within communities'.
Great work, Kpakpando. Never heard about that Nri dissociation thing though.Is it recognised? I'm just wondering why they would go through ostracization if a ceremony can free them from it. We have a few from my village. Any misstep from them comes with a reminder of what they are. It is sad and I deeply wish something can be done to abolish it.

Wansie:I am a product of western education but I will not marry an Osu. At a point in my life, I thought I could brave it but learnt that the problem was much deeper than I thought.

Mike,  11:54 pm  

'Loads if papers not yet written' - probably because the are not worth writing...

maitumbi 9:05 am  

Just when you think you have Nigeria all figured out, you remember something that is best forgotten...Oh damn!

nneoma 1:43 am  

i am not terribly familiar with the osu caste system, though kpakpando's interpretation is the one that i have heard most often...but then again, i have have not had much exposure to the traditional igbo belief system other than the watered down version that incorporates aspects of Christianity and traditional practices adopted from neighboring people groups. i have encountered instances in which people have told me that so-and-so was dedicated to a particular god...but the discrimination was based more on the fact that the person was not a Christian.
however, after reading the comment from in my head and around me, i am lead to believe that the Osu caste system as described Igwe does indeed exist - though a modern-day explanation is needed. The classic sign of discrimination amongst Igbos is the refusal to marry a person based on qualities that cannot be challenged by the individual (community, familial history of mental illness/asthma/barrenness and apparently being from an Osu family). Personally, i think widespread acceptance of discrimination against non-Christians - Osu, Diala or whichever - is probably a more pertinent issue to handle on the part of easterners looking to dispel the more ugly elements of our modern-day culture. As for PhD theses, i can't help but agree with loomnie's comment, albeit sarcastic...its probably too sensitive an issue to be handled objectively by Igbos and most likely very few Igbos would look favorably on a commentary on osu by other Nigerian people groups. There is definitely a reason behind the silence (on the part of Igbos) on the osu caste system.

About This Blog

  © Blogger templates Psi by 2008

Back to TOP