The Osu Question in the 21st Century

Imagine being rejected for a job because you are dark-skinned, and the employer wants only light-skinned girls. Imagine if someone says you guys cannot get married because you are not from the same tribe. Imagine not getting a job because of your tribe… Even though we can shrug it off with “It’s their loss, not mine” the sting of rejection still hurts.

These were the thoughts I woke up with this morning as my friends and I debated on the Osu Caste system. 

Who is an Osu and how did they come to be?

The practice started in the precolonial era. People were punished for crimes they committed or ostracised from the community by being sold into slavery or dedicated to deities and subsequently used for human sacrifice as the need arose. There were cases of debtors who could not pay back their debts. They were taken to shrines and became Osu. There were also cases where people became an Osu for running into the shine for protection as they were being pursued. Read here

From these examples, this is nothing in one’s DNA that identifies one as an Osu or Nwadiala.

It is a social construct of the pre-colonial Igbo tradition that may have served its purpose in the past but has no place in the 21st century. During the Biafran-Nigerian war, did the guns of battle distinguish between a Nwadiala and an Osu?

Should a Christian recognize the Osu system?

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. This fundamental truth by Paul is my guiding principle when relating with people.

Before the advent of Christianity, our forefathers were all idol worshippers. If Christ died for all, why have we refused to let go of this heathen belief? If my ancestor killed someone or raped a girl, does it make me a murderer or a rapist? What I need to do is to pray and break off any ancestral ties holding me to the evil lineage because the blood will keep crying for vengeance.

Christians live in fear of what the Umunna will do if they marry an Osu. My grandma will always say, “Nwa m, anyi bu ndi Uka. Anyi adiro eme Osu. But who will bell the cat”?

I personally would never allow traditions (that are not biblical) affect and determine my future. The truth remains that Osu is a social construct. A caste system that is discriminatory and baseless.

It negates the very essence of the Christian faith.

It is unfair and preposterous to judge someone based on what their forefathers did. We do not even like to be judged by what we did 5 years ago. We put up posts like “I don’t live in my past anymore” etc. So why will you hold someone to traditions we do not even practice?

Every day, we tell Nigeria not to judge us by the 1966 coup. We say Igbos did not kill Sarduana. In fact, if Kaduna Nzeogwu had children, they would not have been held accountable for the murder of Sarduana. How then can we say that a child born in 1989 will be rejected based on events of decades and centuries before he/she was born?

In Gal 2, Paul was speaking how Peter who used to eat with the Galatians withdrew when other Jews came from Jerusalem to visit them.

He told Peter, “You are a Jew, yet you don’t live like the Jews because of your faith in Christ and not the law. How come you now want the Gentiles to obey the Jewish laws that you have abandoned” (Paraphrased by me)

If we all claim to be Christians, how then can we hold our fellow believers by pagan practice which we claim to have been delivered from?

If you look at it objectively, some of the Osu’s were even die-hard “believers” in the pagan worship. They believed that running into Amadioha’s shrine would save them from pursuers and enemies. That is the kind of faith I desire to have. An unshakable faith in the God I serve.

Isn’t it funny that our society celebrates drug barons and people with questionable wealth? They are given Chieftaincy titles and our ladies jostle for who will marry the nouveau rich Christmas returnees. Native doctors are more welcome in the society than Osu people many of who have long abandoned pagan worship. So how can someone who was purportedly dedicated to an idol and the chief priest of the idol be treated differently? One is an object of reverence and another of disdain.

At this point in my monologue, my friend Muna chipped in by sharing experiences of some people she knows.

“I understand your points, but this is a tradition that follows generations. It is unfair but as we have seen it, it did not start with us. It has driven many families apart and it is sad.

But remember in the Bible too, most God-fearing men also sent their servants to a particular tribe to get married and avoided a particular tribe. Samson was warned not to marry a Philistine woman and he insisted, look how he ended up. Yes, even though we are Christians I do not think we can completely forgo our Igbo tradition. 

But finally, if one is convinced and ready to bear the consequences then, he/she should go ahead also remembering that it is not even only about you. It is also about your children. My dad’s friend who ended up marrying an Osu woman ended up having all his daughters marry outside Iboland. Also, my husband’s Uncle still has 3 unmarried daughters.” 

In response, I asked, why was Samson and the Israelites asked not to marry outside their tribe? It was simply because the surrounding nations were idol worshippers who would lead them to Idol worship and turn their hearts from God. Are the Osu people we are talking about pagan worshippers? No. They are Christians like you and me who share in the same Holy Eucharist.

What Muna fails to realize is that there are millions of non-osu ladies who are not able to get married. There are also more damming traditions like exorbitant bride price keeping people from getting married.

If an Osu person marries from Calabar or Kafachan, does that make his wife an Osu?

Surely not for she cannot be bound by your traditions. Those laws are of no effect to her.

We hold on to tradition when it suits us and discard it when it does not.  If you discriminate against someone because of the Osu system, then you should accept certain practices like the killing of twins, compulsory shaving of hair for widows, disinheritance of the female children, and other self-limiting practices in Igbo.

Should we say that widows should continue to be mistreated and dehumanized because it has always been part of the Igbo culture? Surely not! We collectively rejected it because it affects the larger part of society. 

As the discussion ended, I asked myself what the consequence of me marrying an Osu would have been. The only one I could identify is my children not marrying from Igbo land. Is that too much a burden to bear if it would lead to a gradual decline of an ugly practice?

Culture is dynamic and people determine culture. A society that refuses to change with changing times will die slowly.

  • Ezinne
    Posted at 08:11h, 21 May Reply

    Well, like you said, who will bell the cat? I personally do not like it, but i won’t want to put myself and unborn kids into a “box” where they will be limited as to who to marry and how they will be treated.

    The consequences of this action not only lives with you, but with your future generation and even the ones before you. Assuming it was for just me, maybe i can brave it, but why would i want to rope my future generation into it.

  • Munchy
    Posted at 18:30h, 21 May Reply

    Like my mum will say…all her friends who said nothing is wrong with OSU all married diala and the only one who married an OSU says she wished she didn’t for her children. So I leave saying Simply put “do what you know you can live with the consequences without feeling bad about it later”.
    I will not judge he who cannot stomach the castigation that comes with the OSU caste system and I wil not judge he who can stomach it either…to each man his thoughts.
    As a Christian I hate it but I choose to hold my peace and reservations about it praying one day it will be a thing of the past same way the killing of twins is now.

  • Okonkwo ogechi
    Posted at 08:47h, 21 August Reply

    Beautiful piece. I pray that one day this OSu practice will come to an end.

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