The OSU Caste System of South-Eastern Nigeria

Ancient Igbo Village Square

Getting to hear of Osu in Igbo land as kids, we did not know what it was all about in toto, just knew it was something about some set of people not being able to marry another set of people of the same tribe in Igbo land. Traditionally, there were two classes of people in Igboland – the Nwadiala and the Osu. The Nwadiala meaning, ‘sons of the soil’. They were the masters while the Osu were the people dedicated to the gods; so, they were regarded as slaves, strangers, outcasts and untouchables. Chinua Achebe in his book, No longer At Ease, aptly describes Osu thus: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, with his children and his children’s children forever”.

“The Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igboland that discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of persons called Osu (outcasts). Osus were dedicated to the deities (Alusi) of Igboland; they were considered as inferior beings and were usually separated from the Nwadiala or Diala (freeborns)”. On the one hand, it is a traditional religious belief in Igbo land that certain people should be discriminated against. On the other hand, Osu is viewed as depicting a curse, seen as a curse, the reason why Omuosu is referred to as cursed people.

No theory is generally and unanimously accepted regarding the origin of the Osu caste system as there are several different conceptions and explanations about its origin. One resounding written record of a theory about the origin of this system in Igbo land is the view that the system originated from the Nri Kingdom. The Nri Kingdom existed as a sphere of religious and political influence over a third of Igboland and was administered by a priest-king called an Eze Nri.

It is said that in the early days, Nri people possessed some hereditary powers and rights to proclaim cleansing on any kingdom where and when abominations were committed in the past. Of which any community, village or kingdom that rebuffed or was unable to meet up with the requirements needed for the cleansing by the Nri spiritualists, would be henceforth considered as impure and such community would be hence referred to as an Osu (untouchable). In a book titled ‘Nri Dynasty’, the author, C.M Ezekwugo noted “Nri descendants possessed certain hereditary rites to perform traditional and cultural ritualistic functions. Which rite of cleansing the land where aberrations (Aru) were committed, was one of the functions.

The Osus were treated as inferior human beings and kept in a state of permanent and irreversible antipathy. They were subjected to various forms of abuse and stigmatisation. They were made to live in seclusion from the considered Freeborn, they stayed very close to shrines and market places. The Osus were not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have a sexual relationship with the Nwadiala. They were not even allowed to break Kola Nut at meetings or pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering as it was believed if allowed, such prayers would bring calamity and misfortune. Despite civilization and incessant efforts being continually made by the church and several other human rights organisations to efface this system, it has however remained to rear its head as still exist some families in Igbo land who will not allow their children to marry or get married into an Osu family.

Yusuff Ibrahim

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