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Understanding the contradictions inherent in the osu caste system is a good way to appreciate the extent to which our indigenous African value system has been transformed by foreign conquest and modernity. The most profound change that any given people can undergo is that of religious and cultural transformation. Part of foreign conquest and colonization included acculturation; a process that was used to remake colonial subjects in the image of the dominant cosmopolitan power. In Igbo society and elsewhere in Nigeria, the British did a very poor job in cultural transformation of their subjects because it was the expedient thing to do at the time. With a decision to adopt the policy of indirect rule, the colonial administrators opted to focus their attention on economic control while the native rulers were allowed to oversee sociocultural matters. In Igbo society, for example, everyone was regarded equally before the colonial administrators as long as the head-tax was paid as and when due. But within the indigenous society, traditional practices continued as long as they had the approval of local surrogates at the helm of affairs.

Post-colonial acculturation of Igbo society proceeded on three major fronts: Christianity, education and commerce. It was a widely held view that the indigenous religion and traditional practices would become obsolete with entrenchment of Christianity and Western education. The younger generation, having been reared from cradle with a novel doctrine, was destined to inculcate the new value system as the aging generation died out. The theory worked, albeit, incompletely. The overwhelming majority of Ndiigbo today are Christians, but they remain very Igbo in core cultural practices that are deeply rooted in our indigenous value system. Only a handful of Igbo Christians can muster the courage and audacity to flaunt age-old taboos that are obviously derived from authentic cultural beliefs, for example. Sustenance of the osu caste system is one of those practices that continue to defy Christian teachings, Western education and technological advancements of modernity, including urbanization. Rather than continue to expect the passage of time to resolve the osu issue, Ndiigbo should now begin to seek for better understanding of this phenomenon with the hope of consciously deriving an acceptable and lasting solution to this sociocultural albatross of contemporary Igbo society.

Osu caste system in Igbo society is quite unique and does not easily compare with the practices of social stratification that exist in the other ethno-cultural groups in Nigeria. Some have tried to characterize this system as an indigenous African version of apartheid. This may be misleading because the socioeconomic divide between the osus and the rest is neither clearly defined nor arbitrarily fixed. Osu caste system is a sociocultural phenomenon rooted in pre-colonial religious practices of the Igbo people. Ndiigbo have a huge task ahead of them before they can rid their society of an unjust practice that has lingered beyond the sociocultural construct on which it was founded. The solution to the negative consequences of this age-old practice on the lives of contemporary Igbo does not lie solely in the realms of politics and law but rather on the collective will of present generation of Ndiigbo to reconcile its past with the need to maximize the survival of its people in today’s world.

Igbo historical experts tend to agree that the osu caste system came into existence about six centuries ago. The indigenous Igbo religious practices include the worship of many deities. These deities can be in the form of major topographical landmarks like streams, rivers, lakes, caves and mountains or may be trees, animals and famous ancestors. These deities are regarded as intermediaries between humans and the Supreme Spirit or God. There is also a hierarchical order among the deities. The individual has a Chi or spirit force which is subordinate to the village deity, for example. The village deity is subordinate to the town deity and so on. Some deities were so powerful that they had to be attended to by a retinue of high priests and their assistants on full-time basis. The high priests’ assistants were responsible for performing intricate religious rituals, which were taboo to the average citizen, in the shines of the deities. These shrine attendants were especially dedicated as properties of the deities that they served and were generally known as the “osus” of the particular deity. The osu population has grown relative to the mainstream because joining its ranks has been mostly a one-way journey. Going by the strictest interpretations of traditional practice, whoever marries, copulates or raises children with an osu automatically belongs to the caste together with subsequent generations of the offspring of such relationship

The osus performed a very important religious function in pre-colonial Igbo society. They lived a rather secluded life in the vicinity of major shrines and mainstream society had little societal interaction with them. The practice of avoiding all social contacts with the osus was engendered more out of fear and respect for the deities that owned them rather than mere observance of any type of societal ostracism. The dilemma of the osus began with the arrival of Europeans and the resultant systematic suppression of both the indigenous value system and religious practices. The British colonial rulers lacked the necessary manpower and the resources to undertake a radical transformation of the indigenous Igbo society. They were content with the establishment of indirect rule through which they achieved political control, economic exploitation and nominal acquiescence by the indigenous population to the introduction of Christianity. As Christianity gained wide acceptance, the indigenous religious practices of the Igbo society began to wane. For the osus, their religious role slowly became obsolescent while their secluded lifestyle transformed into a de facto ostracism, since they constitute a minority in the population. Up till today, it is a rare find to see an Igbo family that would knowingly consummate a marriage between an osu and non-osu.

Many valiant attempts have been made since the colonial era to bring a formal closure to the osu issue. Some communities, for example, Nnobi in Idemili L.G Area of Anambra State, have successfully integrated their osu population back into the societal mainstream for more than 25 years. Some communities have not been as successful even though they have in place tough sanctions that prohibit any overt discriminatory acts to anyone because of his osu ancestry. It is pertinent to mention here that, in the mid-50s, the Eastern Nigeria colonial Legislative Council under the leadership of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, passed a legislation outlawing the osu caste system and made it a criminal offense to victimize anyone because of osu ancestry. This law proved to be unenforceable and it quickly fell into disuse. There appears to be a tacit understanding by all concerned that the methods utilized so far to end the caste system have failed to make a substantial dent toward ending the social dilemma of the osus in Igboland.

An overwhelming majority of the Igbo population favors the termination of the osu caste system but there is no consensus on how it should be accomplished. Some feel that the combined influences of modern education and urbanization will, before too long, attenuate the societal import of the caste system to the extent that it will become irrelevant in people’s lives. This passive approach, though plausible at first glance, may not yield any tangible results soon because urbanization has not been able to disconnect the average Igbo man from his ancestral village base. Modern education tends to ignore the relevance of indigenous cultural values thereby depriving future generations of the necessary fund of knowledge that will be essential to fully grasp who they are, where they came from and where they have to go. One of the complicating factors in frontally dealing with the festering sore of osu caste system is that the majority of Igbo youths are either oblivious to its existence or ignorant of its true historical background. Unfortunately for the victims of this system, their whole life and reality are caught up in a nightmarish existence from which they cannot extricate themselves.

Conscientious Igbo activists have, on occasions, suggested proactive methods for bringing the caste system to a quick end. Some have called for passage of fresh laws to address the denial of civil rights of those who are caught up in this dilemma. I, however, disagree that passage of enabling legislation by today’s politicians will have any meaningful impact this time after similar laws failed to do so 50 years ago. A multifaceted approach must include a tangible dose of social and political activism on the part of principal victims of the osu caste system. Even though the osus constitute a numerical minority in Igboland (10-15% of Igbo population), their ranks are replete with successful business tycoons and intellectuals who should begin to deploy more of their resources and skills to expedite the demise of a cultural relic that hurts them, in particular and the entire Igbo society, in general. Some may see any change in the status quo as negation of authentic Igbo cultural practice and tradition. This so-called “die-hards” are very few and far between and usually comprise local folks who lack what it will take to stop the success of any concerted effort to end the caste system. The Nnobi paradigm should be revisited and made to work for many other autonomous communities across Igboland. The government of states affected should use the instruments of official power to encourage and facilitate the endeavors of communities in their domain toward this goal. I am optimistic that the Igbos are quite capable of doing the right thing, for their common good, by jettisoning this aspect of their cultural history which detracts immensely from the proud heritage of a gifted people.

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