The philosophy of segregation is not alien to any part of the world. No matter the appellation one is branded with, its existence cannot be denied. Once, blacks were referred to as ‘black monkeys’. In the United States of America, there was glaring distinction between the white man and the black man. In South Africa, we were plunged into the dreadful arena of the Apartheid. In Nigeria, the story is the same. One wonders, are humans not made alike? Is there any justification behind this prejudice? Why is the concept of Osu prevalent? Why is it so powerful that the elites champions or are silent to it? If it is a culture, is cultural change impossible? Why does it still exist despite the laws made against it? For instance, the Constitution frowns at any discrimination of a person on grounds of the person’s community, ethnicity, place of birth or origin, circumstance of birth, sex, religion, political opinion or disability. But the complication here is– does the law frowns on the other person’s right not to want to middle or involve with an Osu?

According toUgojiEgbujo in his x-ray titled “The Osu caste system: The shame of a Nation” Igbo axioms are full of wise sense of social co-habitations like Live and let live.{onye biri ma ibe ya biri} Let the kite perch and let the Eagle perch.{egbe bere ugo bere} Blood is thicker than water.{Obara Siri Ike karia miri} Be your brother’s keeper.{buru onye nche nwanne gi} Never abandon a brother{onye aghala nwanne ya} etc. So why does the Osu caste system still exist in many Igbo communities with all this aphorisms and maxims? Discrimination hurts, bruises, crushes. And it must hurt even more deeply when it is inflicted by kith and kin. Fate can be arbitrary and capricious, but we can always bear with fate. Some are black and some are born white and many whites think there is something else to blackness. Nature leaves some poor and lets some have abundant wealth. Many will live their lives in painstaking service of the whims of others to whom fortune came accidentally.

‘Osu’ are corrupted beings. On any moral scale neither Botha, nor Hitler nor Klu Klux Klan conjured the hatred and discrimination being meted to the Osu. This discrimination happens within and amongst people of same ancestry, color, language and culture. The conceited Diala harbors more contempt for the Osu than the usurping white Australian has for the Aborigenes. Its inconceivable that within the very midst of a seemingly tightly knit group of people, who endured a genocidal massacre in defence of their freedom, who claim good absorption of civilization and Christianity, is an inhuman caste system; a system that has shackled and dehumanized its victims for many ages. The Osu fought alongside the Diala in the Biafran army. Unfree people fighting for the freedom of their oppressors. So despite all the pretensions of being one, there are Igbos who arrogate to themselves superiority and freedom and who refer to themselves as freeborn or Diala and there are fellow Igbos whom they refer to as living sacrifices or slaves of the gods or osu; what an unjust society.

Historically, the Osu was a monk devoted to the service and worship of the local deity. And before the coming of the colonialists and the now prevalent Christianity, an Osu was respected, was perhaps considered holy. Then the Osu lived around the shrine and voluntarily consecrated himself to the gods. Communities appreciated the deities and their exploits in battles by donating some conquered slaves to the service of the gods. Though most slaves then were for transatlantic trade. The Osu, traditionally, didn’t mingle much with others in the society because of their aura of consecration, the Diala didn’t want to risk offending the gods by unrestrained interaction with gods’ devotees. The Osu therefore married from amongst themselves. With the abolition of slavery and the exit of the European slave trader, the Osu population swelled further and they lost their prestige and became an ostracized rather than a consecrated group. Anyone who married an Osu became an Osu as did his offsprings. Before long the ostracized became ‘inferior beings’ and were demonized

Despite the fact that the life of the Igbo man is now woven around the Roman Catholic and Anglican and Pentecostal doctrines, the Osu continues to suffer intolerable inhumanity. And you can attend church every day of the year in an affected Igbo village and hear sermons against all known human evils including racism but non against the Osu caste system. The Osu is in the church but the church pays lip service to his plight. And while privately no one can articulate reasons for retention of the caste system, no one is courageous enough to speak openly against it and take actions to end the sufferings of their brothers. Those who find the courage to condemn it privately lack the guts to permit their children to marry the Osu. But what beliefs and myths have managed to sustain such a tragedy in the modern day Igbo existence? And why have they remained impenetrable to the light of reason? Many Igbos go to church, claim Christianity but observe African traditional religion rituals. Many are avowed Christians but when the push becomes a shove, they approach the shrines for answers. For these, the gods, just like Ceaser, must get their due and so the Osu is ‘untouchable’. “It is not about Christianity” they always say. Some Igbos who aren’t even religious support the retention of the caste system on the ostensible premise that it was ordained by their ancestors. Their ancestors, they presume, were wise, infallible and beyond reproach. The same ancestors didn’t understand albinism and labeled albinos demons.

It was the same gods that barred the existence of twins in Igbo land that perhaps instituted and allowed the discriminatory practice against the Osu. If these Christians and other ardent followers of African traditional religion are afraid of defying the gods let them remember how even the gods saw reason with the colonialists and allowed the celebration of twins. There is some wisdom in the saying that what one cannot learn by formal education he learns by travelling, exposure. The Igbo is the most dispersed group in Africa and is therefore a group particularly well acquainted with the horrors of racism. The Igbo man suffers unbearable discrimination for being Igbo and for being black. You would think anyone so badly and chronically victimized would champion equality. Ironically many Igbos who reject marriage with the Osu are the well travelled, well educated, roundly humiliated victims of virulent racism. But the Osu caste system is worse than racism. Racism prepares you, gives you advance warning . So the black girl is socialized to understand her racial handicaps, the hatred of blacks by some whites. Many Osu are only aware of that identity only after a brutal dehumanizing rejection. How many more youthful hearts will be shredded by bigotry? Humiliation and discrimination breed frustration and ultimately violence. Mere mention of the word Osu has precipitated communal feuds with whole communities wiped out. Some communities have abolished that caste system but a pan Igbo abolition will be the only real solution. Let all the governors and political office holders and all traditional rulers in Igbo land meet and abolish the Osucaste system. And let the osu be appointed to traditional stools and cabinets. And let them take part in all rites. Let a cultural compliance committee see to the permeation and enforcement of the policy. Let the church rise to the occasion. Let offenders be named and shamed. Let the laws that already exist against discrimination be robustly enforced.

However, some activists and religious leaders including the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Dr Anthony Obinna, and the Anglican Bishop of Okigwe South Diocese, Rt. Rev. David Onuoha, Bishop Raphael Okafor, Bishop Anthony Nkwoka, Bishop Samuel Chukwuka, Pastor Austen Ukachi, Venerable Uzodi Obialo, Rev Victor Igbekele Iwala, Rt Raphael Opoko, Bishop Godfrey Onah, Rev Fr Joseph Nwanna, Pastor Elias Okoro, Dr Nelson Onuoha/Dr J.N Ojukwu founders of People United for the abolition of Osu Outcaste System, Elder V.I Dike, Mr Jeffery Orji, Mr Okodo Igor, Mr Matthias Akpuogwu and others have been waging a spirited and intellectual war against the practice. Delivering a lecture recently in the United States of America, Archbishop Obinna said: “A close reading of Jesus’ relationship with the Jews, Samaritans and the Gentiles and his redemptive concern for each of these human groups, opened my eyes, my ears, my inner hearts and mind to a redemptive… concern among my Igbo folks. Identifying with all three groups in his racial Igbo family, recognizing the humanity in each sub-group, experiencing and realizing the deep dread, pain and misery borne byindividuals in each segment and across Igbo communities, he found himself rejecting, denouncing and renouncing any identification with all such three sub-Igbo groups. I had to break up with and break out of all conscious, reflexive and subconscious attachment to each and all three groups and their fears. By a combination of God’s grace in Christ and by continued self-probing, I found a new and unbelievable freedom and courage, which I am offering to the Igbo once enslaved by Igbo-religious-cultural divides,” he added.

Although the clerics has been in the fore-front of this mission, many others across church groups and activists are equally pushing it forward via media and research works like IchieAmadife in his x-ray titled –“The culture that must die” in Sunday Times of March 1989, V.E Dike research titled “The Osu caste system in Igbo land& discrimination based on descent retrieved”,  N. Orjiakor “Salient issues in Nigeria History, culture and socio-political development” , Okodo Igor “The people and culture of Nigeria” Mr Jeffery Orji who wrote letters to Imo State Government  and to the Traditional Council of his community Lorji in Aboh-Mbaise LGA in early this year etc. We live with frigid imagination that this absurd barbarism will become a matter of once upon a time among Igbos in Nigeriasomeday.

The victims of this inhuman and sordid practice and their everyday experience are really a big shame of the society. One of them, Chinyere Olumba, a graduate of University of Nigeria Nsukka, married with three children was thrown out of her matrimonial home and the children taken away from her when the husband discovered her Osu status. Today, she is abandoned with a health challenge of partial stroke that left her incapacitated in her late father’s house in Enyiogugu in Aboh-Mbaise. Some are compelled to render service to deities, while others are not permitted to build their permanent houses/homes in the communities where their families have lived all their lives. The few illustrations are just a tip of the iceberg of this seemingly silent but ravaging scourge of the society.