Op ed

The Osu System

“When people cherish some set of values and do not feel any threat to them, they experience well-being. When they cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experience a crisis – either as a personal trouble or as a public issue.” – C. Wright Mills


INTRODUCTION

The Osu system in Igboland is one of the most thought-provoking concepts in the Igbo cosmological philosophies. Among the critics of this caste are those who have been seriously affected by the institution on one hand and the Christian world on the other hand. One Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Anene Mmuo described osu as an “odious institution.” He went forth to stress that its death would be of “special advantage for the Igbo people.” The practice has even attracted international concerns and critics. On August 29th 2001, the Human Right Watch issued a report on Global Caste Discrimination; the Osu case as practiced in Nigeria among the Igbo was particularly mentioned.

Among individuals, majority of who are abroad, there is a great concern of whether Osu are descendants of slaves as a result of the slave trade. Others wonder whether they are people who ate human flesh or those who intermarried with the colonial masters. All these summed up to the many controversies and misrepresentation of the concept in Igboland. The answers many will like to know are: What the concept is all about? What is its origin, advantages, and disadvantages? Is there any remedy for those already affected? Thus the purpose of this article is to examine critically these controversies and misrepresentations and possibly to correct the wrong impressions surrounding the concept.

THE CONCEPT

The idea of having an assistant or assistants in any given social work condition is very obvious. The role of special assistants and/or attendants to a manager or president is highly inevitable in contemporary business/government sectors. This aspect of having assistant and/or attendants cannot be avoided because it has its root from the miniature common wealth from which the larger society is built — the family. Cooks, cleaners, nannies, to mention but a few, are all household attendants. A more appropriate example is in Christendom, where a person will have to dedicate his entire life to the services of his church. In Catholicism, we have priests and reverend sisters and even those called “Brothers.” These people are not expected to work elsewhere but depend and rely solely on the gifts given to them by those who in turn benefit from their services. It applies in all other denominations. It is these ideas of having to dedicate oneself to the services of a church or a god, like the case of Alusi in Igboland that the Igbo called Osu. The Alusi concept is a means of social control to the Igbo, just as Christianity is today with respect to moral life of the people.

The Osu were regarded as the “untouchables,” in the sense that you do not kill them or marry them or even defile them. This is because they belong to the gods and are the children of the gods. It becomes the responsibility of the gods to retaliate in any form, in the situation where Osu is affected by any of the above-mentioned. It was indeed a protective custody during the era of the slave trade. Thus there was a need for people to dedicate themselves voluntarily to a shrine for the same purpose.

THE LIKELY ORIGIN

“It is not a general belief that God exists but there is a general notion of the existence of God,” so says Dr. Amaechi Chizota. This general notion is largely drawn from Biblical records. The Bible is today one of the most widely read books in the world. More than half of the world’s population believes in what is written in it, more especially in the Christian world. We have seen what the Osu concept is all about. In the Bible, we read that God chose Israel as his people and Jerusalem his abode. He divided Israel into twelve tribes. Among these twelve, as recorded in the book of Numbers chapter 8, the Levites were consecrated to serve as priests. They were dedicated for the purpose and till date, the Levites are regarded as priests unto the Most High. I wonder, whether there can be any other definition, given unto this ritual performed to the Levites if not to simply call them “Osu Chukwu” (priest of the Most High). This is the likely origin of the Osu concept; and, the Igbo being Hebrews themselves, carried this concept along with them wherever they settled.

The problem presently is the fact that many people who are affected by this concept were as result of an involuntary inclusion into the system as a form of protection against slave traders. This happened as early as the time of the arrival of the missionaries and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

 

SLAVE TRADE AND THE OSU SYSTEM

Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, the Igbo society was harmonious, highly centred on theocentricism (a society that is centred in God, not materialism). Their arrival marked the beginning of acculturation in Igboland and Africa as a whole. The destruction of Igbo society was the best weapon towards ensuring that Ndiigbo are completely separated from their society. Thus the Alusi and Osu concepts were quickly interpreted to resemble the devil’s culture. It worked, but it was very difficult to completely dissociate Ndiigbo from the concept then, as is the case today. Even then, the idea and belief that “i gaghi emetu ihe bu nke arusi aka” (one does not touch that which belongs to the gods) persisted as a guiding statement to all those who sought refuge in the shrine in order to avoid being taken into slavery. This mix-up happened in the cause of the slave trade and, perhaps, it is interesting to know that those who sought this refuge were originally of the diala status or umudiala (sons of the soil). So the slave trade was highly responsible for the involuntary dedication into the Osu system in Igbo land.

 

It is very important to note here that Osu are not slaves. Slaves or oru, as it is called in Igbo, constituted from prisoners of war (POW) or someone bought from the slave market. It is also important to note that a slave was once diala until his capture and cannot by any means become diala in the land in which he is a captive. In the case of Osu, he is diala or even amadi (a noble of man of means) who has merely dedicated his life to the god of the land.

He is separated and restricted from certain cultural, political, and socioeconomic activities, just as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, so as to concentrate on the service, to which he has been called. They were very proud of their job, just as any other person was proud of whatever role he was performing in the village. The Osu and Oru (untouchables and slaves) cannot be the same as they are separated by meaning and reality. Another important question to be cleared is whether Osu are outcasts, as is generally believed.

THE OUTCAST ISSUE

One very fundamental impression that must be corrected about Osu is the general notion that they are outcast. This is one of the “suicidal” statements that were associated with the system by the missionaries and, to date, many people still refer to them as outcasts. Outcast is someone who has been driven away from home, from friend, or from society. (See Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary.) The definition is not by any means associated with the osu concept. If they are outcast, then I will draw the conclusion that Catholic priests who have so dedicated their lives to the services of the Church are outcasts; the Levites who were consecrated and separated as Osu Chukwu are also outcasts. Or, do you think otherwise? Words like these have given people very wrong meaning of osu.

 

The Osu concept is everywhere in Igboland and just about everywhere worldwide. I am pleading to Ndiigbo at home and abroad to correct this impression that has rocked our society. The major problem is whether there is a solution for those people whose forefathers, for fear of slavery, involuntarily assumed the Osu status.

RITUAL REMEDY

There is no doubt that those forefathers who for fear of slavery assumed the involuntary dedication into the osu set-up, affected many people as a result. Most of these people have left Igboland for good. Those who managed to return cannot bear the embarrassment they receive from their fellow kinsmen. This has left many to take up other nationalities. The disadvantages associated with this concept are obvious. Apart from the above mentioned, there is the general belief that if you happen to marry someone who is Osu, there is bound to be some mysterious deaths in the family. It is like the case in the Bible where Uzzah (2 Sam. 6: 7 – 8) touched the Ark of Covenant and was killed instantly because he was not Osu. Many homes in Igboland have witnessed such cases and many are still witnessing similar experience.

It is now very difficult to tell osu by facial or other physical appearance. This has made it more complex. There is this prevailing thinking that cases such as suicide murder and ritual killings in the society were probably carried out by some of those who are Osu. It had been part of their almost daily life in the shrine; so carrying out such activities will be of no side effect to them. It is now a social problem in Igbo land. The good news is that there is indeed a remedy for this involuntary inclusion into the caste. Even those who voluntarily joined the caste can still have the status ritual reversed. For those who may not know, the Osu initiation can be reversed; it is a reversible reality in Agu-Ukwu Nri, the religious hometown of Ndiigbo. All you need to do is to perform the required rites and rituals for it to be reversed. By so doing you would have been fully and completely separated from any tie that had bonded you with the god at initiation. The rate of ritual killings can be reduced in our society if those who have been affected are cleansed and fully integrated into the society.

CONCLUSION

The Osu concept has been a case of debate both at the local and international level. Majority are of the opinion that the system should be abolished. To eradicate the system will be complex because it has taken a more advanced formats. Even with Christianity as the order of the day in Igboland, the Osu concept continues to exist. Of course the practise is left with those who are truly dedicated to its cause. But it has left the system unnoticed and very few people discuss it. It does not mean there are no Alusi and Osu in Igboland after the old order. But the fact is that it is going to be very difficult for the old version of Alusi to be restored as a dominant means of social control again.

What many people have failed to understand or see is the advanced or civilized nature this concept has taken in present day society. In Christianity, democracy and capitalism, the system is fully at work. A graduate who decides to become a civil servant, works all his life, marries and retires as a servant to the civil society. A man who decided to do the service of God is separated from the “world,” consecrated, and dedicated to the said service. To discuss about the eradication of the system in Igboland is not really the issue; the issue is: Will the concept be eradicated knowing fully well that it has been westernised? This is just for you to think about class systems and stratification of Western society.

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