Monday, 31 July 2017

Understanding The Osu Caste System In Igbo Land, By Anayo M. Nwosu

As written by Mazi Anayo Nwosu

"Anayo, so Ifedigbo's son has assembled us here to watch as he submits himself to be dedicated an Osu to the whiteman's god?" was the last thing I expected my uncle David to say in the church as one of our sister's sons was being ordained a catholic priest at Assumpta Cathedral, Nnewi.

"Anayo, you better respond to my question otherwise I would say it so loudly. The worst the church wardens can do is to ask me to leave their church and I would be more than glad to so do", my uncle continued to my great embarrassment.

"Anayo, the son of Francis, you must tell me the difference between catholic priests, reverend brothers and sisters and the Osu dedicated to our various deities in Nnewi", he asked. But I remained taciturn.

There was no way I could engage my stubborn, resolute and opinionated elderly uncle with limited education but versed in Nnewi tradition on sure a sensitive subject during a crucial ceremony of Holy Sacrament of Orders in the church.

"Uncle David would not lead me to sin", was all I kept saying in my mind.

"Onye aghogbulu ka agbalu!" meaning that "the defeated person in a game of cards is the deceived one!", was what Uncle David said when he saw my determination not to engage him in his ill-intentioned umbrage against Catholicism tradition in particular and Christianity in general.

Upon a deeper reflection, I have come to see sense in what my uncle was alluding to-that all those including pastors, priests, nuns and religious who have submitted themselves or were coaxed like St. Paul to be dedicated to a christian deity called Yahweh are no less an Osu than Igbo's Osu of the precolonial times.

Many people don't know that Osu in Igbo land was a child of necessity.

It all started with the demand by the chief priest of a community or town's deity for permanent servants to help him attend to the needs of a particular deity.

A deity is owned by a community, village or a town from where a chief is chosen. A chief priest is different from dibia or a native doctor.

The male or female Osu was like a permanent house maid or house boy quartered within or near the shrine, who helps the chief priest in attending or catering for the needs of the visiting worshippers of a deity.

Some worshippers would visit a deity, as Roman Catholic supplicants visit the Marian Shrine at St. Agnes Maryland, Lagos, with petitions to the deity for children, prosperity, safety, healing and success in undisclosed ventures.

Each deity had its consultation requirements or items which must be tendered before access was allowed a visitor.

Also, most supplicants would promise a deity a reward or prize if their prayers granted and failure to redeem such pledges after performance were punished by the deity with harsher  vissicititude.

It was a normal occurrence to herald grateful worshippers come for thanksgiving with cows, goats, rams, tubers of yams and even with a human being as gifts to a powerful deity.

I know because while in the primary school at Ogbe Central School Otolo in the 1970s, I would follow Ogbonna Adibe, the son of the chief priest to a deity, who acted on behalf of his ageing father to Uzukpe Shrine situated on Igwe Orizu Road, opposite to which now erected is the Nnewi Headquarters of Christ Embassy Church.

Before 1982, the entire surroundings of Okwu Uzukpe or Uzukpe shrine was a thick forest.

Pilgrims and consultants to the Uzukpe shrine would visit with white cocks, kola nuts and money.

The supplicant would present the consultation items to the chief priest who would in turn slaughter the chicken or goat and spill its blood on the statue or a mound of clayey cavings representing the deity.

It was the duty of the Osu to prepare the visitor and induct him or her on the rules of the shrine, cook the offerings and serve all present  as directed by the priest.

The relationship between the Osu and the chief priest was like that of a doctor a nursing assistant.

In the absence of an Osu, the chief priest and his sons would do all Osu would have done. That has been the case since 1905 when the whiteman freed all the Osu and Slaves in Nnewi who in appreciation followed the whiteman to his church and go his education.

Then, it was the duty of the chief priest to make his Osu comfortable by getting him a wife or having  him castrated.

The wife of an Osu and his children were referred to as Osu and they lived within the precincts of the forest of their owner deity and work for the chief priest.

In those days, Osus were untouchable as they were regarded as properties of the deity that "owned" them.

They had a sweeping immunity over kidnap, murder or fight. That was the positive explanation as to why they were addressed as "untouchables".

Many free born, so jealous of the immunity of Osu people, out of their own volition, submitted themselves to be dedicated to a deity of their choice.

In Igboland, there were only three ways a free born person could become an Osu. They were:

1. Osu via slavery: these are those who were bought originally as slaves and  were forcefully dedicated to a deity. The community that owned a particular deity might decide to purchase a male servant to help in the service of the deity just as most quartered factory workers in Chinese companies in Nigeria do.

Once a man is dedicated to a deity as an Osu, a bit of the left ear funnel was chopped  off as a mark of his being a divine property just like all cows, goats or sheep owned by a deity.

 A wife was usually procured for an Osu by purchasing a female from slave market. The woman became an Osu upon sleeping with the Osu husband. Also the children from such intercourse became Osu at birth.

2. Osu by choice: Those free born who chose to become Osu like those ordained priests and religious of Catholic faith who should be called OsuJesus or OsuChukwu.

Some in this category did that due to extreme hunger as Osu never lacked food or meat. This class was called "Ojiri Usa bulu Osu" meaning " those who became Osu because of allure of food and meat".

Few others in this category did that to preserve their lives from being exterminated by relations or neighbours.

3. Osu by punishment: The third class were people who contravened the community rules and regulations which punishment was to become an Osu of a specified deity.

For instance, those who decided to go fetch water from Edo Nnewi  stream during the outlawed days were pronounced Osu Edo if discovered. This group might not move to live with other Osu group in Edo forest but would be regarded as Osu by their kinsmen and terms and conditions applied.

The points to note are:

a) The chief priests were not Osu but were the supervisors or managers of Osu just like the way bank owners use and manage the bank workers.

b) An Osu was tied to only one or a particular deity. For example:  an Osu Edo was for Edo Deity shrine while Osu Uzukpe was for Uzukpe Deity

c) Osu lived within the forest and around the shrine  of the deity that owned it or them.

d) The word "Outcast" used to describe Osu people was invented by Igbos who converted to Christianity.

e) The "Osu" (which synonym is "Di") as found in many Igbo names like: "Osuji", "Nwosu", "Osuagwu," "Osueke" etc does not have any connection to Osu caste but means either the "leader" , "commander", and the "foremost"

In the precolonial Igbo era, Osu people moved around unharassed as corrupt Nigerian who are members of the ruling  party do.

The only difference was that no non-Osu was allowed to marry an Osu but there were instances where some men couldn't endure the allure of the endowments  of some Osu daughters and chose to become Osu by marriage.

It surprising that many Igbo scholars do not know that an Osu could be the ransomed or converted from being an Osu to a free born.

One could become free from Osu or ransom the owner deity through two methods:

1. Like for like substitution: in this case, the relations of an Osu especially who became so because he was purchased as a slave was dedicated to a deity as an Osu, could buy another slave of the same sex and present same to the chief priest where their relation was serving as an Osu for a replacement.

After the cleansing ceremony, the ransomed would be freed from the ownership of the deity and would become a freeborn.

2. Cat Sacrifice: An Osu would become free if his or her relations present to the chief priest, in the presence of the community, male or female white cats equivalent to the number of years the Osu or his lineage were dedicated as Osu.

The cats would be slain and their blood sprinkled on the owner shrine. This would be followed by a pronouncement by the chief priest that the candidate was free.

Many Igbo chief priests know this to be true but have refused over the years to divulge it or make it this public, just like the way employers would never allow their  employees to know how to become independent.

Most importantly, being that most of the deities in Igbo land have been defamed, defeated or deconstructed by god of the colonial masters, the whole religious system upon which Osu caste system was built upon had fallen apart as such, the Osu caste system can no longer hold.

It is amazing to see another crop of Igbos willfully dedicating themselves as Osu to the God of the whitemen to which majority of their kinsmen have come to adopt as a replacement of their discredited gods.

Only one type of Osu is now in existence and it is wholly accepted by those who are fond of disparaging the descendants of the discredited Osu caste system in Igbo land.

This new Osu type is called Osu Chukwu or Osu Jesus to which all men and women dedicated to serve in the altar of God belong.

We are just moving in cycles!



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