This article was first published on pages 53-56 of the Saturday Sun of 26 May 2012; I could not get an online version so I typed it (unedited) and scanned the associated pictures.
APARTHEID IN NIGERIA
Igbo men, women who can’t freely marry or be married
By Henry Umahi
A talk-of-the-town wedding took place between Mr. Vincent de Paul Ohiri and former Miss Ann Nwokeocha at St. Kelvin’s Catholic Church, Ogbaku, in Mbaitoli Local Government Area of Imo State on Saturday, July 30, 2011. Conferring a historic status on the event, over 10 priests officiated, even as the episcopal Vicar of Ogbaku, Zone III branded the bride a martyr because of the circumstances surrounding the marriage.
A significant number of people descended on the church that day to witness what some termed a ‘sacrilege,’ as it played out. While the kith and kin of the groom came in their numbers, members of the bride’s family were conspicuously absent. In fact, it was different tales for the two families: While the former celebrated, the later mourned. Reason? The Ohiris saw the wedding as a conquest of sorts, but for the Nwokeochas it was a catastrophe, an abomination.
Indeed, the Nwokeochas saw their daughter as ta black sheep who not only brought shame to the family but also destroyed sacred values of the family, to the extent that even the forebears would be turning in anger in their graves. Therefore, they went on ‘strike.’
According to a source, “Ann, a Diala was ostracized from her family for consenting to marry a man, who the family described as Osu.” It was gathered that even while going through the three months wedding counseling, she stayed outside the family, who made mockery of her and generally treated her with utter contempt and disdain.
Shame of a tribe
Ann was a victim of the Osu caste system, which is one of the best-kept secrets of the Igbo. In some communities in Igbo land, there exist the Diala and Osu dichotomy. The former literally means the freeborn or ‘sons of the soil.’ In other words, they are masters. The latter are outcasts, inferior human beings and people dedicated to the gods. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Osu is termed a “person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo forever and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the freeborn. He was, in fact, an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went, he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long tangled dirty hair.”
The Osu caste system could be described as Nigeria’s version of apartheid. It is a practice that has endured from generation to generation. Even with the advent of Christianity, which preaches the equality of mankind to the effect that there are no more Jews and Gentiles, the menace subsists. In fact, in some places, Dialas are said to avoid contact with their Osu brethren during the Holy Communion. And any Diala who marries an Osu is ostracized: He or she cannot buy or sell things in the village market. In fact, his kinsmen will be under obligation not to relate with him in any manner till death.
Not long ago, a traditional ruler in Imo State was allegedly kidnapped because he conferred a chieftaincy title on an Osu. Also, another Imo community was engulfed in crises, six months after the monarch made an Osu a chief. Consequently, the title was withdrawn in the interest of peace.
The Osu had suffered various forms of deprivation and dehumanization. It was gathered that the Osu “were made to live separately from the freeborn. In most cases, they resided very close to shrines and market places. The Osu were not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations with Diala. They were not allowed to break kola nuts at meetings. No Osu can pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering. It is (was) believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune. They were also denied chieftaincy titles, membership of social clubs, even as their harvest offerings were heaped separately in the church. And because of the treatment they were subjected to, from one generation to another, some of them poisoned their own children to save them from the indignity inherent in their birth.
However, over the years, the fortune of the Osu has improved remarkably. From being regarded as worthless human beings, they are no longer discriminated against in every material particular. Indeed, many of them have excelled in various spheres of life and occupy respectable positions in society. Some of them have become governors, ministers, ambassadors, actors and actresses, etc. But one area the Dialas have refused to let go completely is the area of marriage. A report said: “The Osu caste discrimination is very pronounced in the area of marriage. An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. So, freeborn families are always up in arms against any of their members who wants to marry an Osu. They go to any length to scuttle the plan. Because the of the Osu factor, marriages in Igboland are preceded by investigations – elders on both sides travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party. And if it were found that one of them is an Osu, the plan would be automatically abandoned. Many marriage plans have been aborted, and, in fact, come married couples have been forced to divorce because of Osu factor.
Indeed, the existence of the caste system is one of the reasons a large percentage of the ladies from the Osu enclaves remain unmarried even at advanced ages. Some of them, therefore, seek spouses outside Igboland, where their social status will not be an issue.
For instance, when Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart, learnt that his son was in a dalliance with Clara, an Osu, he said: “Osu is like a leprosy in the minds of my people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children will curse you and your memory… You will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children.”
Imo State could be described as the headquarters of the Osu caste system in Nigeria, although there are flashes of the menace in some other Igbo states. In some parts of Abia and Anambra states, the caste is dead and buried, like mystery Babylon, which will arise no more. Investigations revealed that the practice is not pronounced in Orlu zone, as it is in Owerri and Okigwe areas of the state. It still grips such places as Mbaise, Mbano, Obowu, Ifakala, Orodo, Ogwa, Afara, Naze, Awaka and Emekuku. Also involved are Ngor Okpala, Mbano, Ihitte Uboma, Onuimo, Okigwe, Ideato, Amaigbo, Nkwerre, Abba, Owerre-Nkwoji, Isu, Ekwe, Umundugba, Umuaka, Okwudor and Amucha, among others. But to be sure, not all indigenes of the above communities are Osu. Most of them are, in fact, Diala.
The making of the menace
The inevitable question is: how did the Osu caste system evolve in Igboland? Explaining the history of Osu, a source said: “There are many versions of oral information on the origin of the Osu caste system. In the absence of documented information, oral sources are central to the study of history in Igboland and other parts of Nigeria. There is paucity of written information on the issue of Osu caste system. This is apparently because many people shy away from discussing the issue, for fear of being branded Osu lovers. However, available little documented information shows that the Osu caste system started out of the indegenious religious practices of the Igbo.” Offering insightful perspectives into the Osu menace, Hos Royal Highness, Eze Edward Nwosu Nwokororie, the Okata 1 of Ofekata, told Saturday Sun: “Truly, Osu or whatever you may call it exists till today and it started about 1840s. There is no Osu who is up to 30 years of age that will not be able to trace it to his great grandfathers. God did not create Osu; it was a human creation. It was created between 1840s and 1920s.”
On how it started, the monarch explained: “In those days in Igbo land, people were very much interested in rearing children. Many people died because of malaria, fever and things like that, but due to ignorance, people thought that it was the gods that were responsible for those deaths and so they would want to appease them. That was the belief, but they didn’t know that there were sicknesses, like appendicitis and malaria fever that killed many people then. They thought that human sacrifice would appease the gods and the gods would stop killing their children and that was the genesis of the Osu system.” And because of the high regards and/or fear they had for the gods or deities, they gave their most brilliant, handsome and strongest sons and most beautiful ladies as sacrificial offerings. Perhaps, this is why many of those still carrying the yoke are beautiful women and brilliant men.
Eze Nwokororie added that in the early days, the freeborn and Osu did nothing in common. “In those days, there was no relationship between them. They did everything separately. But today, in our own community, we relate with them. We eat together, go to the same market and go to the same church. The only thing we don’t do today is inter-marriage. We don’t inter-marry,” he said.
He said that as custodians of the people’s culture and tradition, they (traditional rulers) are making efforts to stop the practice. He said: “Personally, I have called on the other traditional rulers to come together and do something to end it through education and persuasion. They told me to start from the church. I even booked a mass in the church last Easter with the theme: Finding ways to put an end to the Osu practice. Others who are not happy with the practice have all joined the crusade. If it is stopped, God will take the glory and human beings shall be happy for it. The mass held at Stella Maris Catholic Church, Orodo.”
Indeed, efforts have been made at various levels to eradicate the practice without achieving the desired end. Take this: The defunct Eastern Nigerian government enacted a law abolishing the Osu caste system in 1956. Those who were known and addressed as Osu and their children were freed and discharged by the law. Declaring the practice as unlawful, the law made it a crime punishable, as per the provisions, for anyone to call another an Osu or discriminate against him or on that basis. However, after about 56 years of being in the statue, no person or persons have been prosecuted on account of contravening the law. In other words, it has remained an unenforceable law.
Although the practice can be said to have been driven underground, the Osu are still being persecuted in some places. For instance, not long ago, the Osu people of Eziama Obi-Orodo autonomous community, in Mbaitoli LGA of Imo State, were attacked by some Dialas from Umunya, a neighbouring community. The attackers did not only lose their property and money but also razed their houses as well.Even the community town hall and transformer were not spared. A Save Our Soul letter signed by Chief Christopher O. Ezeh, chairman, Eziama Development Zone, stated that one of the victims, “Mr Nicholas Iwumezie, died of heart failure because nothing was left in his shop, hence the wife became a hopeless widow. The said dead husband was deposited at the mortuary. On the day of his burial, the mob (attackers) seized the corpse but for the intervention of one Rev Father Emmanuel Oparaugo of Stalla Maris Catholic Parish Orodo, who caused the release of the corpse.”
The letter added: “Imo State government never cared to know what happened despite series of newspaper publications urging her to intervene and compensate the community. Eziama Town Hall was damaged by the said mob. The entire community is being denied social amenities viz; water (bore hole), school, good road and electricity. Eziama is badly stigmatized because of the so-called caste system”.
Disclosing that “the entire Eziama people have cried out loud to the five royal fathers of Orodo to grant the people of Eziama their human right grace, as per constitution of Nigeria and Human Right charter, to no avail”, the letter further said: The people of Eziama need the intervention of good spirited individuals and organisations so that the people shall be free like South Africans and so-called Negroes in America.”
Some of the destroyed property have been rebuilt by the owners, others remain in state of ruins, relics of war.
Tales from ‘Osuland’
The Osu are normal human beings with no distinct features. Saturday Sun visited Eziama-Orodo recently and some of them shared their experiences with us. Chief Comrade Placidus Anujoru, an indigene of Uhuechendu Umuezeoke Akata Orodo, told his story as an Osu thus: “Unfortunately, I happen to belong to the sect they call Osu but naturally, I don’t believe I am Osu. My grandfather, the late Andrew Duruezeocha, was a native of Ubahu Orodo. Ofekata autonomous community is in Orodo and Orodo has five autonomous communities. Ubahu is one of them. The story had it that my late grandfather was powerful. His relations wanted to use his fowl to offer a sacrifice, which he refused. And knowing that he was powerful, they had to create rainfall; that night, they caught him and was moving him down to sell into slavery when the great grandfather of our Eze here interceded and said he should be allowed to live. They said they required money for their sacrifice and he paid them money and returned him here. The evil they wanted to sacrifice his fowl to, which he refused, caused him to be sacrificed to the same devil. So, he had to stay like that.
“We had other relations; some of them are from this community and they were captured and sold. The Eze and his people here rescued them. The funniest thing is that some the people too who are afraid of their immediate relations, when they think that they are not safe staying with them, run out of their homes and enter any of the bushes owned and inhabited by the so-called evil spirit. And while they are there, they are looked at as the Osu. That person was not a rogue; he was not a murderer. Just simply because his immediate relations wanted to get him for sale and while he was trying to resist, he had to run away, either to safeguard himself and ran into such evil forest. So, it is unfortunate that it had to continue even after Christianity had reached this part of the world. My father was not dedicated to any deity. So, we can’t understand why such evil or wicked name should be associated with us. And I hope our people should get out of such evil beliefs. If you believe in God, you receive protection from God. You worship God, you adore Him and you gain the benefits associated with good Christians.
“If one is a pagan and associates with paganism, he should inherit what comes out from there. You can’t be called a Christian as well as a pagan and yet you believe in God somehow, but you rely solely on pagan sacrifices and worshipping. So, it is the opportune time for most of our people to understand actually that the period of evil worship is over because right now, if you look at a gentleman and say he is devilish, he takes offence. If you tell him, you are a servant to devil, he takes offence and yet he practices paganism. So, it will be better for our people to redress their position. If they are associating themselves with Christ, then they should bend towards Christ and do His wish. If they wish to associate with the devil, they should go ahead until they get redeemed. If they still continue with paganism, it then appears the death of Christ; the redemption of man by Christ did not affect them.”
On the denial he had suffered personally, the 72-year-old retired civil servant said: “When I was still in primary school, somebody called me Osu; he was my mate. I saw it as a humiliation and that time we had learnt how to box. I heard that the boy is from Odumara Orodo and I had to give him the beating of his life. His parents brought him to our house. Fortunately or unfortunately, his mother was my mother’s friend. They regretted the incident, humiliated the boy there and warned him never to call me such a trash. Again, my son wanted to marry a girl who is a Diala and when we told her we are from here, her parents made enquiries, as usual, and the marriage failed probably, because we were associated with Osu. And it appears to be universal too. Some of our sons and daughters who find favour in the opposite sex and decide to marry, their parents, after investigations, might turn down the marriage, not because the two people who saw themselves are no longer interested in themselves, but because of the stigma”.
Chief Christopher Ezebunwa from Eziama Orodo told his story thus: “What I want to tell you is what my father told me about the Osu caste system, as he heard from history. Men who marry two, three or more wives do so because they want to have more people. He who is alone has nothing. My father told me that when Ezealla, which is the deity that Orodo people worshipped, wanted a human being for sacrifice, the Orodo people went and bought a slave for the sacrifice. Later, when the slave died, they went back to Arochukwu but the deity said they wanted an indigene of Orodo for the sacrifice, as Abraham did in the Bible. So, the community gathered and resolved that on a certain date, all of them would come out with food and wine so that they would appease the Ezealla. Their plan was that when the time comes, they would give sign and the last person to leave the place would be used for the sacrificed to Ezealla. All the people, who went there and had relations were told of the plan by their relations but this particular man had no relation. So, when they gathered at the centre, eating and drinking, the time came and the sign was given but this particular person didn’t understand the sign. While others were getting ready to leave, he was still wining and dining. When they left him alone, he was caught for the sacrifice. My father said the man was from Okwo Orodo, the first son of Orodo. That was our ancestral lineage and that shows how we started being seen as Osu otherwise we are the original sons of Orodo. Since then, we have been discriminated against.
“So, when the man discovered what happened, he started marrying wives anyhow. Even his children married many wives. My grandfather, known as Emeaghara, had 400 children so that we can be many, since it was lack of relations that led us to this condition. That’s why we are too many. Before the discrimination was so much that we had our own church, our own market (Orie Eziama), collected our own tax and had our own chief. But that bad name followed us. Initially we were known as Umunkwo, which is very close to Nkwo Orodo that belonged to Ezealla. When the discrimination became too much, we decided to change the name, Umunkwo to Eziama, which we now answer. We relate, we befriend them and they do so with us but when it comes to marriage, they will not allow that. That’s why we are soliciting for help. Orodo used to be one community but today it has been divided into five autonomous communities.”
Ezebunwa, a retired police officer, said that they have made concerted efforts to remove the toga of Osu without success. On what caused the problem between Eziama and Umunya, he explained: “One man from Umunya, who lives at Amaku called one Alvan, an Eziama man, Osu. Alvan got annoyed and dragged the man to Ihu Ezealla, that is the deity and offered him to the deity just as our own great grandfather was offered to the deity, which made us to become Osu. That’s what I heard because I was not there. So, when he reported to his people what happened, they regrouped and attacked our community. The people of Umunya, Amaku and other Orodo people teamed up and attacked us. I saw it as an attempt to eliminate us. They came to our place and destroyed a lot of things. Many people ran away, though I didn’t run. I am an ex-soldier; I can’t run. I remained and threated that anybody who entered my compound would be a dead person and none of them entered. We had to employ about 35 mobile policemen who stayed for about two weeks, guarding our community. We were paying each of them N500 everyday throughout the period they stayed. But when we got a hint of what was about to happen, we informed Eze (name withheld). He dismissed our fears and told us to go and be law abiding. He promised to communicate to the Eze of Umunya and we believed him and went back home. And that was why they caught us napping. When we invited the police and about 10 of them were arrested, their big brother, a Professor, went to the police and bailed immediately. That was the first in my life and in the history of Nigeria I saw people involved in cases of arson and looting that got bailed almost immediately they were arrested.
“We lodged complaint to Mbaitolu LG during the administration of Osita Opara. Opara instituted a commission of inquiry, which came here to investigate the incident but we never heard anything again. That was the end of it all. We even resorted to newspaper publication. Some people were writing and calling on the then governor, Ikedi Ohakim, to compensate us even if he could not look into the matter, but as I speak with you, nobody has ever come to our aid in that respect.”
Ezebunwa opined that it is easier for a cow to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Diala to marry an Osu. He, however, maintained that the attitude smacks of hypocrisy. “Even when they impregnate our daughter and we go to them, they will say they don’t marry from our place. But the question we had always asked them is: Why should you befriend our girls to the point of getting them pregnant when you know that you don’t marry from our place? There is this man who came to marry one of our daughters and because of that, his relations excommunicated him. He is looking for where to build a house now because they refused to give him a house to live in because he married from our place. Orodo Christian brethren have pleaded with his relations to let him be, that we are all human beings, no matter where we come from. But they are still denying him his right,” he said.
Mr. Alloysius Ekenta lamented that those who regard him as an outcast looted his wares. He said: “When the incident happened, they came into the market here and broke into my shop and carted away my goods. I sell fairly used motorcycles for sale and they burnt all of them, plus all the things inside my shop. This happened a few years ago but up till now, nothing has happened to the people that perpetrated this crime and we have not gotten any compensation.”
Mrs. Rhoda Akugammadu, a widow from Eziama-Orodo, also told an unpleasant story. Hear her: “It was on Novebmer 1, that it happened. Somebody had a misunderstanding with somebody from our village and his people from a different village attacked our village. When they came to attack us, we reported to our Eze, but he told us not to fight back. For three days they fought us but we didn’t fight back. They destroyed my house. They took my box of clothes, radio, television, refrigerators, bicycles and about 300 plastic seats that I used to give out on rent. Even my shop was not spared. They made away with goods worth more than N500, 000 from my shop, including cash because I used to leave the money I realized from the day’s sales at the shop.”
The 45- year woman added: “My business came to a halt since after the incident because nobody has come to my aid and I am a widow with eight children, who are still young. Since then, what I have been doing for sustenance is to work as a labourer. Sometimes, I got N200 or N300 in a day, as the case maybe. I have been looking up to God for assistance. Even the two iron doors in my shop were taken away. Even my zinc was not spared; they totally damaged everything. It was just recently that I managed to effect little repairs in my shop, in anticipation that help might come somehow so I can go back to my business. This daily paid job is not enough to sustain my family and I. Besides, it is very strenuous and not steady. There is another woman, Patricia Onyejere, who is also a widow. They finished her husband’s property at Nkwo Orodo; they destroyed everything her late husband left for her and her children at Nkwo Orodo. There was a man, Mr. Damian Anyanwu, whose house was burnt down. He lost his house completely during the ugly incident. So, many things happened but my joy is that nobody died. Although, Mr. Augustine Onyejege was badly cut with machete, thank God he survived. If you see him, you will see scars all over his body. It was just by the grace of God that he survived. I used to rear goats and fowls but they took away everything during the incident. I had over 100 fowls but they took all of them away. Though we still reported to the police, nothing happened.”
Investigations revealed that there are other versions of the caste such as Agwu, Ume and Ohu. According to an Imo lawmaker, who pleaded anonymity, “the Ume is a more dreaded version than even the Osu but they are in a very small minority and are mixed up in both the Diala and Osu conclaves. But when it comes t marriage, both Diala and Osu wouldn’t like to touch the Ume or willingly relate with him in business because it is believed the Ume’s Ikenga is very hot and mar swallow the fortunes or destiny of his neighbor.”
In certain communities in Orlu/Orsu areas, for example, it is a taboo to marry girls on certain market days.