Unraveling the Mystery Behind the Igbo Osu Caste System – Who is to Blame?

Unraveling the Mystery Behind the Igbo Osu Caste System – Who is to Blame?


By David Anyaegbu

The “Osu” gist is a cane of cankerworms. There is hardly any way you can render the narrative even as a neutral that the victim won’t feel insulted or look at you as being inhumane and insensitive. Perhaps this is because of a truth, you and I did not have any real input on choice of which family to be born into prior to our journey into this world #fact/realitycheck.  Anyway, for some others, it is the blame game! That is, who really is to blame and who are the victims? The ancient Igbo society would claim they actually are the victims, since etymologically, the origin of “Osus” could well be traced to an age long practice in Igboland which saw men give themselves up “willingly” to shrines/deities as freewill donations in desperate bid to avert punishment for crimes committed. They would even claim that compared to western society where capital punishment was tenable and popular (as at the time), that theirs was more civilized since they had caste system rather than the death penalty.


On the other hand, children whose parents are “Osus” will feel slighted. In fact, they would feel they are the real victims not the Igbo ancient society. That is, why should they suffer for the sins their forefathers committed hundreds of years ago?

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” – Ezekiel 18 vs 2

They would also feel insulted at the slightest insinuation or assertion that their forefathers were “Osus” (since accepting this would invariably connote or translate that they are products of criminals – “i.e your forefathers were criminals!”).

The apologists of the Igbo tradition would also argue with the Biblical analogy were God barred the Israelites from marrying from certain tribes because of idol worship. But to be frank (and for some), the thought of one being an apologist to this culture is simply detestable, discriminatory and barbaric! That is, how on earth would one support and uphold a culture that sets some people apart as children of criminals? The most adherent of these apologists would even be quick to remind that even in the United Kingdom at a time criminals were sent off to distant lands like Australia and ex-communicated. Similarly, those opposed would be quick to remind that this practice is no longer tenable in present day U.K. Further, they would counter the argument of idol worship with hypothesis of what about those born into “Osu” families, but have since changed their stance to worship God rather than idols?

There is also the question of definition. That is, who really is an “Osu”? What is the criterion or criteria used by the Igbo Society to categorize people as “Osu”? With cognizance to the aforementioned epic story of people running from the law becoming Osu, it’s also important to mention that a fictitious example like a lady sleeping with her blood brother and refusing to atone the land as the Igbo culture demands could very well degenerate to the lady and brother being excommunicated; which if not checked could well overtime attract the Osu tag (this trend is prevalent even with the absence of any State law to punish such perceived abominations).

Some foremost Igbo traditional leaders have also attempted to repeal the Osu caste system but was met with stiff resistance. For instance, in a renowned town in Imo, South East, Nigeria the late “Eshi” (King of the land) is understood to have gotten very far in abolishing the Osu caste system so much so that he assumed he had the support of the elders of the community only to be sandwiched when the elders asked him to demonstrate leadership by example by being the first to give his child to an Osu to marry. The great Eshi never broached the topic again.

Further, there is also a myth that the “Umes” (those whom the Igbo society identify as peak of the caste system/Osu people) are extremely successful. They say if you indulge in business with such persons, they prosper at your expense. That is, while their business thrives (Umes), yours dwindle. They also say relating with the ordinary “Osus” is far better than relating with those who are “Ume” because there are no business setbacks incurred. At best, you both prosper! How true is this? What is the story in your part of Igbo society? Are the “Umes” more successful than those who supposedly are born of clean undiluted blood devoid of any iota of criminality? Again, if the latter rhetoric is affirmative, what is the source of their success, God or the diabolic powers their forefathers worshiped? With empirical facts, I can list quite a number of people in Igbo land who are neither Osus nor Umes but are however more successful than they. It suffices therefore to say that being Osu or Ume is not a necessary causal agent to stimulate success.  God makes the rain fall on different sides of the divide. This however is not to debunk the reality and theory posed by Igbo ancient system that success can actually be gotten from diabolic powers.  To the Igbos reading this, what is the practice where you come from? Who is the “big shot” in your place, the Osus or the freeborn? Are the Osus more successful than you? Would you wish to be one; for the wealth in it? As for me, I’m not one, but I’m blessed! Anyway, whatever side of the divide you belong/find yourself, cheer up! He is God to the Jews and also God to the Gentiles. If a Jew refuses to marry you, that’s not the end of the world! There are thousands of Gentiles out there for you to choose from. Just look in the right place and find where you belong.

Dedicated to all those looking for a sense of direction in their quest to demystify and find answers to the Igbo Caste System. #ProudlyIgbo

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