Time to Halt Osu Caste System, Obnoxious Widowhood Practices in Igbo land
By Okechukwu Keshi Ukegbu
There have been several intensive efforts in the past and present to put at bay the menace called Osu Caste System in Igbo land. The system, which pre-dates decades, discriminates against the citizenry in some locations.
While some (the free-born) enjoy the full rights and privileges provided in the land, those regarded as Osu (outcast) are denied these rights.
In some instances, they are not even allowed to communicate with the freeborn. They are prohibited to intermarry with the freeborn. A typical example is in late Prof Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease where the protagonist of the novel, Obi Okonkwo was prohibited by custom to marry his heartthrob, Clara for the mere and flimsy reason that Clara is an Osu.
Other instances abound. These strongly negate biblical standards which explain in clear and strong terms that in Christ there is no bonded or freeborn, rather all are equal.
Also, other legal instruments both international and nationally such as the Constitution, African Charter of Equity and Universal Declaration of Human Rights place all human beings equal.
There are provisions stipulating fundamental human rights such as rights to freedom of association; dignity, life, choice, religion, among others. Indeed, the Constitution is the ground norm, and any law or jurisprudence that runs contrary to it shall, to the extent of its inconsistency, be deemed null and void. So, Osu Caste System is both repugnant to natural justice and good conscience.
In the recent past, events marking the abolition of the system took place at the Nri Palace in Anambra State took place. The traditional rulers in the South-East had endorsed the abolition of the obnoxious practice with a decree that “it would be spiritually suicidal for anyone to continue with the obnoxious Osu practise after it had been abolished.”
The decree equally pronounced more stringent spiritual implications from Ikpo Eze-Nri against such devaluation of mankind, after an extensive spiritual abrogation exercise.
The effort was one card out of the pack of efforts of notable individuals and organisations to end the obnoxious practice and left well-meaning Nigerians wondering if the effort will definitely put to an end the caste system to an end.
It will be recalled that Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in his historic address to the defunct Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly on March 20, 1956, described the Osu Caste System as “devilish and uncharitable to brand any human being with a label of inferiority due to the accidents of history”. Zik further noted that the objects and reasons for the abolition of the Osu Caste System are humanitarian and altruistic.
In the words of the Great Zik of Africa, “no one should join in the encouragement of a system of society where one stratum can superciliously claim to be descended from the best brain and would, therefore, consign others to a scrap heap of their own invention and ostracise them socially.”
Similar efforts were made by late Dr Sam Mbakwe who banned the Osu Caste System in the old Imo State. Also, late Commodore Emeka Omeruah in the old Anambra State used bulldozers to demolish the Efuru Idoha shrine in Igbo Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State.
The Osu caste takes the form of slavery and slave trade whereby a person(s) is/are bought as a slave(s) and dedicated to a god. The people are, subsequently, viewed as the representatives of the god. This practice is, of course, humiliating and negated both legal and biblical perspectives on individual freedom.
Where it is practised, an Osu is not allowed by the traditional law to marry a free-born. He or she is neither permitted by the traditional law to keep other forms of relationships or affiliations with those regarded as free-born. The caste had undergone several adjustments during the era of colonialism, had been affected by the decree enforced by the white man to abolish the slave trade.
A school of thought is of the opinion that the church should be enlisted in the campaign through the church enforcing all laws against Osu Caste System by preaching to their members and punishing disobedient ones publicly. The church can go a step further by giving out their consenting daughters in marriage to the erstwhile Osu son.
Another obnoxious practice that requires urgent attention to be reviewed and abolished is some widowhood practices that are still in existence in some locations in Igbo land.
In these locations, when a woman loses her husband, she is subjected to some inhuman and undignified treatments such as shaving her hair and some other sensitive parts of her body. Some even go to the extent of forcing the woman to take an oath either with her husband’s corpse or water that was used to bathe her husband to prove the innocence of her alleged culpability of the husband’s death.
In some instances also, the woman is foisted into marriage with one of her husband’s surviving siblings against her choice and wish. It is not even that important to mention here most times the widow is denied access to the late husband’s estates and other forms of the property while the husband’s surviving siblings enjoy this wealth at the expense of the widow; leaving her (the widow) in penury.
The time to put a final stop to these obnoxious practices is now. All stakeholders and agents of change- the church, government, civil society organisations, especially women groups, the media, should pick up their gauntlets and challenge headlong these obnoxious practices against humanity!