Osu is an Igbo language which literally means an outcast among the society.I know your question now will be how do they come to exist. There are many factors which in the olden days can make one to be referred to as OSU ;
1. Slavery during war
2. Those claimed by the native doctors as the gods children
3. Committing a taboo
Osu caste system is an obnoxious practice among the Igbo in South Eastern part of Nigeria which has refused to go away despite the impact of Christianity, education and civilization, and the human rights culture.
Many people have condemned the system which has traumatized many innocent people but the problem persists. But one fact is that the Osu system of discrimination is an outdated tradition with no basis for its continued practice and observance in the contemporary Igbo society.
Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igboland;
1. The Nwadiala ( Legitimate citizens)
2. The Osu ( Outcast )
The Nwadiala literally meaning ‘sons of the soil’. They are the masters while the Osu are the people dedicated to the gods; so they are regarded as slaves, strangers, outcasts and untouchables.
Chinua Achebe in his book, No longer At Ease, aptly describes Osu thus: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever”.
The Osus are treated as inferior human beings and kept in a state of permanent and irreversible disability; they are subjected to various forms of abuse and discrimination.
The Osu are made to live separately from the freeborn; they reside very close to shrines and market places.
The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relationship with the Nwadiala.
They are not even allowed to break kola nut at meetings or pour libation or pray to the gods on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering.
It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune.
According to human rights groups, some of the atrocities meted out against the Osu in Igboland includes : parents administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, organized attacks, heaping harvest offering separately in churches, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property and expulsion of wives.
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 of the Osu factor, marriages in Igboland are preceded by investigations of which elders on both side travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party. And if it is found that one of them is an Osu, the plan would be automatically abandoned.
Many marriage plans have been aborted, while married couples have been forced to divorce because of the Osu factor. Chinua Achebe also notes this in his book. When Okonkwo learns that his son wants to marry Clara, an Osu, Okonkwo says: “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.”
Sometime last year, a young educated Igbo man, a successful business entrepreneur based in Atlanta (USA) had been engaged to be married to an Igbo lady, who was a medical doctor. The Igbo lady was already pregnant for the man. During the customary family introduction, it was discovered that the lady was an “Osu” and immediately the wedding arrangements were terminated. The lady gave birth to a baby boy and now lives in Houston (USA) as a single parent. The Igbo man has refused any form of contact with the lady and his child with all the education, western culture, civilization and exposure to Christian teachings.
And not too long ago, I met a lady in a friend’s house in Lagos. I was told that she was engaged to a young man from Imo State. Months later, I learnt that the marriage plan had been cancelled because the lady’s family learnt that the man she wants to marry is an OSU and so the marriage was cancelled.
If we all as civilized as we claimed to be ,Christians,well Educated can still be discriminating among our brother and sisters, i see no different between us and our illiterate forefathers that adorned such act. Let both traditional rulers and other well civilized citizens speak in voice against this act.