Citizenship Rights And Osu Caste System In Nigeria

By Courage Obasi 

LOVE they say, conquers all obstacles’! This may be true but this truth is yet to find roots in most Ibo communities of South Eastern communities, where certain dehumanising conventions and customs are still allowed to hold sway. They have stubbornly refused to submit totally to civilisation or the all-consuming power of love.

The Osu caste system was assumed to have been nullified and voided by the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly enactment of 1952 which forbade anybody from being regarded as an outcast, nor anyone be denied his rights and privileges because of such a stigma.

Officially this may be true, but the facts on the ground are entirely different form what was envisaged. This is because certain restrictions and denials still being experienced by spouses whose wishes to consummate their relationship in marriages, have been interfered with by the tradition.

Even those who are ardent practitioners of the Christian or Islamic faiths have a common meeting ground with idol worshippers in that both agree that there are "freeborns" and are opposed to any relationship between "freeborns" and the "bonded". Those who are "bonded are bared from being conferred with certain traditional titles or accorded their due honour in their community.

But principally, one is concerned with the genesis of this concept and how it has succeeded in aborting many blossoming relationships when the parents of one party discovered that the other partner is an "outcast".

Mr Felix Emeribe, Finishing Dept., Arewa Textile, Kaduna, states emphatically that both the ‘Osu’ caste system (embracing men and women) and ‘Mmaji’ caste system (concerning only women) are living phenomena in most parts of the Ibo land. The full appellation is "Osu ogora agbara’ meaning ‘one who is dedicated to the gods’. In effect this means they were ‘Nwafor’ or ‘dialla’ (connoting owners of the land or freeborns) before they were thus bonded.

Samuel Monaka of Harvesters for Christ Ministry, Kaduna, agreed that they are also referred to as the ‘left handed people’ or begotten of oracles or shrines’ because they are dedicated to service of such oracles or idols. He further explained that in the past, they had certain marks (bored noses and ears, etc) to differentiate them from those that were not bonded.

Apparently these marks have disappeared because of the social stigma associated with them and because it made marriage to outsiders almost impossible for them. He also believed that only a few people were in such bondages but the number increased over time because of procreation.

To the question of what earthly reason could have given rise to this form of bondage, Mrs. Ada Kalu, Idu Abuja explained that right from the olden days, an ‘Osu’ was somebody in a lineage who in one way or the other committed a crime against the community (maybe offence against the earth goddess like spilling of blood or incest) and was banished from the community or from all forms of interactions with other community members or family so as to avoid the anger and curse of the gods which it was feared could consume the entire communities if the offender was not so punished.

A further insight was provided by Mrs
Nkechi Ogbonna, Bakori House,
Nassarawa, Kaduna, who said that a person who committs a crime and runs into the shrine or abode of an oracle or its’ forest was believed to have run into the embrace of the oracle and become its property and should not be harmed by anybody no matter the gravity of the offence hence the marks they bore.

Agreed that these thing happened in the past we are at a loss as to why there are still strong currents of such feelings and practices in a land where the dictates of civilisation should have wiped it off.

Is it still relevant? Are the complaints made against such practices in truth? Samuel Monaka, an Ibo who is married to an Igala lady, says ‘yes’. That the strongest resistance he experienced from his parents in Owerri was whether the wife was not an ‘Osu’ whom their off springs would be condemned to perpetuate enstrangement from the society.

While conceding that generally in her area of Nekede, Imo State, there is no intermarriage between "freeborns" and the "bonded", Eucharia Emmanuel, Kubwa Market, Abuja, hit out at its practioners because they have carried over paleolithic instincts and behaviour into modern times. Despite family warnings, she believes that once there is true love she will go ahead to marry, damning the consequences.

The verdict, is that it is hypocrisy for the elites and others to continue to preaching against the ‘Osu’ caste system, while in practice they encourage it. For her, a catholic, they are outcaste forbiden of being married by people not of their ilk. That once sacrificed to an oracle, you are of the gods and should have no intermingling with the "freeborns" as she believes that once sacrifices or given to the oracle, there is a final severance of relationship with the community. "I will stop my daughter from such a marriage. Christianity is superior but what culture rejects is rejected and forbidden, and everybody has his or her roots which when cut off it means death".

The problem of Blessing Ogbonna, of Assemblies of God, Church, Nasarrawa, Kaduna, is that once you marry such a person people will react negatively to such a union. They will look down on you, embarrass you by keeping away from you and asking you directly whether you could not see any other marriageable person around.

Mrs Nkechi Ogbonna gives instances where the ‘Osu’ are shouted down at village gatherings, especially if they speak the truth which is unpalatable to certain powerful people. In their face they are called ‘Osu agalla’, damning the consequences of such outburst.

Is there no way that this tradition or modern
day enslavement can be broken? Kalu Idika
unleashed several invectives at those who claim they are custodians of this puericle and misconceived notion. He impeached the validity of claims that marrying these outcasts will bring curse upon the "freeborns" "What offence did they commit that is not a daily occurrences in the Ibo society today? Name them: abortions, hired killings, poisonings, etc. He further lamented that the character of these holier than thou custodians of culture leaves much to be desired as they are only seeking for relevance and cheap popularity in modern times while consigning generations living and generations unborn to unmitigated disaster.

He laid the blame on the door steps of the orthodox churches which he claimed all along have mixed the disagreeable customs of the Ibo society with attitudes that lend credence to the believe that they are encouraging such practices.

Pastor Etop Hanson, Overseer of Overcomers Word Assembley, Abuja, had this to say, ‘to give unto ceaser what belongs to caesar’ is not to give over human beings to oracles for all men are created by God. God can also break all yokes! He was very emphatic that God made all men and women equal and no tradition has a right to restrict or deny love form blossoming into marriage "No true christian who is a member of the body of Christ would believe in this heathen and adulterated reasoning", he said adding that "God will judge from his standard and not the traditions of men" Buttressing all he said from biblical books of Galatians 3:26, 27, 28; John 12: 47, 48 and Romans 2:16 he advised "Osu" practitioners to have a rethink and discard what has outlived its usefulness.

Our submission is that with the exception of the Ohafia, Abam and Abakiliki areas of the Ibo land, there are strong indications that this governing belief in relationship are still operational and destroying a lot of people and their dreams in their communities. We stopped the killing of twins, the trade in slavery, and a host of other practices that civilisation frown at, yet we are condemning the present and future generations unborn to a live of denials and lack of opportunities for the simple reason they were born to ‘wrong’ parents.

To the lion hearted out there, take the plunge and take wives from anywhere your love leads you to, God who has always been with man will surely see you through.


Faces And Phases: A Mosaic Of Artists


Art, as dynamic as it is allows a wide field of
expression for all trained artists. In this, one is bound
to see new faces every year at art exhibitions. After 1924, on the return of late Aina Onabolu from Britain after having trained as an artist, he came with expatriates to help in the gargantuan responsibility of training Nigerians to practice and appreciate art. This was the first phase. Many of the artists that were trained during the period between 1924 to around 1960 adapted foreign motifs to make their paintings. This, many of the expatriates did not like, as they sought for a continuation of a distinct way of practice among Nigerians. With more than six universities that offer Fine Arts courses today, the influx of foreign books and journals, Nigerian artists have been able to evolve, through the years, different styles, both collectively and individually. The second phase therefore are those artists whose voices are not heard, whose works are not seen because of the attendant preferential treatment and soft-spotting for older artists. This profile of artists below are just a droplet in an ocean of unseen faces in the current phase in art. OLADOSU Johnson trained as an artist at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. He specialised in painting. He at the moment teaches Fine Arts at the Zaria Academy, Shika, Zaria. In this discuss with him, he bares his mind on his thought on art and his works..

Explain descriptively the source of your inspiration?

My art takes its source from my environment; people who are less privileged, people under pressure and remarkable events, which are executed in oils watercolour, acrylics, Gouache and pencil.

What is the direction of your work?

With reference to my MFA Project, my attention was drawn to the butterflies. Most of the available paintings with butterflies are represented as they are seen in their natural habitat and at times with flowers, fruits, birds etc. however, I was influenced by the phenomenon of the appearance of the two different motifs on and beneath the wings. The phenomenon of the appearance connotes a safety device for the butterfly, which portends fundamental philosophical parallels in life.

I believe that in life, as on the wings butterfly, there are two sides to an issue or as the common cliche that states that ‘there two sides to acoin’. The wings of the butterfly therefore provides a fulcrum on which the profound philosophy behind my paintings, such as the difference between the rich and the poor, oppressed and oppressors, living and the dead. I am at the moment still working on more possibilities of this style.

What is your view on art in Nigeria?

Art in Africa has suffered due to the European influence. In the past, our fathers made their creations on the cave walls for the purpose, which could be seen in North Africa, such as Tassili. This influence by the Europeans has not left the Nigerian art out. The syndrome of’ Art for Art sake’ has eaten deep into most of our artists. Before the advent of the ‘white man’, the black man decorates his walls, make his simple woven clothes, masks for all forms of festivals and special occasions, which embraces both aesthetic and functional art forms. The ‘Oyinbo’ [white man] who did not know enough about our culture sold the idea of Art for Art sake, therefore separating functional art and aesthetics. This means that our own artistic African ness does not have as much meaning as it use to, as it compares to this contemporary times.

Art is life, a mirror of the society. It is time we Nigerians stopped creating art that tend towards esoteric art. ‘Let us stop creating pictures,’ as Professor Akolo says, or what Jacob Jari calls ‘bubblegum art’. Let us create art that has meaning to people’s artistically untrained minds. For instance, how do we make our politicians know that there are two sides that must benefit in every issue; you either win or lose. Let us (artists) save the situation with visual content of our works and the various philosophies of life. Much has been given to us, much is expected from us. To the collectors and viewers, do not just collect works or view them without asking questions. The inspiration behind each work of art is as important as the reason for which it was made.

This painting he titles butterfly tracking is borne out of the zigzag movement of the butterfly. It might decide to move straight but not for long. This also echoes the inconsistencies in life. The brush strokes suggest these inconsistent movements of the butterfly.

In this painting, he sees life as a wave that blows every one differently; both good and bad, though it might be temporary. His works, as philosophical as they are, leaves the view with food for thought as it concerns our relationships with each other in life and hour easy we should take life it self.

And to my (John Otu) works, but first, the production of the works in this style goes thus. I begin by painting the background of my work. In that, I leave it for about two days to dry. I then draw the ‘black broken lines’ on the painted surface. A very high level of draughtsmanship is expected in the production of these works, when a proportionate human figure is the subject matter. Two different aspects in life inspire these two works. The painting below was inspired by the poem titled’ An Abandoned Bundle’, written by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali [in Wole Soyinka [1975] ed. Poems of Black Africa p.146]

I read the poem that inspired the above painting with relish, every time I pick the anthological collection to savour my love for poetry, which I also write. The first line of the first stanza inspired my use of blue. This is to capture the use of the word ‘mist,’ in I the poem because the poet talked about the early hours of the morning. The red dots are , the paw prints of the dogs that made the discovery. It is a heart-rending situation of abandoned babies that keeps reoccurring in South Africa and Nigeria alike, but does not seem to have an end in sight. The baby is, in the painting, depicted to be lying in a gutter as against the poem’s baby, which was ‘dumped on a rubbish heap.’

The next painting is based on disagreements between couples of different ages, over different issues, such as decisions over the future of their children.

The various marital stalemates on the long or short run might lead to a separation or a divorce. Not to mention the attendant violence that typifies some of these situations. The attendant emotional setback on both the parents and the children is as imminent as the sun’s unfailing course. Children that come from broken homes are often used as weapons to taunt the female spouse, especially in Nigeria. At times they are prevented from visiting their mother for a very long time. This is simply because the man has custody of the children; but once they become adults, the tables turn against their father. To this end, it is pertinent to note that paintings are not as esoteric as people think they are and neither are they meaningless. They carry meanings that the untrained mind and eyes would normally find it difficult to understand.

On my views on art in Nigeria, I opine that the lion share of the problem that exists on the grounds of art appreciation lyes with the artists. The artists that were first trained passively talk about the problems of art appreciation without making any effort to make things better. This does not mean that they are at the major receiving end of this mounting problem. The Society of Nigerian Artists is still bragging about moves that will stop this and many of its other problems. Students’ graduate yearly from art schools in

Nigeria and the S.N.A. do not have a record of these; as it compares to the Architects professional body. The conduct that guides gallery running in the country leaves artists that patronise them in the claws of various tales of woe. As at now the S.N.A. does not have a gallery of her own, and is probably not planning to own one Vis a Vis the existence of these ‘shylock galleries’. The earlier the S.N.A. sets up a committee to get things going properly the better.

Chidinma Nwankwo, a graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria is one of the few female Nigerian artists braving private practice in a profession dominated by men. She is at the moment undergoing a Post-Graduate degree programme at her alma- matter. Her inspiration, she says are drawn from nature itself. In her own words she says, ‘I believe nature has all that inspires an artist.’ All forms of social vices have been the theme from which artists have always drawn from; with the hope that there will be a change for the better, no matter how gradual. In the use of medium, she says she is more ‘comfortable’ with Acrylic. This painting medium does not smell like the Oil colour and it dries faster than the Oil colour. The direction of her work is currently the modification of landscape elements, such as trees and rocks, as well as the beauty around her.

The painting titled ‘Hope for the infertile’ is an artistic appraisal of the current achievement in Medicine, which avails infertile women the scientific vista to bear children through the Test-tube.

The work is done in stylised naturalism. The profile of the pregnant woman is painted in Lemon yellow to suggest the anxiety and the hope that the new discovery will work; for the first time user. The lower part of the painting shows the test-tube also painted in yellow, orange and blue, supper-imposed against the figure.

The one titled ‘Environmental hazard’ is an abstract painting that depicts the political situation we had just come out of; the military regime. Though the problems at the moment gradually abates.

The violence, turbulence of various kinds, lack and insufficiencies caused by poor water and electricity supply are depicted by the use of the zigzag and curvedly controlled use of co loured lines. The lines are meant to depict the stress people went through daily while the military government lasted and the ones that persist in the present regime. On her views on art in Nigeria, she says that, ‘Art in Nigeria has seriously undergone so much, negative and positive, and diverse experimentation and is getting better. She opined that people are becoming more aware of the Fine Arts, but that there is the need for people to cultivate an attitude of attending exhibitions. This she said will aid people to better understand and appreciation art. She further explained that art works in some developed countries have since being use as collaterals in most of their banks, among many other functions. Perhaps, the part this democracy has to play is to involve art works in many of her programmes. An annual nation wide travelling art exhibition which will also take art to people of various states that do not have art galleries.

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