Thursday, December 20, 2012

Looking at the Apartheid in the Igbo society through scholarly eyes.

Looking at the Apartheid in the Igbo society through scholarly eyes. skip to main | skip to sidebar

Remy Ilona

I am referring to the anti-Osu discrimination as the apartheid in the Igbo society.

Today in the Igbo society there is a divide between the Igbos known as the “free-born”, and those known as the Osu. The separation is felt most keenly in marital matters. Every “free-born” Igbo would shrink from marrying an Osu. Every “free-born” Igbo believes that he or she is of superior birth than the one who descended from an Osu.

Why am I writing this essay now? I am, because the Igbo people whose culture is arguably the most egalitarian in the world stand diminished by this contradiction. In the more purer Igbo society everybody is equal. The richest man and the poorest man have just one voice (vote) in Igbo affairs. Yet today we have Igbos, possibly numbering up to one million whom other Igbos view as inferior by heredity.

The keen-minded Igbo person must feel that even though there are no campaigns and demonstrations for equality by the descendants of the Osu, that the quiescence doesn’t diminish the gravity or offensiveness of the situation. The discrimination is poisoning the Igbo society; making it to lose vital energy, because a large part of the people actually do not feel that they are a totally accepted or acceptable part of the Igbo community. Very recently an Igbo called me from outside Nigeria, and sought for legal advice. He wanted to know if he could be granted asylum if he makes a case to the country that he wants to be a refugee in, that the Igbos discriminate against the Igbos who are of Osu stock.

It is important at this stage to say who or what the Osu is, and what and who the free born Igbos are.

Who are the free-born, and who are the Osu? The only valid answers that an Igbo can give today is that the free-born Igbo is the one who is not of Osu, Ohu, or Ume lineages, and that one is an Osu if one is a descendant of an Osu man or woman. In other-words one is an Osu if one is a member of an Osu family. I will deal with the Ohu and Ume institutions in another write-up.

Osu families exist in almost all the clans that constitute the Igbo people.
What differentiates the Osu from the free-born Igbo?  Ethnically both are the same. They speak the same language, and observe the same customary and cultural practices. Presently both the Osu and the free-born would more likely than not be Christians, as the majority of Igbos have converted to Christianity. Yet, in spite of all these commonalities every free-born Igbo believes that he is different and superior to the Igbo who is of Osu stock. Since most present-day Igbos would remember, the Osu is among the Igbos an inferior Igbo. He or she could be very well educated, and super-rich; but to the rich, educated, very religious, poorest, not educated, and irreligious Igbo, he or she is still an inferior person. He could even be a Christian priest, thus falling into the category of Igbos that command more respect among the Igbos today, yet to the Igbos he is still inferior. He is still less than a ‘normal’, ‘freeborn’ Igbo. An Osu man would not be inducted into the ozo society of the Igbos, nor would he be made a clan head (traditional ruler) in any Igbo clan. Even if he shares the same faith with fellow Igbos they will still think that he is different and inferior. I remember an Igbo Christian; a man in his mid sixties who told me an interesting story. He said that at one gathering of Igbos outside Igboland, that an Igbo leader/elder whom he knew to be of Osu ancestry was asked to bless the kolanut, and that that made him to refuse to partake of the kolanut, because in his words, “how can I, a nwa afo (free-born) eat a kolanut that an Osu broke, even though he is my fellow knight in the church”?  And as I have observed, an Osu can hardly get a spouse of his choice from a non Osu Igbo family. A few Igbos; a few that can be counted off one’s fingers have tried to cross the lines. Their families have generally disowned and ostracized them so that the entire family would avoid the taint, and the disadvantages that follow being an Osu.

Presently only very very few Igbos know why the Igbos treat fellow Igbos in such a reprehensible way. Today there are many Igbos consigned to perpetual spinster-hood and bachelor-hood because of the anti-Osu discrimination. This is because they could not get the desires of their hearts in their own enclaves, and they would not be received well, if they try to find spouses in the mainstream Igbo society. As well many Igbos have been forced to marry non Igbos, and have ended up with bad marriages, because of the wide gulf of differences separating the Igbos and their Nigerian neighbours culturally. Well meaning Igbos; of Osu, and non Osu stocks have tried to fight the problem, but have failed. The discrimination is getting stronger, rather than getting weaker. Use of legislation to eradicate the ‘Osu institution’ has been tried and it has failed. The relevant law declared that no one is an Osu anymore and proclaimed that no one should discriminate against fellow Igbos anymore because they were of Osu origins. The law failed to achieve its intended objective because it did not recognize the nature of the problem, and thus did not address it.  The Osu were not barred from any of the formal professions. The Osu among the Igbos unlike the untouchable in India, or the lower classes in feudal Europe, were not subjected to dehumanizing treatment. In fact to the Igbos it is aru (abomination); the worst transgression to cause physical bodily harm to an Osu. So nobody could ‘harm’ the Osu in a way that the law would recognize that an injury had been done, but he (the Osu) could suffer worse harm (psychological) by being considered unfit to marry a fellow Igbo who is designated a free-born. So the legislation stayed where it was made; in the air-not changing anything. Church leaders have railed against it from their pulpits, but their condemnations of the discrimination have not made a dent on the problem. Among the Igbos is a popular story about the bishop who delivered a great sermon against the discrimination only to become evasive when an Osu came to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The clan associations, or town unions as they are more popularly but wrongly addressed, and some traditional rulers (clan heads) have also tried, but we can say that the problem persists, and is growing stronger. We can say that it is growing, because what all the efforts have achieved is that they are forcing the problem to go underground. Presently it is not deemed polite to bring up discussions on the Osu matter in public. Among the Igbos the Osu matter hardly comes up for discussion, even in informal circles, yet it is always there; uppermost in the minds of many Igbos. Whenever an Igbo sees a marriageable spouse, he makes enquiries about the prospective spouse, and the first question he or she wants cleared is the freeborn/outcast (Osu) status of the prospective spouse. 

From my findings the Igbos have failed to solve the problem because the Igbos have forgotten who and what the Osu are. Regrettably presently most Igbos are not knowledgeable about Igbo history, cultural practices, and institutions.

As I have observed earlier lack of accurate information is a primary reason that  made the Igbos to fail in solving the problem. The following illustration will be helpful. Many Igbos think that this Igbo against Igbo injustice is a consequence of what they thought they knew and accepted as accurate about the Osu Igbos- that is
  1. That the Igbos who became Osu  were people whose ancestors were sacrificed to idols, gods, and deities (‘mmuo’, ‘agbara’ or ‘arusi’).
  2. People whose ancestors ran to idols, gods, and deities (agbara or arusi which contemporary Igbos think are the words for idols, gods, and deities), for protection.

I had similar thoughts before. I sincerely, but wrongly thought that what I thought that I knew about the Igbos who became Osu was accurate. However with passage of time, and increasing awareness that the Igbos have forgotten their history and culture and that consequently what they were presenting may not be the accurate facts, I began to doubt that the contemporary Igbo position is correct or valid. To cross the hurdle  I tried to find out what makes the Igbos to discriminate against the descendants of the Osu. 

I discovered that it is very difficult to find out why the Osus are discriminated against. It is easy to think that the discrimination arose because the contemporary Igbos felt that as the Osus ancestors were associated with certain idols, gods, and deities that they deserve to be avoided and shunned as today the Igbos generally think that they have rejected and have ceased to worship those idols, gods, and deities.  This position is not valid because the authentic chief priests and high priests of the Igbos, and their families are not shunned and avoided, nor considered to be inferior by any Igbo. In the pre-Christian milieu of the Igbos there were chief priests and high priests who superintended over community religious affairs. Contemporary Igbos gladly marry the descendants of those men.

I think that we will achieve more if we accept that the available evidence has not given us clues that will make us to think that association with idols, gods, and deities brought about the ostracism. Wrong and inaccurate designations have also brought confusion. The Osu is described as an out-cast, which he is not. This makes people to think that the status of the Osu is like that of the untouchable in India. With all the foregoing it is clear that we need to dig deeper.

With great difficulty, and at great cost I was able to get at the pre-Christian milieu of the Igbos. Excavating into the Igbo past is extremely difficult, because Igbo Studies is still in its infant stage.  European colonialism primed the Igbos to study European history, culture, and religion, and to shun and fear Igbo history, culture, and religion. Also the Igbos’ experience in contemporary Nigeria has not helped. Emerging from defeat in the Nigerian Civil (Biafran) War, the Igbos developed feelings of inferiority which made them to scorn their own culture, history and heritage, while striving to imitate the cultures, and to assimilate the histories of those that triumphed over them. So, to find entry into Igbo history is very hard.  However with the right tools, motivation, and patience I was able to find my way inside. I began by stepping back; one step at a time. And to compile Igbo cultural practices. As I continued stepping back, and my compilation continued to grow, my fascination continued to grow. Querying everything, and not neglecting anything I continued until I arrived at the source of Igbo culture: ancient Israel, and confirmed that Igbo history is a strand of Jewish history. With this it was possible for me to deal definitively with the Osu institution. Dealing with the subject I found out how misinformation and ignorance created a problem that never existed before (the anti Osu discrimination); a problem that is today an albatross on the neck of the Igbos.

As I looked at the Osu institution I was led deeper and deeper into the Igbo religious culture which we believed that it gave us the Osu, and the problems associated with it, such as the discrimination which I have been writing about. As I probed I began to see and understand things that could only be understood if properly studied. I discovered that the Osu person was not what the contemporary Igbos think that he is, but a different person who played a very important and religious role in Igbo life in ancient times. I also confirmed what an European scholar suspected: that the Osu institution must have become misunderstood because of Igbo contact with Europeans during the European sponsored Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

To find out if the Osus were actually sacrificed to idols/deities/gods I investigated the Igbo religion. In Omenana I did not find idols or images as objects of worship or veneration. I’ll explain very soon why I said that in Omenana (the Igbo religion) Igbos do not worship idols. Traditionally the Igbos do not prostrate or kneel in prayer. Also traditionally the Igbos do not kneel, prostrate or bow to any object that has physical form. Unlike their fellow Nigerians (from many of the other ethnic groups), the Igbo does not prostrate, bow or kneel when saluting even human-beings. And in the Igbo religion (Omenana), the Igbo person/adherent is onye ogo Mmuo, worshipper of the Spirit if translated into the English language, so there could be no doubt that he did not worship idols/images which clearly have forms, i.e, are physical objects, and are therefore clearly not spirits. To the Igbos God has no form, but is Mmuo (Spirit). Also I did not find deities or gods. Diligent investigation did not unearth any. Very revealing is the fact that the Igbos do not have a word or phrase that could be used for gods or deities, as they have a phrase- Chi- ukwu that is used for the Supreme Being (God). In English language ‘God’ with a capital G stands for the Supreme Being alone, and ‘gods’ stand for ‘false’, ‘smaller’ and ‘other’ gods. This suggests strongly that the English people knew many, or at least more than one god. In other words, that religiously, they were/are polytheistic. In Igbo language Chi-ukwu means ‘big/great God’, but the Igbos have no equivalent phrases like chi- nta or chi-obere (small gods) or chi-ozo (other gods) or chi ugha/asi (false god). So even at this stage we can rule out the falsity that any Igbo person was sacrificed to any idols, deities or gods, because the idols, deities or gods simply did not exist, for the Igbos. As I advanced further I found out that there was actually an Igbo religious practice that called for persons to be dedicated to the Supreme Being (Chi-ukwu). And, to use a favorite phrase of my elder brother, Avraham Phil Van Riper, ‘here it comes’, I saw an equivalent practice in ancient Israel. The Gibeonites were dedicated by Joshua, the successor of Moses (Moshe). Samuel (Shmuel) was dedicated by Hannah his mother.  Joshua (Yehoshua) spelt out what the Gibeonites were to do in the ‘house of God’. They were to serve/work there forever.  Clearly Samuel was an assistant to Eli the priest in the house of God at Shiloh. And what do the Osu Igbos do in the precincts of the holy places (now known as shrines) in Igboland? Answer: they work/serve as assistants of the officiating priests (ndi eze Mmuo). Up-till today most Osu quarters are in the neighborhood of the shrines in the various Igbo clans.  An Igbo took issues with me for suggesting that Joshua’s Gibeonites who were non Israelites were akin to the Osus who were Igbos. I did my best to explain that the biblical case shows a practice that the ancient Israelites were familiar with.  That the Bible revealed that the Israelites dedicated people to serve in the house of God forever. That the example we saw first was of non Israelites being dedicated did not reduce the weight of the evidence which is that the ancient Israelites did something very similar to what the Igbos did. In continuation, as I did not find idols/gods/deities existing and worshipped by the Igbos in Omenana I ruled out the option that any person was dedicated to any phantom idol, god or deity among the Igbos, but to Chi-Ukwu (the Supreme Being). At this stage it was easy for me to confirm what I suspected; that it was only after the British defeated the Igbos, and the European missionaries that took charge of Igbo education and moral instruction indoctrinated and misled the Igbos to believe that the Igbos were idols, and ‘gods’ worshippers that the Igbos began to think that the Osu was dedicated to idols, deities, and gods. Presently only very few Igbos remember that there was a time that the Igbos worshipped God, because virtually all the Igbos passed through the educational system that portrayed and presented the Igbos as pagans, polytheists, heathens, and savages.

Igbos also think that an Osu is someone whose ancestors ran to an idol, a deity or a god for protection. Truly there was an ancient Igbo practice that guaranteed immunity to anyone who fled to Chi-ukwu for protection. As there were no idols or deities or gods among the Igbos it is simple to understand that it was the same process that led the Igbos to forget that it was Chi ukwu that the fearful ran to, as in the former case, that also made them to forget, in the case in question. In ancient Israelite culture there was automatic immunity for an Israelite that ran to the God of Israel for protection.

Contemporary Igbos; cut-off from their culture, and history, would identify their ancestors, mmuo, arusi or agbara with idols, gods or deities. Very recently a prominent Igbo man called Akpu, one of the progenitors of my clan Ozubulu, a deity. Mmuo means spirit. Arusi is an abbreviation of the following phrase: ‘ife nkea wu si aru’ (this is abominable). Aru is abomination in the Igbo language. Ancient Igbos regarded idolatry and image worshipping as abominable. Anything that hints of idol or image worshipping was/is aru to the Igbos in pure Omenana.

Agbara is used to refer to illustrious personalities; living or departed. Traditionally Igbos have much regard for their ancestors. In some Igbo localities these ancestors are known as ndi ichie (honorable people). In some they are known as agbara. Some Igbos can refer to great Igbo men like the Great Zik, Chinua Achebe, M.I .Okpara, Emeka Ojukwu, Alex Ekwueme, F .C. Ogbalu, Uche Eni, etc, as agbara. In some Igbo communities illustrious Igbo women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Dora Akunyili, Chinwe Obaji, Oby Ezekwesili, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Irene Malizu-Ilona, Ndi Onyiuke-Okereke, Kate Odabi, Vera Oguejiofo, Onyeka Onwenu, Uche Onwumelu-Umeokolo,  my mother ‘Amaka Ilona, etc, are addressed as ‘agbara nwanyi’ (strong women).

I am going to great lengths to prove that in Igbo culture there are no ‘gods’, because it would not be easy for many persons (including Igbos) at this stage to believe the truth which is that the Igbos were not pagans and idol worshippers, and that there were/are no Igbo ‘gods’, but only the one God: Chi-ukwu, and that the notion that there were more than the One to the Igbos was imported from outside, and imposed by non Igbos. With common-sense one would easily realize this; because if there were gods there would have been phrases similar to Chi-ukwu, such as chi nta/ obere identifying them in the Igbo language.

So if we see that in Igbo culture that there is only one God-Chi-ukwu-the Supreme Being, we would easily see that the Igbo Osu was dedicated to serve that God, and that the Igbo that ran for protection to Chi-ukwu ran to the God that most Igbos believe that they are worshipping today. Interested persons can learn more about the Osu institution in my just published book: The Igbos and Israel-An Inter-cultural Study of the Oldest and Largest Jewish Diaspora, which is available at……………………………… and can join in discussions about it at the facebook pages of the Igbo Israel University, the Igbo Israel International Music and Film Festival plus Book Fair 2012, and Odinala/Omenana (Igbo Culture Defenders).

Also, on why the Osu receives the ignoble treatment that he receives today? Here it comes again. As in ancient Israel, the person, among the Igbos also, who was dedicated to God was not to be killed, or molested. Violation of the law invited serious retribution in ancient Israel, as it surely did in the traditional Igbo society. In ancient Israel King Saul killed the Gibeonites. In King David’s time the Gibeonites sought for a redress, and they were allowed to kill several scions of the family of Saul in retaliation. Also as in ancient Israel, among the Igbos a person that fled to God had automatic immunity from all pursuers. He could not be killed, or even molested. King David’s army chief, his nephew General Joab tried to avail himself of this immunity when King Solomon went after him for backing one of his rivals in the tussle to succeed King David. In fact among the Igbos it is an abomination to draw blood from an Osu; i.e, to wound him or her, and not to talk of killing one. With all the foregoing it is easy to see that it is the fear of violating the custom that has resulted in what we have today. A reconstruction of how the present apartheid-like situation evolved could present the following picture: ‘I shouldn’t hurt this priest-like personality, (that is more like the mass-server in the Roman Catholic Church). To avoid ever doing so let me give him/her a wide berth’. With the passage of time the reasons for giving the Osu a wide berth were forgotten, but the giving of a ‘wide berth’ remained, and took on the present form that is shameful. Also very disastrous is the Igbo abandonment of the Igbo religion which gave them a privileged status in the Igbo society.

There are other Igbos that will not be given the rights and privileges that free-born Igbos enjoy, in certain circles, even though they are free-born too. For example an Nri priest, or an Aro merchant who resettled/resettles outside his clan, in another clan would never be allowed to be an aka ji ofo (priest-elder) in the family/kindred that hosted them. It is made clear to them that they are ndi obia (guests). They cannot aspire to be traditional rulers in communities in which tradition influences the choice of traditional rulers. Beyond these they are as free as any regular free-born. They can inter-marry very freely with any person of their choice, unlike the Osu who can’t, because of the afore-mentioned reason.

One could ask why all these have not occurred to most Igbos. Igbos do not know all these because Igbo Studies is still very very undeveloped, and most Igbos have not yet realized that there is anything worth studying about in their own history and culture. This is because the little that the Igbos have been taught about their history and culture, though filled with lies, inaccuracies, and forgeries, are not edifying, but are nevertheless what the Igbos believe to be Igbo history and culture.

For something that hints at support for my last statement I would like to continue this article with a quote from the “Ropes of Sands” by A .E. Afigbo, and reproduced in my book “Introduction To The Chronicles Of Igbo Israel-With the Connections Between The African Americans And The Jews”-

“Nevertheless, every now and again, one has a sense of an older culture lying behind what one sees, long forgotten by the people themselves, grown so faint that it is only in certain lights that one catches a glimpse of it, but the glimpse is of something so rich, so vital that the present sinks into insignificance beside it. I heard it twice in a woman’s song, saw it once in a woman’s dance, once in a ritual gesture of embrace, once in the shape and decoration of a water-pot, once in the mural decoration of a mbari house” (Mrs. Sylvia Leight-Ross on Igbo culture in African Women, 1939, p55).

Also because the colonialists foisted a dependency culture on the Igbos, unconsciously the Igbos expect some invisible forces to sanitize and improve their society. Also the indoctrination that salvation and redemption is personal has been so internalized by the Igbos that today every Igbo seeks for just his own good rather than the public and general good, thus the contemporary Igbo seems unable to tackle problems that face the community. These reasons are some of the reasons which render the Igbos helpless in the face of major, and even minor problems.

Now, how can we solve this problem?

The Igbos can solve this problem by studying it, and re-educating themselves  about it. Unfortunately many of the Igbos are poor now, and do not invest much of  the little that they have in educating themselves. So how costly it would be to re-educate, de-programme, and re-indoctrinate forty million plus individuals can only be imagined. But it could still be done. If every Igbo commits 10% of his/her annual income, and the multimillionaires and billionaires give more in donations for Igbo education and re-education in 5 to 10 years we would have gotten all the information and institutions that we need to tackle the problem of general ignorance; institutions like schools, universities, polytechnics, libraries, newspapers and magazines with the primary objective to inform, etc. If we do not invest in information and knowledge we will continue to reap and harvest ignorance, suffering and poverty. There will be more on what the Igbos can do to fight ignorance in another essay which will be coming up soon.

I have been asked if modern Jews/the Israelis practice discrimination against Osu. My answer is that the modern Jew has never allowed himself to be completely disconnected from his history and culture as the Igbo is almost certainly disconnected. And thus the Jew will never have the sort of problems that the Igbos have. The Jew knew what the person that ran to God stood for. The Jews know and have never forgotten that there is only one God; the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). And for thousands of years the Jews have known that other ‘gods’ are actually illusory, and that they do not in fact exist. He also knows that to ‘know’ about the existence of ‘other gods’ is an aberration.

Comments are invited.

Suggested for further reading: M.O.E Ene’s Essay On The Osu 

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