The Abolishment of the Ohu in Igbo Land

Humphrey and Helen both live in Westminster, the Western part of London. Most of Humphrey’s life had been in London; his parents had migrated from Nigeria, a country located in West Africa, when he was eight years old. The remaining 21 years of his life had been in the White man’s land.

Helen, on the other hand, had only spent two years of her life in London. She came to run a part-time Master’s programme in Biomedical Sciences (Cancer Biology) at the famous University of Westminster. Helen’s family couldn’t have afforded to send her outside the country to study. However, after graduating at the top of her class during her B.Sc programme, her school gave her a scholarship to further her studies abroad. As love or fate would have it, she met and fell in love with Humphrey after her first year in London. Humphrey and Helen were both from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, a tribe known for their resilience, wisdom and business acumen.

Humphrey saw in Helen, everything he wanted in a spouse and more. As nothing was hidden between the two lovebirds, he proposed marriage to Helen. He saw nothing else stopping him from tying the knot with the woman he loved. Despite having lived outside the country for a long time, his family was not about to throw away their peoples’ culture and tradition.

Typically for Igbo people, before the traditional marriage (payment of bride price), both families involved in the union make enquiries about each other (called iju ese). The aim of making the enquiry is to find out things like the religion of the family; if the family are known for a good character; if there is a medical condition that runs in the family etc. It was at this stage that the problem started. While making inquiries about Helen’s family, Humphrey’s parents found out that Helen is called an “Ohu”. Therefore, they told Humphrey that he cannot marry her. At first, Humphrey thought with time his family would come around and let him have his way, but his two parents vehemently refused to have Helen as their daughter-in-law. He had to painfully put a hold on his marriage plans.

Of course, Helen was heartbroken. Her ex also left her because she was taken to be an ‘Ohu’. Her history seemed to haunt her as almost everybody wanted nothing to do with her or her people. It is an untold story that has harmed many, ripping them off their fundamental human rights.

Humphrey and Helen’s story is similar to Obi Okonkwo and Clara’s in Chinua Achebe’s “No Longer At Ease”. Despite acquiring western education, Okonkwo could not marry Clara, the girl he loves simply because she was an Osu.

The history of the Osu caste system (also known as Ohu) can be traced back to the days when traditional religion was more prevalent among the Igbos before Christianity took over. People known as Ohu suffer huge stigma in the Igbo community. Chinua Achebe, a renowned author, in a bid to explain what an Osu means said, “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. It is said that the ‘Osus or Ohus’ are extraordinarily beautiful, yet the ‘freeborn’ Igbos, particularly the traditionists, viewed them as unclean. Such people are very productive, intelligent and useful to the society, yet they are kept in a state of permanent and irreversible disability and subjected to abuse and discrimination. Among other forms of discrimination, they cannot pray to gods or pour libation during gatherings with freeborn. It is believed that such prayers made by an Osu or Ohu on behalf of the Nwadiala will bring misfortune and calamity. Nonetheless, this discriminating cultural act has a high tendency to cause them mental and emotional trauma.

However, the fact that their community pushed them away made them find solace in other things and other places that are okay with having them around. For instance, Osus embraced formal education and Christianity faster than the locals, who were still suspicious of the white missionaries. Nevertheless, the menace of faithlessness amidst those who call themselves christians have made it difficult for the leaders of the Church to permanently put an end to this system of discrimination in Igbo culture. Meanwhile, abolishing this system will restore the dignity of human beings, promote peaceful relationships and reduce conflicts in society.

Against this backdrop therefore, efforts have been on top gear towards the abolishment of this inhuman tradition, through the impact of Christianity, civilisation, and modern education.

Before Nigeria gained its independence, people had lodged different complaints about the stigmatization they have suffered because they are tagged Ohu. This made the old Eastern Parliament make a move towards addressing the issue. The late Premier of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe vehemently kicked against the Osu caste system. Speaking to members of the defunct Eastern House Assembly on 20th March 1956, Dr Azikiwe said, “It is devilish and most uncharitable to brand any human being with a label of inferiority, due to the accidents of history.” The government of Eastern Nigeria in the same year (1956) passed a law abolishing the Osu caste system. The enacted law declared free everybody called an Osu or Ohu, including the children born to the person. It declared the practice a crime punishable by law. It is unfortunate that the different events that led to Nigeria’s independence plus the Biafran war weakened the act reducing its power. At best, the legislation has been able to drive the dehumanizing practice underground, although some places still practise the act, but it is more on a low level and more pronounced in marriages.

Different traditional rulers have also frowned at the ancient Osu caste system and have spoken out against it, urging their communities not to indulge in the act anymore. This is predicated on the fact that discrimination against ‘Osus or Ohus’ is irrational, illegal, unjust and opposed to human rights.

Christianity and western education played important roles in its abolishment. The Church lends credence to the Bible, which maintained that everybody is a new creature in Christ and that there is no discrimination between the jews and the gentiles. Again, our Blessed Lord said, “What I have made clean, nobody should call unclean. Since everybody is one in Christ, the Church has been fighting to see that nobody is seen as inferior to the other.

Also, western education, which came with the church, backed it up that everybody has a fundamental human right, including the right to liberty and expression and freedom from slavery and torture.

Following from the above, it could be observed that the Church leaders have worked hand-in-hand with community leaders such as the Igwe or Eze to see that the Osu caste system is abolished. Our Father Bishop, Most Rev Godfrey Igwebuike Onah has also put efforts on top gear towards the abolishment of the OSU caste system in peaceful collaboration with the community leaders and elders. And from every indication, the Igbos are ready to face it, discuss it, and fight it tooth and nail so that it will be fully eradicated. As Igbos continue to realise that it is wrong to treat another person as unclean because of some things done by their ancestors, Political authorities in the southeast states should work hand in hand with the Church and the communities to envision a new society where everybody can live together, interact, marry whoever they want to marry, elect and be elected without discrimination of any sort.