The Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igboland that discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of persons called Osu (Igbo: outcast).
Osus are dedicated to the deities (Alusi) of Igboland; they are considered as inferior beings and are usually separated from the Nwadiala or diala (Igbo: real born)
The origin of the osu caste system can be traced back to the era when the Igbo city-states were managed by the laws of the earth, known as Odinani.
The deity, known as Ala, provided rules that must be obeyed by the people so that the nation would be blessed to prosper in the territory given to them by Chukwu, the Supreme God.
Offenders who were found guilty of great abominations were cast away so as to avoid the anger of the earth Deity and to prevent the spread of abomination among the citizens of the state.
These outcasts were identified as Osu. They were either sold to slavery to other men or were delivered to be enslaved to certain deities who were believed to ask for human sacrifice during festivals in order to clean the land from abomination, thus leading to the purchase of a slave by the people.
Another view on the history of the osu caste system centres on ostracization. This occurs when a person or group of persons who refuses the orders of a king or the decision of a community are banished from the community, thus resulting in the victim and his descendants being called osus.
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The osus are treated as inferior persons to the class of the Ndiala people. The osus are made to live in shrines or marketplaces and are not allowed to have any relationship with the real born.
In Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, he said osus are given separate seats in churches. The osus, who are also seen as unclean, are not allowed to break kola or make prayers on behalf of the real born because it is believed that they will bring calamity upon the society.
This form of maltreatment and punishment have prompted the osus to flee to other countries for survival.
Criticism of the practice
Since the introduction of modernization in Igbo land, the osu caste system has been criticized by people who feel it is against human rights to freedom from discrimination.
According to some human rights groups who are calling for its abolishment, some of the punishments meted out against the osu in Igboland include: parents administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property and expulsion of wives.
On 20 March 1956, Igbo legislators in the Eastern House of Assembly, Enugu abrogated the then common practice of referring people to as osus. The fines imposed have discouraged the public expression of the word osu.