The Igbos of Nigeria and their Osu problem.
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Among the Igbos 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. Osu families exist in almost all the clans that constitute the Igbo people. Accordingly the Igbos know who is an Osu, because Igbos proper identification is by their clans and families. The writer; Remy Chukwukaodinaka Ilona can be very easily traced in Igboland if the person interested in tracing him finds out that he is from Ozubulu. The next step is to ask about the Ilona family, and in minutes the author will be accounted for. The same way the author could be traced is the same way that Igbos know who is an Osu and who is not one.
Since most Igbos would remember, the Osu is among the Igbos an inferior Igbo. He or she could be very well educated, and be 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 respect among the Igbos today, yet to the Igbos he is still inferior. He is less than a ‘normal’, ‘freeborn’ Igbo. An Osu man would not be inducted into the prestigious ozo society of the Igbos, nor would he be made a traditional ruler in any Igbo clan, even if he is the most qualified member of the clan. .An Osu can hardly get a spouse of his choice from a non Osu Igbo family.
Today only very very few Igbos know why the Igbos treat fellow Igbos in such an ungodly way. Physically the Igbo who is an Osu, and the one who is not, are the same. They shared the same Igbo culture (Omenana), which it must be mentioned that the Igbos have generally abandoned, as they are abandoning the Igbo language. Since the Igbos are almost all Christians today both would invariably be Christians. Yet in spite of all these shared commonalities the non Osu Igbo still looks down on the Osu Igbo, and would not intermarry with him or her. 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. Today there are millions of Igbos consigned to perpetual spinster-hood and bachelor-hood because of this problem. Well meaning Igbos; of Osu, and non Osu stock have tried to fight the problem, but have failed woefully, because rather than getting weaker, the discrimination is getting stronger. In my opinion Igbos have failed to tackle the problem successfully because the matter has not been studied at all. Any problem that is not studied cannot be solved.
I am from a noble Igbo family that was chosen to become a royal family when the Igbos began to have kings in imitation of their neighbors; the Igala, and the Bini. The Ilona/Udoji family of Uruokwe, Egbema, Ozubulu in Anambra State produces the obi of Egbema in Ozubulu. The obi is the traditional ruler (king) of Egbema, Ozubulu. Accordingly in this my present sojourn or existence in life there is no chance that I would suffer what the Osu Igbos suffer. Yet for as long as I can remember I have been disturbed about this form of apartheid that the Igbos practice. To be candid; even though I was disturbed I never thought or imagined that I would rise up one day, and fight for the eradication of the blight. Perhaps I did not give the problem much thought because I accepted as accurate what the Igbo people ‘know’ about the Osu Igbos, and the Osu issue, even though I doubted the genuineness of such knowledge: That the Osu Igbos are people whose ancestors were sacrificed to idols, gods, and deities (agbara or arusi). And people whose ancestors ran to idols, gods, and deities (agbara or arusi) for protection. Like many Igbos I have wondered about, and doubted that the explanation is accurate. This is because if the Osus became Osus because their ancestors were associated with idols, gods, and deities, and today the Igbos generally do not worship those idols, gods, and deities anymore, why do Igbos still treat the Osus descendants as if the idols, gods, and deities are still relevant? More than seventy percent of the Igbos are Christians today. Since the colonial era all the political leaders that the Igbos have produced are Christians. Presently the 5+1 Igbo governors are Christians. Also the business leaders of the Igbos are Christians. With the foregoing we can say that all the people that make and influence policies in the Igbo society are Christians. With the statistics that I have reeled out, even Europe, the continent that Christianized the Igbos can’t boast of a stronger attachment to the religion than the Igbos. Yet it appears that the Igbos still respect the ‘idols’, ‘gods’ and ‘deities’, that they are thought to have worshipped in their pre-Christian milieu as if their very lives depended on respecting them. Otherwise why do openly fervent Igbo Christians who are not of Osu stock participants in the drama of shunning the Igbos of Osu stock, who together with them are Christians? One would expect old things to have passed away, now that the ‘idols’, ‘gods’, deities’, have been abandoned, and a great majority of Igbos worship Jesus.
I felt bad, and confused but suppressed my bitterness, and doubts, and continued to pursue my career in legal practice. At a stage in my life I developed an unusual interest in the Igbo people. I began to have an urge to know the Igbos. I began to study the Igbo culture. And Igbo studies led me to Jewish and biblical studies. And working intensively in the three fields I found the origins, and meaning of the Osu institution, and how misinformation and ignorance have created a problem that never existed before, and that is today an albatross on the neck of the Igbos.
Every adult Nigerian is familiar with the notion that the Igbos are Jews. The most cursory examination reveals that Igbo culture and Jewish culture are similar. Since 2002 I have been comparing the Igbo and Israelite cultures in a systematic and scholarly way. I am well positioned to begin this. I have help and motivation from very important Jewish organizations like the Kulanu Inc, Tikvat Israel, Derusha LLC, Forest Foundation, Brandeis University, etc. I am also connected to great Jewish scholars; anthropologists, historians, archeologists, linguists, language experts, ethnologists, and theologians who have interest in finding out if Omenana Igbo (Igbo culture) is truly like Jewish culture. With collaboration from the groups and individuals mentioned above, and with the biggest Jewish and Igbo private library south of the Mediterranean at my disposal, dissecting, analyzing and studying the Igbos was not as onerous to me as it should have been. A small portion of my findings have been published as “The Igbos: Jews In Africa Vol 1”, with contributions from Ehav Eliyahu-New York, U.S.A, Israel, “The Igbos: Jews In Africa-With Reflections on the Civil War and Solutions to the most critical Igbo problems”, “Introduction to the Chronicles of Igbo-Israel and with the connections between the Afro-Americans and the Jews”, with contributions from Anthony Edwards-San Francisco, U.S.A, ‘A Short Story from Igbo Israel”, “Igbo-Israel Union Handbook”. I contributed to “The Encyclopedia of Diaspora Jewry” edited by Professor Errhlich, “The Black Jews Of Africa”, by Edith Bruder. Also much of my thoughts are reflected in ‘Biography of Remy Ilona-The man who worked for Igbo-Israel” by Uche Onwumelu Umeokolo, and www.igboisrael.com, by American Friends of Igbo-Israel, and Derusha Publishing LLC.
Any proper study of the Igbos must engage the Osu matter, because of its centrality and importance to the Igbo people. Accordingly in my study of the Igbos I gave the Osu matter much attention. As I looked at the Osu 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 mentioned earlier. 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 Igbos think that he is today, but a different person who played a very important and holy role in Igbo life in ancient times. I also confirmed what an European scholar suspected: that the Osu institution must have become corrupt and perverted 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. I did not find idols as objects of worship or veneration. 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. The Igbo person is onye ogo Mmuo (worshipper of the Spirit). His God has no form. Also I did not find deities or gods. Interestingly 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’ 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 culturally that they are polytheistic. In Igbo language Chi-ukwu means ‘big 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. 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). I saw an equivalent practice in ancient Israel. The Gibeonites were dedicated by Joshua, the successor of Moses. Samuel was dedicated by Hannah his mother. As I did not find idols/gods/deities 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 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 instruction taught the Igbos that the Igbos were idols, and ‘gods’ worshippers that the Igbos began to think that the Osu was dedicated to idols, deities, and gods.
Igbos also think that an Osu is someone who 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 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 mmuo, arusi or agbara with idols, gods or deities. Mmuo means spirit. Arusi is an abbreviation of the following phrase: ‘ife nkea wu si aru’ (this is abominable). Ancient Igbos regarded idolatry and image worshipping as abominable. They opined that worshipping of idols was abominable. Abomination is aru in Igbo language. 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. Igbos have much regard for their ancestors. In some Igbo localities these ancestors are known as ndi ichie. In some they are known as agbara. In some Igbo communities great Igbo women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Dora Akunyili, Chimamanda Adichie, Irene Malizu-Ilona, Ndi Onyiuke-Okereke, Onyeka Onwenu, Uche Onwumelu-Umeokolo, Nchedo Ilona-Onwuamegbu, my mother ‘Amaka Ilona, etc, are addressed as agbara nwanyi (strong women) I am going to great lengths to prove that in Igbo culture that there are no gods, because it would not be easy for many persons at this stage to agree that there were/are no Igbo gods, but only one: Chi-ukwu, and that the notion that there were more than the One was imported 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 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.
And on why the Osu receives the ignoble treatment that he receives today? As in ancient Israel, the person, among the Igbos, who was dedicated to God was not to be killed, or molested. 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. In fact among the Igbos it is an abomination to draw blood from an Osu; i.e, to wound him or her. 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. To avoid ever doing so let me give him/her a wide berth’. With time the reasons for giving the Osu a wide berth was forgotten, but the giving of a ‘wide berth’ remained, and took on the present form that is shameful.
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 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 what the Igbos know 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.
“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).
I have my most substantive findings on the Osu in my forthcoming book: ‘From Ibri to Igbo: Forty Million More Jews In West Africa’, which will very likely be published in the U.S.A, by Derusha Publishing LLC this year.
The Igbos would seem to have collectively agreed to forget their problems; and concentrate on programmes and objectives that are not very important to the Igbos as a people. If the Igbos had not taken the suggested decision the Igbos would have been fighting tooth and nail to find redress for the Osu problem. This is because the problem has poisoned and divided the Igbo nation, and would not let the nation move up, or forward. I will be contributing pieces on how the problem, and other topical problems have been hindering the Igbos. I will also be suggesting solutions.
Questions and comments could be directed to me via my E.mails, and telephone.