Osu Caste System: Does It Still Hold Sway Among Christians?
The Osu caste system among the Igbos is an age-long custom rooted in the belief that some groups of people were sacrificed to gods by their forefathers and, therefore, are considered outcasts or slaves. Every man or woman in Igbo land regards Osu as an abomination, never to be toyed with, especially when a freeborn or non-Osu wants to marry someone believed to be an Osu. Expectedly, this practice has caused some unsavoury problems, as many young men and women have been prevented from marrying people of their hearts’ desire, while those that damn the consequence and go ahead to marry an Osu carry the stigma all their live. With modernisation and churches preaching the gospel of oneness and equality, should such a practice still hold sway among Christians? What are clergymen and women’s view on it? Is it Biblical to discriminate? Some clerics told CHRIS IREKAMBA that the only remedy lies in prayers and sensitisation.
‘Osu Is Something You Cannot Wish Away’
(Rev. Fr. Joseph Nwanua, Parish Priest of St. Dennis Catholic Church, Bariga, Lagos)
THE stand of the church is that there is no Jew or Gentile, as everybody is born in Christ. But then, you cannot push aside the fact that these people come from a particular village and culture. So, even if you say we are all one in Christ, such a tradition cannot be so easily swept under the carpet because where those people come from, they are still regarded as Osu. The only thing that can solve the problem is if the Obi, Igwe or Eze takes it upon himself to make a declaration that henceforth, everybody in the community is a freeborn and therefore, everyone should be regarded as one. This way, the stigma attached to the whole thing is completely removed. But as long as that did not happen, it will continue.
Even if the church recognises this group of people as children of God, if that stigma is not cancelled, there is nothing we can do. The villagers will still regard them as outcasts and isolate them, because it originated from their village. So, it is not something you can wish away just like that. But to really deal with it once and for all, let the villagers or village head make a declaration that everybody in the land should be regarded as one. The church has been saying that in God’s presence, everybody is free. We are one in Christ and there is no servant, no freeborn or slave, but the villagers won’t listen.
Unfortunately, the practice has been carried over to the city. For instance, when a real Igboman wants to marry, he would want to know the woman’s place before going ahead. If he makes the mistake of marrying an Osu, all those claiming to be free born won’t attend the marriage and even his parents will disown him. They would say ‘why should you marry from that family or village? Do you want to bring disrepute to us?’ It is really in the village that preaching and sensitization against it should be taken to.
I think this is what the Bishops in the areas should take to the Igwe or Eze and let them understand that this thing happened in the past. If you wish it away here in the city, when you get to the village that stigma is still there, as they still call them Osu. Unfortunately, their girls are always beautiful and some of them are doing well, but the freeborn don’t buy things from them. In the church, we preach that everybody is free. There is no Gentile or Jew, we are all baptised the same way. But when you get to the village, they would tell you that you don’t know what you are saying.
The church may not wed those insisting they want to be husbands and wives, because marriage is not a private thing. People come from a particular family and if at the beginning of a marriage, such a problem already exists, it could affect that marriage later on. It’s a very serious issue and a man cannot just say ‘this marriage is between me and my wife.’ He may do that outside the country, but when he comes back home, people will start avoiding him because he married an untouchable.
In the Bible, the Jews were avoiding the Gentiles before because they considered them unclean even in the time of Jesus and after the Ascension. In Acts chapter 10, Paul and Peter had a vision and the Lord said: “kill and eat…” and Peter said ‘Lord you know that I have never eaten anything unclean.’ But the Lord said to him: “What I have made clean, nobody should call unclean.”
As he was reflecting on that, behold some people came and invited him to Cornelius’ house. He had to explain to the people why he went there because they were accusing him of eating with the Gentile. All this discrimination is still going on all over the world till today. But the Osu thing is gradually going down, though it’s still very strong in some areas. The only way to end it is for the village Igwe or Obi to take a firm decision and abolish it. And while we are waiting for that to happen, we will continue to sensitise the people, and educate them on the need to see themselves as one in Christ.
‘We Are Winning The War Through Prayer And Counselling’
(Pastor Elias Okoro, Senior Pastor, Wind and Fire Ministries/PFN Chairman, Festac Zone)
IT does not hold sway because Christ makes the difference. When you are in Christ, old things are passed away and behold all things have become new. Whenever we are faced with this situation, we usually ask the person to pray and convince the parents and God has always proved He is God. Here, we cannot conduct any marriage that is without the parents’ approval. That is the standard of the church and the Bible.
God does not permit slavery and that’s why even in the Bible, once it is seven years, a year of jubilee, all bought slaves are released, whether they were internal or external servants. That is what obtains in the Bible. But today, they no longer buy anybody as servant or slave in Israel. So, whether we are Gentiles or Israelites, everyone that is of Christ is now spiritual. So, anybody still doing this in the church or encouraging it by hindering people from getting married because of that evil thing is not working according to the scriptures.
It is our duty to pray and expect God to do something. We have witnessed people regarded as Osu getting married because we asked them to wait on the Lord, which they did and because the brother was convinced that this person is the will of God for him in marriage just as the sister was also convinced and she told her parents she wouldn’t marry any other man, except for that very one. If the Lord were in support of that kind of tradition, He would not have connected them, but because the His Hand was in the matter, the marriage took place. And though it was delayed, but after few years it came to pass. Today, that family has become a great help to the community and that evil practice is no longer having a grip on that community because of the decision that family took and because it was God’s divine intervention. So, we believe and trust that God will intervene in many other communities, especially in the East.
Though the church will not wed an intending couple with such a problem, rather, we would depend on God to perform a miracle because people are not greater than God and He will never support the wicked against the righteous. Tradition is always conflicting with the scriptures and that is where we take our stand. God will always intervene, if only we can trust in Him. Osu is not slavery rather it is an outcast, which is different. And it all started through tribal wars. So, the church needs to create awareness, reach out to the communities and make them understand the implication of what they are doing. The churches are not creating the awareness because not much of the cases are coming to them. They come once in a while, but it is an issue that the church must deal with notwithstanding. It is part of our responsibility to work hard and eradicate that, which is not godly. This is an ungodly practice I personally regard as idolatry.
As the PFN chairman in Festac Zone, I will now begin to talk on the matter; so that CAN, PFN and all the blocs under CAN will begin to sensitise people in different communities. My prayer is that God will help the church to really take it up. The Bible says whether we are free or bound we have freedom in Christ. Once you are born again, that stigma is removed because the wall of partition has been broken down. So, every one of us has been liberated. The Gentiles were like slaves before God. And that is why they don’t have a place in the house of worship but any Gentile (that is the heathen) who decides to worship the God of Israel will now be adopted and become a citizen. That stigma or bondage is removed. The Egyptians that followed the children of Israelites all became children of God, Who called them His people. None of them was treated as an Egyptian. That is a clear example.
‘We Recognise A Man And Woman Coming Together To Marry, Not Osu’
(Rt. Rev. Raphael Chibuzo Opoko, Secretary of Conference, Methodist Church, Nigeria)
A FEW years ago the late Dr. Nelson Onuoha, Dr. J. N. Ojukwu and I formed an organisation called People United for the Abolition of Osu Caste System, which acronym was PUO OSU. We wanted to register it and even though we did not succeed, we were able to let people know what Osu caste was. We explained to them that these are the people who ran to the gods when their lives were being threatened and because of that, they were handed over to the gods of the land. But today, we have a greater God, Who sacrificed His only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. That sacrifice once made, gave us the redemption and salvation and with the Christian faith now the Osu caste system is no longer viewed as before in our areas. So, I don’t even remember when last somebody said ‘find out whether he or she is Osu or not before we can get marred.’ But in the Methodist Church, we don’t recognise Osu, we only recognise a man and a woman that have agreed to get married. With the consent of their parents, the church can then go ahead and bless the marriage. And that is why the church usually ask the intending couple(s) “have you done the traditional marriage” and if they answer ‘yes,’ we can go ahead to do the ordinance as the case maybe.
We do a lot of counselling in the case, where the parents of either the man or woman insist that their son or daughter would not marry. There was a case like that which I handled and after discussing with the family, they all gave their consent at the end. The church does not bring confusion into the family, but will seek their understanding in the light of the scriptures before going ahead with the marriage. But sometimes, you have the situation, where the man or woman would say ‘sorry, but if my parents said they would not come to the church, we won’t get the church involved.’ And the next thing, they went to the court and got married. This happens frequently among those living abroad and immediately after that, they are out of the country. After many years and they return with their children, their parents would have no choice than to accept them. But by the Lord’s grace, most of the cases that I have handled, the parents gave their consent.
With my experience of over 30 years in ministry, I have not seen people asking ‘go and find out whether he or she is an Osu or not’. In many areas in Igbo land, especially in Uzuakoli, Aba and Onitsha, where I have been involved in the traditional wedding of my members, I have not seen that. But one thing that is certain is that the case of Osu caste system is not as serious as it used to be. This may be because of education, enlightenment or some other issues surrounding it. There maybe some other areas that may hold sway, of which I don’t know.
I’m a child of God and these people dedicated to the so-called gods I have now dedicated to God Almighty, just like many of the Archbishops, Prelates, His Eminence, Pope are all dedicated to God. Will you now say because they are dedicated to God, they are nothing? Paul went somewhere and saw people worshipping an unknown god, but when he saw their zeal he introduced Christ to them. Immediately, they embraced Jesus Christ and started venerating the only true God. Such issues as Osu arise, when people are ignorant.
My very self I’m Osu Chineke, dedicated to Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. So, therefore, if you say that those who are dedicated to God are now outcast and you begin to isolate them, then of course, the whole world will be discriminated against. Osu caste system is not Biblical because Jesus said ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile,’ that we are all born in Christ. Therefore, there is no division in Christian faith at all.
‘We All Have A Past And In Christ Our Past Is Forgiven’
(Pastor Austen Ukachi, General Overseer of He Is Alive Chapel, Amuwo Odofin)
IN Christ, there is no Jew and Gentile; in Him, there is no prejudice or discrimination. We all have a past. Every human being has a past, but in Christ our past is forgiven and forgotten. When you talk of Osu system, it’s of human making, which any one that knows what the scripture says about our redemption in Christ, about our adoption into the family of God, about the privileges and inheritance we enjoy in Christ today will ignore. Anybody who knows our future position in Christ will know that those things don’t count any more. And any Christian who is worth his/her salt must not be limited or haunted by those things. Those things no longer form the basis of our decisions, because that man or woman is washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. We are all heading to heaven, as Jesus has forgiven our sins. It’s only human beings that set the obstacles to discriminate. It is not so in the kingdom of God, where there is no discrimination, no prejudice and no condemnation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I can’t remember whether such things exist in the Bible, but I think in Numbers chapter 9, some people were condemned as hewers of wood and fetchers of water. But even then, we were not told that they cannot be accepted into the family of God or get married. Now, the Bible talks about some Moabites, who were not accepted into the family of God, after a certain generation but again those things are done away with in Christ. So, whatever we see in the Old Testament, let’s look at the New Testament and see what Jesus had said concerning it. Whatever exists in the Old Testament cannot be carried into the New Testament.
I will encourage those wanting to marry that irrespective of what their parents are saying, they should go ahead so long it has the backing of the Lord. We know that there was some level of discrimination between the Jews and the Samaritans, but Jesus as it were, healed that process. He did not discriminate against the woman. He was willing to drink water from the woman and even used the illustration of a Samaritan to give testimony of the lepers, who were healed. He said: “were there not nine who were healed but one came back to thank God and that person happens to be a Samaritan.” So, I don’t see that as discrimination in marriage.
My word to those who are still holding on to this age-long belief is that Jesus has broken the wall of partition between the various people and that in Christ we don’t have any limitations or barriers. We all have a past, but Jesus has healed our past, forgiven it and therefore, we should live as one.
‘No Stigma To Stop A Child Of God From Marriage’
(Most Rev. Emmanuel Chukwuma, Archbishop, Enugu Province of the Anglican Communion)
AS far as Anglican Church is concerned, we believe in the remission of sins and also the transformation of life particularly in Jesus Christ. We believe that if any one is in Christ, he or she is a new creature. ‘Old things are passed away behold all things are become new.’
We believe that when somebody is converted and he or she is in Christ, whatever barrier whether Osu or not Osu is definitely rejected. Just like Onesimus, who was a prisoner and when he was released to Philemon, everything about imprisonment and stigma of being a prisoner was rejected and erased. When somebody is a Christian, you have no barrier any more, just like the Bible says there is no barrier between the Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles were regarded as outcasts before, who were never accepted by God. But when Jesus Christ was manifested, the gospel spread to the Gentiles and they were accepted as people of God. Same way Christianity is to set people free from this Osu thing and anybody who is a Christian and is a member of Anglican Church will definitely be accepted as a child of God and whatever stigma will be forgotten and will be projected as a child of God in a new situation. If you are getting married, the person is told that you are marrying a new person in Christ. And so, Osu will not have a cause to disturb the marriage. So, it is a matter of belief, a matter of love and agreement.
It is people that still believe in the native customs and traditions that are making the stigma looks so terrible. If somebody is a believer with Christian spirit and mind, he/she can get married without looking at the barrier. All you should look for is how two of you can live together in love, peace and in Jesus Christ. Because there is no marriage in heaven everything ends here on earth.
So, Osu has nothing to do with Christians or Anglican belief because we believe that a child of God is a child of God and there should be no stigma to stop him or her from marriage. The problem we have is these people with double loyalty to God, which makes them to think this is an Osu and therefore, nobody should marry him or her. But if that person is a child of God and has been born again and he or she is a strong believer in Christ, that is what you must look for, not Osu. There are people who are AS, SS and if they are in love and want to get married, they take the risk and get married. Or somebody who has HIV and you tell them and they insist on getting married. So, it is a mater of love and what you want to do with that person for life. You can’t stop such people. The love of God has bound them together.
In the marriage act, once you are 21 years, you don’t need your parents’ consent and even when your parents object to the marriage but the two of you are convinced by Law, you can go ahead. You don’t need anybody’s consent. We also respect the law of the land, but the life the person lives in Christ is more important than the stigma of Osu. The church can wed the intending couple after educating and preaching to the parents.
We are still counselling people, preaching and praying for them and enlightening them to know that as far as Christianity is concerned, we do not discriminate and there is no barrier in this kind of situation. So, the church is doing quite a lot in this regard.
‘Once Baptised, A Member Is Free To Marry Anybody’
(Ven. Uzodi Obialo, Archdeacon, All Saints Christ Army Church of Nigeria, Ajangbadi Ojo L.G.A)
OSU caste system had been a problem, especially in the old eastern Nigeria. Despite the fact that Christianity has gone round everywhere, the people that are known as Osu are so much isolated and discriminated against. They can never be traditional rulers, as they are told they are not indigene. They are also told that their forefathers were slaves bought to serve the deities. Dr. Michael Opara, former premier of Eastern Nigeria, did everything possible to eradicate Osu and all that it stands for. In spite of his effort, however, the stigma is still there, but I thank God because He has a way of liberating His people. We are all created by one God and saved by the blood of Jesus. It is totally wrong for one to see his neighbour as an Osu. In some parts of eastern Nigeria, it is almost fading away.
In our church, once a member is baptized, he or she is free and if they want to come for marriage, there is no problem though their parents must be aware. They must first and foremost go through the traditional marriage. Thereafter, the church can wed them. In fact, the best marriage is traditional marriage, where the two families will come together and bless the couple. Coming to the church is a formality.
In fact, the Europeans imposed marriage in the church on us, but even Jesus said he did not come to destroy people’s customs. If a young man sees somebody to marry, we don’t set a barrier for him or her. The issue of Osu is not practicable here at all because every child of God is washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. They can associate and marry and if their parents resist the marriage, the church comes in to counsel them. It is gradually phasing out and Christianity has done a lot to erase this evil out of Igbo land. I give kudos to churches such as the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and Baptist, as they have done so much to ensure that this evil does not exist again. But only a few people are still holding on to it.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God did mention slavery and He said if one buys a slave, there are a certain number of years the slave should serve his master and thereafter he is allowed to go free. It is almost the same thing with Osu. It is very unfortunate that this evil is in the world. It is Satan that is sowing this seed of making some people become unwanted in the community. With the coming of Jesus Christ, however, everything has ended. Osu and slavery have ended with the advent of Jesus Christ. Those practising it are not doing the right thing.
‘Bible Takes Precedence Over Culture’
(Rev. Victor Igbekele Iwala, Senior Pastor/Zonal Superintendent, Foursquare Gospel Church in Nigeria, Orelope Headquarters Egbeda, Lagos)
AS far as this belief system is concerned, it doesn’t exist in my area in Ondo State. You can marry whosoever the Lord leads you to. It is not a matter of whether this one is an outcast, Osu or not. And it is not even Biblical. Anyone can marry from anywhere from this country. But for somebody to marginalised, isolated or say he or she is from so and so tribe and so, people should avoid them. I don’t agree with that and I will never support such a thing, because it is not Biblical. It is not even normal for anybody that God has not cast aside, but you are now putting a barrier that they cannot marry. If God says you should not marry from so and so place, that is a different thing altogether. But as far as we are concerned, we created by God when you say this person is a bastard, I don’t believe in it, because somebody gave birth to him or her.
My advice is that, as God leads you, marry whosoever you love. For instance, I’m from Ondo State and my first son is getting married to somebody from Badagry, an Egun to be precise. I shouldn’t stop him from marrying the person of his choice or begin to put an obstacle because the woman is not from my place. It is natural for us to believe in the way of the Lord. Even when parents of the man or woman says ‘no’ to the marriage on the ground that the man or woman is an Osu as you call it, I would advise the church to still go ahead and wed the couple because they are of age and therefore, nobody should bar them from marrying each other. If after begging them to see reason and they refuse, then the intending couple is advised to go to the Marriage Registrar and thereafter come to the church and get the blessing of the church.
The tribe involved in this kind of practice should desist from it because we are all creatures of God and according to Isaiah 14; it is not by accident that these people came to be. It is not their making and therefore, there shouldn’t be any barrier. Jesus would not have encouraged it. In fact, He said ‘you are not of Jews, you are not of Apollo, you are all created by God.’ He said it is not by accident that every one of us came to be.
Pastors and men of God from the East should be well grounded in the word of God so as to be able to tackle the problem. The Bible is over anything that has to do with culture. And how many of those that married Osu have died? If they are not allowed to mix with their town’s people, they can mix with the children of God. The people of God are their family members.
But despite that such does not exist in my place, it is only once in a while that I mix with my town’s people, as my blood family is Jesus family. Only once in a while do I travel home; just as it is only once in a while I take my children to the village for them to know where they come from.