November: Old Igbo Social Castes  (See Caution under ANNOUNCEMENTS: Delicate Topics)

Happily, the ancient practice at the core of this essay has largely faded with our emergence into the milieu of Westernized societies. It was a pernicious custom that stressed out and often ruined people whose standing in society arose from accidental situations that they and their ancestors could not help.

Unlike societies (such as India) that still struggle with notorious caste syndromes, the Nigerian governments and society took bold steps within my own lifetime to suppress the labeling of people into castes. So, remember that here we are talking about customs predating Nigeria’s independence. And remember, also, the caveat that launched my blog: I am no authority on Igbo customs, only a curious student. So, if you have any valid insight to contribute, it will be received with gratitude.

Here we are talking about traditional practice of local bondage among Igbos. It excludes the more controversial practice of commercial enslavement which, largely associated with itinerant Aro people (people with ancestry traceable to Arochukwu, with its notorious cult of the Long Juju) who traded captured natives to Portuguese and Arab slavers who, in turn, cruelly exported them far beyond the seas. However, before we condemn Aros summarily for complicity in the abominable slave trade, we should note that those were cruel days. When I was a child and liked to play around and climb trees far from home my Papa sometimes remonstrated with me by recounting some grim fates that might befall a child who was abducted ‘in the old days’ of his own father, my grandfather: burying alive or decapitation as ritual sacrifice to accompany a dead man of substance in the afterlife, bondage to a strange deity at a foreign shrine, permanent indenture to a willing buyer, etc. The sad fact was that human life was cheap everywhere in those times.

Free or Bonded?
Among Igbos of old, you were either free-born, “nwa āfor” (literally, ‘child of your family’s belly’) or you were a bonded slave: bonded to an individual, the community, or a deity. Apart from being born into one of those categories, you could also insinuate yourself into an undesirable caste by your own action. For instance, marrying an Osu made you one automatically. And if you ran to a sanctuary (which was a shrine always) to save your life you became ‘untouchable’ right away: You were safe from pursuing humans, but you had also become bonded to that deity. Or if you committed an abominable act (such as the murder of a pregnant woman) you had made yourself into an űmé—a vile perpetrator, who could be readmitted into fit human society only after grave propitiation rites.

The connotation of Osu (indeed, the English word for it during my childhood) was an ‘untouchable’: quite similar to the Hindu concept of the word.

Some of us will remember the ultimate act of abomination that galvanized the Ogoni people against Ken Saro-Wiwa in his losing tussle with the Nigerian federal government. His activists were chasing four Ogoni chiefs who dissented from Ken’s methods. The chiefs ran into the shrine of a deity for refuge, thereby taking the final gamble of a traditional people. But Ken’s men violated that sanctuary anyway and murdered those chiefs. The point here is not against Ken Saro-Wiwa, but to point out that the act/gamble of those chiefs was the last, desperate attempt by fugitives to escape lynching. In traditional Igbo society (as among the Ogonis, who might be deemed peripheral neighbors of Igbos) if you ran to the succor of the gods no human would kill you without having to answer to the god in question. But the cost to that fugitive was that he or she would never again be a free person because he or she had willfully surrendered to bondage to the gods. That status is what Igbos called an Osu: a person consecrated to the service of a deity.

One of Chinua Achebe’s stories (in Girls at War) was about an Osu family which found respite from rustic ostracism by converting to Christianity—only to become bigoted themselves by disdaining to accept what they called ‘idol food’ from animist villagers whom they called ‘heathens’. (Igbos would liken such chutzpah to the tale of Nwanza the bird which got sated and drunk at a feast and, alas, got up and challenged his Chi to a wrestling match!)

The connotation of ‘umeh’ was ‘abominable transgressor,’ or one who committed what Muslims term ‘haraam’ in Arabic. It is a vile deed for which even special propitiation rites might not cleanse the transgressor. The full expression, as I understood it as a child, was “Umeh mērē ji na ēdē: ‘The vile one who has offended the gods of harvest and prosperity.’ Like the Osu, the Umeh was not redeemable and could only associate intimately (e.g. marry) within his/her own caste.

Unfortunately, the inheritability of the status of Osu or Umeh was a little like the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which damned people permanently for acts (if any) committed by their distant forbears. I used to think our ancestors were uncommonly ‘primitive’ to evolve such a system in which some splendid persons I knew personally were consigned to an ignoble status because of what acts might have been committed by or inflicted on their ancestors. But I no longer wallow in self pity about that: Such custom was universal. Permanent serfdom was the rule and not the exception in all societies: European, Oriental, etc. And even today the British (who leaned hard on their colonies to abolish the caste systems) still live in societies that remain steeped in hereditary peerage and rigid social stratification. It reminds me of a joke I heard in England.

A grand duke swept out of his estate resplendent in his courtly robes, heralded by trumpeters and attended with huge pomp and pageantry by his court. At his gate he saw a beggar who refused to jump up and kowtow. The duke stopped his train and engaged the feisty, homeless beggar:

Duke: “Who might ye be, Sire, that you show no respect to your betters?”
Beggar: “And who might ye be, Sire, to be asking?”
Duke: “Why, Sire, I’m the duke that owns this domain: Lord and master of all I survey.”
Beggar: “And pray, Sire, how did ye come by it?”
Duke: “Why, my ancestors fought for it and prevailed.”
Beggar: “Well, Sire: come down from your high horse and we’ll fight for it all over again!”

As Thomas Paine indicated in his writings, hereditary social positions are an affront to human dignity, equality, and intelligence.

The third (and least pernicious) category of bondage that I knew was that of the indentured servant or Ohu (pronounced Oh-hoo).

If your family came to mine and borrowed something dear (often money), a child of your family might be sent into mine as an ohu: a form of security for that loan. Often the loan was not repaid (there were no lotteries to win!) and so the child stayed indentured for life. Up until I grew up and went to live abroad, our family had one such. He was a handsome old man of impeccable manners and great kindness; and we all knew what family he came from in our village. Apparently he was indentured to my grandfather, Ogbuji. By the way, ‘Ogbuji’ is an Igbo title: literally ‘killer of yams.’ It was a title taken by the most successful farmer in the realm. (For a discussion of such titles, see: http://nigeriamasterweb.com/Masterweb/breakingnews-211214-peter-obis-papal-knighthood.)

Because Osu and Úmēh were/are such loaded words, it is crucial to point out that those appellations also served as proper names or name prefixes for people. Any connection of such names to the caste system is not clear. For instance, one proper Igbo name is Osuéké. Ēkē is The Creator; hence Osuéké is an exact equivalent of the Muslim name Abdallah or Abdullah (Slave of Allah’) that signifies full subservience to Allah; another is Osuji, perhaps one consecrated to or favored by the god of harvest.

Úmēh also served as a personification of death: literally, Mr. Death—as in the name/plea: “Úmēzurìké” (Death, Give us a break!), and Úmēzuoké (Death is everywhere). Ancient Greeks had the same thing in Thanatos (‘Mr. Death’).


Surfing the net today (11/11/2015) I came across a deeper article on the topic of Osu, and it is supplemented with a lot of comments from readers. Check it out at: