Ogechukwu Maduagwu is a make-up artist, entrepreneur and founder of the Initiative for the Eradication of Traditional and Cultural Stigmatisation in our Society. She tells RAPHAEL EDE that the NGO is to campaign for the abolishment of the Osu and Ohu caste systems in Igboland
What are the Ohu and Osu caste systems all about?
Ohu is literally a slave. It is like a settled slave owned by an individual. During the era of slave trade, some of our people – the influential and the rich – bought human beings to assist them with house chores and farming, and that was how they acquired them. So, Ohu belongs to an individual or a family. On the other hand, Osu are those believed to have been dedicated to the deity of a community and also pledge the faithfulness of their unborn generations. An Osu can be an indigene of a community but most indigenes of that community, who are Osu, became so through interaction by interacting with Osu, but most Osu are bought by the community from the slave market or captured during communal wars just to thank their deities. They are like mass servants but are regarded as untouchable. They don’t interact with the so-called freeborn otherwise known as ‘di-ala’.
Do you have in mind the discrimination and stigmatisation the Ohu and Osu descendants are subjected to in Igboland when you set up the NGO to fight for their abolishment?
Very well, it is because of the discrimination, the inhumane treatment, the segregation and the deprivation against them that triggered the founding of this NGO to fight against it by enlightening our people on the need to do away with it. It is an evil tradition. It may have been instigated by our ancestors, but it doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t fit into our present world. So basically, the purpose for the non-profit organisation is to educate our people; to encourage them to learn and relearn in this present world; people are yearning for freedom, shouting for freedom, encouraging people to be free, fighting for people to be free and so, we can’t hold on to what we don’t know. It is vague to us because nobody knows what it is.
Lovers are being prevented from marrying each other when one is Osu or Ohu. What does it portend for the Igbo youth?
It simply says you are not equal – that this is a sub-human and that you are higher as a human being. So, the ‘di-ala’ or so called freeborn shouldn’t mingle with someone who isn’t in the same class. Then, mostly they say the gods will wreak havoc like the Osu that were dedicated to the community deities. You know, not even the people who were dedicated to the deities, but their descendants at the moment and they have all left the shrines and the secluded areas where they were kept.
Everybody has moved on with their lives, but they still believe if you go ahead and marry them that the gods will wreak havoc. But I don’t think it is true because through investigation, we have seen people who got married to them have children. The only thing that happened is that the stigmatisation is extended to the products of the union, but not like the gods actually have done anything; some even have a child or two before they will say the gods will do this or that and because of that, they abandon the children and the women; and so they will not have fatherly care. So, based on all these things that we found out, we realised that that thing they say that the gods will wreak havoc isn’t true. People go through life issues and it happens to everybody.
In the cause of the NGO’s activities, have you seen or come across Osu descendants who got married to freeborn and have lived together for 10 years or more?
Yes, we have seen them. There are some cases whereby somebody will call you that he wants to get married to a lady and his family says no because the mother of the potential bride is an Osu, but the father isn’t. Last year, when we had our conference in Owerri, we invited some of them to come and testify. The couples gave their names, where they came from, how long they have lived and how well they have lived together. So, you can even go to those places to confirm and find out if it is true.
Two lovers were said to have committed suicide because their families refused their marriage. Do you think committing suicide will solve the problem?
No, but it has proven that this very tradition is still well practised by our people though they live in denial. Like in our advocacy in some communities, when you get there they will say we don’t have any issue with them, we eat with them, they are even in the Eze’s cabinet, we do this or that with them. I think the issue is you still refer to them as them and not us – there’s still that dichotomy, there’s still that division. That you people eat and drink together, do you marry each other? And they will say no. It didn’t solve the problem but it helped to prove a point that our people are still into this tradition. I wish the couple were able to reach us.
We had a couple of issues and they called us to share their experience, how they were stopped and have resisted and everything. What we usually do is to intervene by going to their traditional rulers’ palaces with our advocacy and once they see that we are in their communities negotiating for the abolition of the systems, it gives them hope and they will hold on.
Sometimes, I refer them to the Archbishop of the Owerri Catholic Archdiocese, Most Rev. Anthony Obinna, if they are ready to get married. The cleric contacts their families and if they insist that they will not get married, he goes ahead to wed them.
Criticisms have continued to trail the recent Supreme Court decision, which described as obnoxious the practice of denying women right to inheritance from their families. Some traditional rulers have kicked against the decision and vowed that that judgment cannot override their culture and tradition. What do you make of this?
Personally I am focusing on the Osu/Ohu; I will not want to delve into that, but I think it is also personal – like if you have female children and you want them to inherit part of your property, it is left for you to give it to them and nobody will stop them from having it. I also think it has to do with the family. The traditional rulers are in their palaces. You have your land, if you agree with your male children and your wife for your female children to have some portion of your inheritance I don’t think it will be an issue.
I think it is just hypocritical, because most traditional rulers will still go ahead to allow their daughters to get something from them but they just come out to say it is our tradition.
So, I think what the traditional rulers are protesting against is that they were not carried along and not that it is wrong for it to be changed if you asked me.
Some people have blamed Nollywood and play writers for fuelling the continued discrimination against Ohu/Osu descendants. Do you share this belief?
Not really; it is neither here nor there. People don’t like when you expose evil – I think through the movies, they have been able to tell people in the open that this thing still exists. I have never seen any movie that encourages the practices. So, the movies have actually helped to create awareness that this thing still exists and in most movies that I have seen, they end up by condemning it.
What is your experience on those who have explained such discrimination?
The thing is that they have developed a thick skin and are living with it; so they don’t need your help anymore. They have moved on with their lives and they are sometimes aggressive. So, when you are even talking to them, they feel like they don’t need this but, I truly understand their pains because there was time they were calm, they were polite in their approach believing that the freeborn (‘di-ala’) would understand that this thing should be discarded, but our people kept upholding it.
So, some of them have risen in some communities to fight to defend themselves. They have formed a parallel government or system in some communities, especially somewhere in the Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State. There, you see some communities that have two, three ‘offors’ because the first people who claimed to be freeborn have their own and will not integrate them. They now got their own ‘offor’, acquired their own chieftaincy titles and live their lives.
This is how they have been, but we have been trying to talk to them that this same segregation and discrimination is wrong because by so doing, they are practicing what the others are practicing as well.
What are the details of the couple who killed themselves? How did it happen?
I sincerely do not know, but I have just confirmed that it is true that it actually happened in Okija in Anambra State.
Why did some of these practices persist despite the level of education in the South-East?
It is because we haven’t gone to the grassroots. You know all these things started by people sitting down to plan their lives; how they want to live in their communities; and lately we haven’t been sitting down to discuss these things in our town union meetings, in our churches and societies. It is not a priority for us and that is why it has continued to exist. So, now, we have started discussing it, talking about it and we will definitely get a solution to it.
People are becoming aware that this thing shouldn’t be. People now have the opportunity to talk about it without any fear. Before, when you mentioned it, people would not associate with you; but now, we are bold to talk about it and definitely we will find a solution; and secondly, fear that the gods will wreak havoc when you talk about abolishing it.
Last week, we were in a community. A young man now asked me if I am married and I said no, he said okay, go and marry an Osu then you will come back and talk to us. I asked him why? If I get married to an Osu, what will it do for you? He said then we would know that there were no issues with it. I told him that he had taken the matter away from the focal point where we were focusing on. We are focusing on abolition. We are not saying go and marry. People have married them but if we abolish it, at least, it will help you to abolish the fear in your mind and your spirit mind that the gods, if you see them like pour libation and all that to appease the gods and in a reversal pronouncement, that we don’t want to continue with this; that we have become equal and that fear will leave you because they believe that our ancestors also make a pronouncement, a declaration with the ‘offor’.
So, if you use the same ‘offor’ to revoke and reverse it, it will now give you the confidence to move forward and see them as your equal and interact more with them. You know before now, you don’t sit under the same roof with them. You don’t interact with them at all; but these days, we interact, we eat together and do everything, yet the gods don’t do anything. It simply shows that there was actually nothing in it.