Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Monday, March 4, 2019


Photo: "Alusi The same shrine with its priest (seated) and it’s osu (“juju slave”), Orsu, West Isuama Igbo". G. I. Jones, 1930s. Jones Archive, Southern Illinois University.

Osu has been described as a ritual outcast or caste system. People who are deemed osu are discriminated against in terms of who they can marry, political representation, and they are restricted from particular spaces.

Osu were people who 'belong' to certain divinities. They performed certain rights and services in shrines where they usually lived. The osu received part of the sacrifices to the shrine. Under the protection of the divinity, the osu were secluded from the rest of the community.

The extent to which people considered osu were protected by a divinity, and their ritual role in shrines may point towards an older concept of osu as more of a priestly role, rather than a ritual slave one.

The osu responsibility for tending shrines supports the suggestion that the institution represented a priestly function before the Atlantic slave trade, but that the trade changed its character[.] […] Every market had a priest who was also called osu, after the name of the market that he served. Thus, there were Osueke (for the Eke market), Osuawho (Awho market), Osunkwo (Nkwo market), and Osuoye (Oye Market). In other words, Aro people used the term osu to designate the priest.

– G. Ugo Nwokeji (2010). The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra. p. 198.

There's a history of people who were not considered osu living near or incorporating those considered osu. It appears the protection osu gained from a divinity also protected them from being sold into slavery. So, the Atlantic slave trade may have a hand in bringing about or making worse the discrimination against osu. People fleeing oppression or those marked as committing a crime sought protection by becoming osu, particularly during the slave trade because osu were exempt from enslavement and were also exempt from being charged for certain crimes and social duties.

It is on record that the "Osu" was not threatened for paying tax or community development levies; not because they were not well-off to pay but because they were neither asked to pay nor disturbed for failure to do so, since there was nobody that dared make such demand.' It is this immunity that the "Osu" enjoyed that gave them the courage sometimes to tamper with peoples' property and go free.

Henry Chukwudi Okeke (2020). The Spirituality of the Igbo People of Nigeria…. p. 87.

It may have been the case that the influx of people fleeing persecution into osu singled out osu as a discriminated or outcast group. An example of how some attitudes towards people deemed osu may have been different:

Thus, the Aro embraced a group which central Igbo people rejected. Why then did the institution emerge in Arondizuogu toward the end of the century?
If the Atlantic slave trade changed the character of the institution in other parts of Igboland, it was the ending of the trade that generated these changes in Arondizuogu. […] One free family, running away from their creditor, sought refuge in the Haba deity in another lineage-group. At the destination deity, the refugee would say the ritual:” Arusi, mbaa!” (Shrine, I submit myself to your protection).

– G. Ugo Nwokeji (2010). The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra. p. 199.

In Igbo names the use of osu as in a devotee of a deity comes up in names such as Osuala and Osunjoku. The stereotypes associated with people deemed osu, including luck, wealth, beauty, etc., supposedly brought about by the protection of their divinity, do not seem to fit with people treated as a low-caste or outcast group. It seems, in some communities at least, that the slave trade may have changed the attitudes towards the osu institution.

The avoidance of osu, and their ritual death or sacrifice to a deity is reminiscent of or similar to that of some Igbo titles such as eze. The two roles ritually limited both classes of people in a similar way. The Eze Nri, for instance, goes through a ritual death, was, for the most part, confined to an area, could only die from approval of authority holders, and was generally avoided.

The status of an osu as a sacrifice meant that they were avoided as ritually 'dead' people who the 'living' should avoid.

This is why, when the life of an "Osu" was spared, he was still considered dead in all aspects of social life, so much so that anyone interacting with him, was believed to incur a ritual impurity which bears a consequent social contamination. In this belief then, he could not intermingle with the 'living', and thus could not attend the assembly of free-born.

Henry Chukwudi Okeke (2020). The Spirituality of the Igbo People of Nigeria…. p. 88.

The general treatment of osu was quite different from titled people, however. The osu, for example, were not given proper burials in some communities at least due to the belief that they were disconnected from a lineage and therefore an afterlife. Titled wealthy people had large funerals and were the icons of their lineages.

The following is a description of osu initiation.

The actual sacrifice of an Osu may be preceded by the sacrifice of a cow or a goat, especially when the sacrifice is being made on behalf of the community. The following are the major steps:
(i) Before the shrine of the deity, the designated Osu is asked to open his mouth. A piece of chalk (nzu) taken from the shrine, is put into his mouth.
(ii) The ear of the victim is split with a razor and blood is drawn and smeared on the divinity. Blood symbolizes the essence of a being: to offer the blood of an animal therefore, is to offer the whole animal.
(iii) He is next carried on both limbs and dropped gently seven times before the shrine.
(iv) The officiating priest takes the ofo [In notes: The ofo is the Igbo traditional system of justice and truth. It occupies a prominent place in Igbo traditional religion.] stick and hits him on the head.
(v) The oil-palm frond (omu-nkwu) or any other object or shrub taken from the shrine, may be tied on him.
(vi) Finally, he is completely shaven. During all these ceremonies, the victim generally makes no resistance, for resistance is useless. If he tried to escape by force, he could be killed. In any case, if he were to escape, he generally would not know where to go.

– S. N. Ezeanya (1967). The Osu (Cult-Slave) System in Igbo Land.

Whatever the historical treatment of those considered osu, the fact remains that in recent times, at least, their treatment is discriminatory, as those of people barred from main society. The height of people becoming osu was during the Atlantic slave trade due to the influx of people seeking refuge from slavery. This factor may reveal the extent to which the current function of (or need for) a group of people seen as osu is a legacy of that particular era.

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