The Osu in Igboland


The Osu In Igboland 

 Some people say the meaning of "Osu" in Igbo is slave; a bit like the Ohu or even the Umeh. In fact these are wrong definitions. Ohu for instance is no slave - he is an indentured servant. Strictly speaking, slavery does not exist in the Igbo world, because there is nothing final to that relationship. For instance, the Ohu can work themselves out of their indenture; in manyinstannces, the Ohu may even become fully adopted into the family to which it is indentured, after a particular ritual to ala, which confers a ritual link -amadi - to the individual, who is then accorded all the rights of the Diala. 
But speaking specifically about the Osu - there were two phases: in the first phase, the "Osu" was part of the complex priestly system to the Igbo ritual world. It is not easy to go into detail in a very short space, but the Igbo world was a highly spiritual system in which all the four elements in nature were recreated and symbolized: Ala (Earth) Ogwugwu/ Ime muru ochie/ Idemili (water) Agwu ( wind) Anyanwu ((Fire) Sun) 

In a later phase, as a result of a historical accident in which an Igbo tyrant and King (Amadi-oha) tried to domesticate energy as an instrument of war and was blown skywards, the Igbo instituted the rites of Amadi-Oha as a reminder against the use of force, or the domestication of energy for deployment in war. Amadi-oha was an engineer, and that is why, you have the symbolic piece of iron at every shrine of Amadi-Oha. It was part of the covenant with Chukwu, and it was also the beginning of the pacific idea in Odinala, that the Igbo would never use such instruments of massive force which this famous Igbo tyrant was attempting to produce, this experiment with "ike" - energy/electricity. Amadi-oha, blown skywards and trapped between the sky and the earth is supposed to remind us never to succumb to the rule of one man or king or tyrant. The serpent of fire - the sign of Ogwugwu - is said to guard Amadi-oha from returning with his fiery energy to earth. It is also said, that whoever commits the high abomination on earth suffers the fate which Amadi-Oha exemplifies, which is what gave rise to the myth that Amadi-Oha is the earth's messenger in the event of alu. The Igbo had shrines to all these forces in nature. Every community had the shrine of
Ala, Ogwugwu, Agwu or Amadi-oha (which gradually replaced "Ihu-Anyanwu").

The priests of these shrines were called Ezeala, EzeOgwuwgwu, Eze Amadioha, or EzeAgwu - ndi "isi mmuo". Each had specific rituals and specific seasons all connected with the movement of the nature; or with the celebrations, festivals, or according to the covenants of each clan. There were traditionally in the Igbo world, those who dedicate themselves, or are dedicated to the service of these shrines: they were called Osu. It does not quite mean "slave." The closest example of the function of the Osu in the traditional Igbo world is what monks do in Catholic church or the in Buddhist temples. They chose a life of complete surrender to the deities. 
Traditionally, they were regarded highly. In fact, the names, Osuji, Osuagwu, Osuala, Nwosu, etc; did not confer extraordinary negation; it was a declaration of piety. To this day, many Igbo bear these names, and they are not "osu" in the caste notion of the word. However, the second phase of the Osu system, when it became endowed with increasing negative connotations was at the height of the slave raids in the Igbo world in the 19th century. By this time, the Osu had begun to be seen as largely a parasitic institution - they were immune from too many things, they had the best portion of the land, they did not work - and they became subjects of both envy and derision in a most difficult era in the Igbo world which demanded hard work and enterprise for survival. At the height of the slave raids, some very vulnerable people chose to dedicate themselves to the service of deities, or were dedicated by their families to the altar, so that they would become literally "untouchable." 
In time, these group morphed into isolation from the rest of the community, and became subjects of both fear, envy and disdain. This was the state of affairs until missionaries entered the Igbo world late in the 19th century. The first group of people to be evangelized were the Osu, and the missionaries of course saw in their ritual isolation, a condition akin to the Indian caste system, and propagated the dubious picture of a ritually isolate, ritually ex-communicated caste community, and gave the Osu the bad name that it bears today in Igboland. In fact traditionally, there was no hereditary Osu. Aside from the fact that it contradicted the Igbo view of the individual and the world, it also totally negated the very principle of the ritual purity of those traditionally dedicated to the altar of Mmuo. Osu in Igbo did not mean slave, and  traditionally, it had no negative connotation; it was in fact a privileged institution, until its desacralization both by evolving political and economic reality and by the transformations in the ritual meaning endowed upon it by Christianity.


  1. Anyanwu is not fire, is the Sun.

  2. The Igbo version of "racism". How I hate this practice!

  3. Oga, this article is pure class! Your narration explained a lot! Kudos! Can I receive more info in Igbo tradition in my mail: bushjeph@gmail.com