Monday, April 13, 2009

Lessons of Nigeria's Untouchables

For most people, the term "untouchable" calls to mind the untouchables of India, who still suffer discrimination and abuse in rural areas at the hands of higher caste members. Many conversions to Christianity and Islam are motivated by dissatisfaction with being of a lower caste.

Japan has its own untouchable caste, the Buraku, a group of individuals who are racially indistinguishable from other Japanese but whose ancestors were involved in slaughter and tanning of animal hides.

According to the BBC, Nigeria has its own untouchable class, a tribe known as the Osu. Since time immemorial, this group in Nigeria has been barred from owning land or living among other Nigerians. Even today among city dwellers, loyalty to the tradition of shunning the Osu has destroyed marriage matches that would have otherwise been promising. The BBC article outlines some of the speculation concerning the Osu as follows.

People say the Osu are the descendants of people sacrificed to the gods, hundreds of years ago.

But an academic who has researched Igbo traditions says he believes the Osu were actually a kind of "living sacrifice" to the gods from the community.

"I remember when I was a child, seeing the Osu and running away," says Professor Ben Obumselu, former vice-president of the influential Igbo organisation Ohaneze Ndi Igbo.

"They were banned from all forms of civil society; they had no land, lived in the shrine of the gods, and if they could, would farm the land next to the road."

"It was believed that they had been dedicated to the gods, that they belonged to them, rather then the world of the human," he said.

It is a peculiar feature of Nigeria's untouchables that their status does not have occupational roots like the tanners of Japan and the outhouse cleaners of India who evolved into fixed castes bound by convention to the edges of society. The common denominator that Nigeria's untouchables share with the Indian untouchables is their response to their low position in society.

The Osu of Nigeria are also embracing Christianity. This provides both a theology and a social milieu in which the sting of ostracism from neighbours is not a constant feature of their existence. Some also use Western university education as a way of entering modern occupations that are not blighted by the social divisions of traditional society.

What if Muslim women decided that their lives as 'lower caste" individuals was intolerable enough to seek relief in another faith ? The Islamic world has seen the rise of Bahaiism, as well as the Druse, both of whom offer to their women a far more respected role than some of the prominent Islamic sects identifying themselves as "fundamentalists".

There is a" golden rule" derived from Judaism and carried over into Christianity. Do not to your neighbour what is hateful to you." This is a powerful teaching, which could move faith communities to consider the needs of all their members.

Communist governments set up walls to stem the flow of people who did not want to live in its repressive grip. Eventually communism collapsed in country after country, despite the widespread doubts that it could ever be defeated.

Perhaps the harsh and repressive forms of Islam will meet a similar fate, where its oppressed adherents simply set out for communities in which the faith and its rules are kinder to all the people. Perhaps some will decide that oppression dehumanises the oppressor as well. Right now, this is just a dream. It is as implausible and unthinkable as the Berlin Wall being torn down was in 1989.

Does a dream have mass? Does a vision have gravity? Can hope lift a weary heart? A painter renders the vision of his mind's eye into a portrait or a landscape. The world is our canvas.

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