A woman removing a ring and a man behind her with his head in hand
A girl eradicating a hoop and a person behind her along with his head in hand

In a tragedy paying homage to Romeo and Juliet, a pair in Nigeria killed themselves earlier this month after their mother and father had forbidden them from marrying as a result of considered one of them was a descendant of slaves.

“They’re saying we will not get married… all due to an historical perception,” the word they left behind mentioned.

The lovers, who have been of their early thirties, hailed from Okija in south-eastern Anambra state, the place slavery was formally abolished within the early 1900s, as in the remainder of the nation, by the UK, Nigeria’s colonial ruler on the time.

However descendants of freed slaves among the many Igbo ethnic group nonetheless inherit the standing of their ancestors and they’re forbidden by native tradition from marrying these Igbos seen as “freeborn”.

“God created everybody equally so why would human beings discriminate simply due to the ignorance of our forefathers,” the couple mentioned.

Quote card: Favour: "They told their son that they didn't want anything to do with me"
Quote card: Favour: “They informed their son that they did not need something to do with me”

Many Igbo {couples} come throughout such surprising discrimination.

Three years in the past Favour, 35, who prefers to not use her surname, was making ready for her marriage ceremony to a person she had dated for 5 years, when his Igbo household found that she was the descendant of a slave.

“They informed their son that they did not need something to do with me,” mentioned Favour, who can be Igbo.

At first, her fiancé was defiant, however the strain from his mother and father and siblings quickly wore him down and he ended their romance.

“I felt dangerous. I used to be so harm. I used to be so pained,” she mentioned.

Affluent however ‘inferior’

Marriage just isn’t the one barrier slave descendants face.

They’re additionally banned from conventional management positions and elite teams, and sometimes prevented from operating for political workplace and representing their communities in parliament.

Oge Maduagwu travels around the south-east to meet traditional leaders to change their views
Oge Maduagwu travels across the south-east to fulfill conventional leaders to alter their views

Nevertheless, they aren’t hindered from schooling or financial development.

The ostracism typically pushed them to extra rapidly embrace the Christianity and formal schooling introduced by missionaries, at a time when different locals have been nonetheless suspicious of the foreigners.

Some slave descendants are right now among the many most affluent of their communities, however regardless of how a lot they obtain, they’re nonetheless handled as inferior.

In 2017, 44-year-old Oge Maduagwu based the Initiative for the Eradication of Conventional and Cultural Stigmatisation in our Society (Ifetacsios).

For the previous three years, she has been travelling throughout the 5 states of south-eastern Nigeria, advocating equal rights for descendants of slaves.

Quote card. Archbishop Anthony Obinna: "I have had to safeguard some of the couples from the violence of their parents and relatives"
Quote card. Archbishop Anthony Obinna: “I’ve needed to safeguard among the {couples} from the violence of their mother and father and kinfolk”

“The form of struggling that the black individuals are going by means of in America, the slave descendants listed here are additionally going by means of the identical,” she mentioned.

Ms Maduagwu just isn’t a slave descendant, however she noticed the inequality whereas rising up in Imo state and was moved to sort out it after watching the devastation of her shut buddy who was prevented from marrying a slave descendant.

Throughout her journeys, Ms Maduagwu meets individually conventional individuals of affect and slave descendants, then mediates dialogue classes between the 2 teams.

“Males sat right down to make these guidelines,” she mentioned. “We are able to additionally sit down and remake the foundations.”

Descendants of slaves among the many Igbo fall into two major classes – the ohu and the osu.

The ohu’s ancestors have been owned by people, whereas the osu’s have been owned by gods – individuals devoted to group shrines.

“Osu is worse than slavery,” mentioned Ugo Nwokeji, a professor of African research on the College of California, Berkeley, who thinks the osu have been wrongly labeled as slaves by the missionaries.

“Slaves might transcend slavery and have become slave masters themselves however the osu for generations unborn might by no means transcend that.”

Nigeria’s Igbo heartland:

A map showing the Igbo states in Nigeria
A map displaying the Igbo states in Nigeria

Discrimination towards the osu does are usually worse.

Whereas the ohu are marginalised as outsiders – with no identified locations of origin or ageless ties to the lands the place their ancestors have been introduced as slaves – breaking taboos about relations with the osu is accompanied, not simply by worry of social stigma, however of punishment by the gods who supposedly personal them.

Favour’s fiancé was informed by his father that his life could be reduce brief if he married her, an osu.

“They instilled worry in him,” she mentioned. “He requested me if I wished him to die.”

‘Grassroots engagement’

Such fears have made it tough to implement legal guidelines towards discrimination which exist within the Nigerian structure, plus a 1956 regulation by Igbo lawmakers particularly banning discrimination towards ohu or osu.

“Authorized proscriptions are usually not sufficient to abolish sure primordial customs,” mentioned Anthony Obinna, an Catholic archbishop in Imo state, who advocates for an finish to the discrimination. “You want extra grassroots engagement.”

Quote card. From Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart: "He could neither marry nor be married by the freeborn… An osu could not attend an assembly of the freeborn, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof"
Quote card. From Chinua Achebe’s novel Issues Fall Aside: “He might neither marry nor be married by the freeborn… An osu couldn’t attend an meeting of the freeborn, and so they, in flip, couldn’t shelter underneath his roof”

In her advocacy, Ms Maduagwu educates individuals on the varied methods during which conventional pointers on relating with the osu have been breached, “with out the gods wreaking any havoc”.

“At present, we’re tenants of their homes, we’re on their payroll, we go to borrow cash from them,” she mentioned.

Such affiliation with the osu would have been unthinkable previously.

No official knowledge exists on the variety of slave descendants in south-eastern Nigeria.

Individuals have a tendency to cover their standing, though that is not possible in smaller communities the place everybody’s lineage is understood. Some communities have solely ohu or osu, whereas some have each.

Lately, growing agitation from ohu and osu has led to battle and unrest in lots of communities.

Some slave descendants have began parallel societies with their very own management and elite teams.

You might also be serious about:

About 13 years in the past, the osu in Imo state fashioned a gaggle known as Nneji, which suggests “from the identical womb”.

Among the many advantages that Nneji presents its 1000’s of members is arranging marriages between their grownup kids in numerous elements of the world, saving them the potential heartbreak of relationships with “freeborn”.

“Individuals come to you when they need a favour from you,” mentioned Ogadinma, a septuagenarian from a rich osu household, whose husband is a patron of the Nneji.

“However those self same individuals, when your kids wish to marry their kids, they complain that the particular person is osu.”

Oge Maduagwu hopes the Black Lives Matter protests will help change Igbo attitudes
Oge Maduagwu hopes the Black Lives Matter protests will assist change Igbo attitudes

Archbishop Obinna, who has been criticised for officiating on the weddings of what he describes as “combined {couples}”, mentioned: “I’ve needed to safeguard among the {couples} from the violence of their mother and father and kinfolk.”

Ogadinma, who additionally requested me to not use her surname to guard her household, confronted discrimination when she ran for political workplace about 10 years in the past.

Petitions poured in from individuals who mentioned that she was “unsuitable” to contest – and the nationwide chief of her celebration, who was Yoruba, discovered it tough to help her, satisfied that she stood no probability.

“He informed me plainly: ‘There’s something Igbo individuals say that you’re, which is not going to enable your individuals to vote for you.'”

Discrimination based mostly on slave caste just isn’t frequent among the many Yoruba or Hausa, Nigeria’s two different main ethnic teams. But it surely has been reported amongst some ethnic teams in different West African international locations, resembling Mali and Senegal.

Ms Maduagwu’s Ifetacsios group now has 4 employees and a few dozen volunteers. The work has been sluggish and arduous, however a handful of conventional rulers have launched into the method of abolishing the inequality of their communities.

She says she was initially shocked by the assaults on social media from individuals against her activism.

“I needed to be part of quite a lot of Igbo teams to unfold the message and quite a lot of them insulted me and informed me that their custom will stay.”

Nollywood issue

Such attitudes even among the many educated and enlightened are perpetuated by African literature resembling late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Issues Fall Aside, Ogadinma believes.

“He was an individual devoted to a god, a factor set aside – a taboo for ever, and his kids after him,” Achebe, who was Igbo, wrote of the osu in his 1958 traditional.

“He might neither marry nor be married by the freeborn… An osu couldn’t attend an meeting of the freeborn, and so they, in flip, couldn’t shelter underneath his roof… When he died he was buried by his form within the Evil Forest.”

Quote card. Bishop Aloysius Agbo: "Beliefs that we already accepted as superstitious are now coming back as real truths because of what we watch on Africa Magic"
Quote card. Bishop Aloysius Agbo: “Beliefs that we already accepted as superstitious at the moment are coming again as actual truths due to what we watch on Africa Magic”

Ogadinma worries that Nigerian college students world wide who learn the novel as a part of their curriculum subconsciously undertake conventional beliefs concerning the osu.

“If each technology of Nigerian kids is studying about this osu, do not you suppose it can have an effect on their pondering?” she mentioned.

Nollywood additionally performs an element, in response to Aloysius Agbo, an Anglican bishop in Enugu state, who advocates for an finish to the discrimination.

Nigerian movies have their devoted TV channels, together with the wildly standard Africa Magic.

“Beliefs that we already accepted as superstitious at the moment are coming again as actual truths due to what we watch on Africa Magic,” mentioned Bishop Agbo. “They do it as showcasing our tradition however they aren’t acutely aware of the affect on society.”

However with the latest Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests world wide, Ms Maduagwu hopes that extra Igbo individuals shall be impressed to alter their attitudes.

“If extra individuals will replicate that the agonising journey of the black Individuals started right here, the BLM protests will have an effect on our work positively,” Ms Maduagwu mentioned.

“Africans must look inwardly to see what is occurring of their homeland.”

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is journalist and novelist based mostly in Abuja