In Onitsha tradition and custom, there are four cardinal institutions; The Obi, Ndichie, Agbalanze and ther Otu Odu.
These four institutions work in their individual capacities to ensure progress, peace and development of Onitsha people with relevant support from other subordinate groups. Otu Odu, however, is an exclusive prestigious society for Onitsha women who, either as indigenes, direct relations (Nwadiani) or by marriage, have distinguished themselves in their respective capabilities in life and have been found worthy in character.
Odu means elephant tusk and in Onitsha tradition, Igbu Odu means wearing of tusk. It is a rite of honour for a woman after creditable service in life. It used to be conferred as a form of appreciation on a mother by her children at a certain age or on a dutiful wife by her husband.
It is observed as a ceremonious adorning of a woman with elephant tusk which is won on both hands and legs. In other cases, nevertheless, after the ceremony is performed, the tusk [odu] is worn as a mark of status in the society.
The elephant tusk significant because it is rare in quality and possession, ornate and expensive. This calls for the historic importance attached to it in the whole of Africa, making it one of the most sought-after ornaments even by the colonialists who visited Africa earlier in the days.
Till date the elephant tusk is still precious, a symbol of wealth, royalty and beauty. In most African cultures, it is used to depict class and authority, especially in Onitsha.
However, at inception, it was recorded that it was very few women that regarded Odu in Onitsha as a mark of honour. Some that did at that earlier stage had it either as a result of conferment by their wealthy sons or a mark of their outstanding wealth creation after distinguishing themselves in commerce.
Odu was then more of a private or individual affair of famous Onitsha women of character and affluence as rightly described. It used to be revered therefore because of the calibre of women involved. It developed into the only distinguished status symbol for women as very few could afford to be so initiated then and the dream of every woman unlike today that it has become an all-comers affair.
Moreover, the tradition of taking Odu title did not originally start as a society that it is today; scanty therefore were the records of women who took the Odu title in the past in the earlier Onitsha traditional society until Odua Ngo, J.U. Etukokwu (MFR), organised it into the prestigious institution that it has metamorphosed into today.
Precisely, on March 15, 1959 all the individual Ndi Odu in Onitsha were invited together by Chief Etukokwu where they were received and entertained as a group so the society was inaugurated.
However, like earlier stated, there are different stages or types of Odu depending on an individual’s financial capability. The complete procedure is called Odu Ukwu N’aka [meaning the tusk on both hands and legs] while it could be undertaken for either the hands alone called Odu Aka or the legs alone and known as Odu Ukwu. Meanwhile there is no age barrier for initiation into Odu group, the only distinction being that children below 18 years are allowed Odu aka alone.
Continuing, the elegant white uniform of Ndi Odu today was not always as it used to be. There was no particular uniform for them earlier in the days except for the elephant tusk won gracefully, an Odu title woman wears whatever she likes; white uniform was later introduced as a result of Etukokwu’s innovation to represent purity as Odu is seen to typify.
The initiation procedure starts with a formal declaration of intent by an initiate. This step enables the executives of Ndi Otu Odu to set up a fact-finding process to ascertain the eligibility of the would-be Onye Odu (initiate). It involves enquiries into the character, personality and integrity of the person.
When this is satisfactorily done, an intermediary, who is a member of Odu Society, who knows the initiate so well to introduce her to the society, is appointed as a mediator and the process continues.
At the inception of the society there were male co-ordinators who helped manage their affairs as it was customary in the past that men should be seen to be involved in the administration of basic societal activities as heads.
The women social status is immensely raised by acquisition of ivory ornaments – anklets and bangles. This puts her on the same pedestal as ọzọ title holder even though it is much less expensive to acquire. Her official dress comprises her anklets and bangles, two white loin cloths tied over the other, a white head tie, an elephant-tusk trumpet, priceless coral-bead necklaces and a horse-tail. The bangles, anklets and tusk, apart from being ornamental, serve as a distinguishing mark of the achievement of their possessor.